A forthcoming study provides evidence for the long-standing assumption that active participation in democratic elections increases when voters have increased access to high-quality candidate information. In Liberia, Harvard University researchers conducted research alongside Internews’ year-long effort to train media agencies and journalists to report on the 2017 elections and to run 126 public debates in every single district in Liberia – a first for the country. As a result of citizen exposure to the debates, the research found statistically significant increases in citizens’ political engagement, knowledge about candidates in the election, and ultimately turnout on Election Day, across the nation. Higher intensity of the debate initiative, through more radio rebroadcasting and higher candidate participation, caused a 2% increase in actual voter turnout. It additionally led citizens to change their vote choices towards candidates who better matched their policy priorities. Descriptively, 13% of survey respondents stated that the debates changed who they would vote for, and 6% stated they changed whether to vote at all. Internews ensured that women had an equal voice during the debates' question time. Credit: InternewsThe study by Harvard researchers Jeremy Bowles and Horacio Larreguy used a wide range of data sources, including a panel survey of over 4,000 citizens across the entire country, a survey of 600 candidates, and debate transcripts. Internews conducted 20 focus groups with more than 250 citizens and candidates. The researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial, varying components of the debates initiative, to provide rigorous evidence regarding its overall impact. Nationwide debates and lasting impact The world watched to see if the post-war nation of Liberia could achieve a peaceful transition in power for the first time in decades in the October 2017 contests to elect the President and House of Representatives. In the run-up, Internews trained local journalists and media houses to set up and conduct structured, moderated debates focusing on local community issues in each of Liberia’s 73 legislative districts. 584 legislative candidates attended the two-to-three-hour debates in front of their constituents in every district, reaching more than 23,000 citizens in person. The debates were broadcast live by media partners and then rebroadcast up to 10 times each, adding up to more than 500 re-broadcasts. A Community Radio Conference prepared journalists for reporting on the elections. Credit: InternewsAs many as 25% of the nation’s eligible voters, roughly 500,000 people, listened to these debates, according to the forthcoming study. Read more about the nation-wide debates. Beyond the impact of the debates on the 2017 electorate, the lasting impacts of the work include increased capacity of Liberian journalists to report accurately on elections process and increase government accountability. Liberian media, both urban and rural, now have the capacity to moderate and broadcast candidate debates that are fair, impartial, balanced and contribute to peaceful elections. Further, because the debates were issue-oriented, elected candidates now have a public record of promises and positions, to which local media and local electorates can hold them accountable. Citizens also reported more confidence in peaceful elections, after seeing the candidates appearing in person alongside their opponents, moderated peacefully in front of their constituents. Reporters from rural areas, which are often underserved in national elections and debate that focus on urban power centers, had a newly amplified voice in the election and news coverage. Members of Liberia’s rural network of journalists, Local Voices Liberia, saw their election-day coverage picked up by national and international media. “Before, our stories were only heard on our community radio station,’’ said Tenneh Kamara, a reporter at Radio Gee in Rivergee. ‘Now, people on the world wide web know what’s happening in our rural communities. This is a big advancement for journalism in Liberia.’’ “Internews is really building our capacity,’’ said Franklin Flomo, a reporter at Radio Life in Zorzor, Lofa County. “We are engaged with citizens, and our coverage has expanded.’’ • • • Internews’ work was conducted with support from USAID and in partnership with the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), Liberia Media Development Initiative (LMDI) and the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP), as well as in collaboration with 43 community radio stations.
Impact: Citizen Voice in Media
There’s nothing more important to functioning democracies than an informed, engaged public. When citizens have access to trustworthy media that includes diverse perspectives and sources, they are empowered to speak out on the issues that most affect them.
To hold governments accountable, citizens need accurate information about complex issues. In too many places, legal restrictions, threats, and intimidation impede journalists’ work, and journalists themselves lack the skills needed for investigative reporting. Citizens, too, often lack the education and know-how to effectively evaluate and participate in local media.
Internews supports citizen voice in media by providing journalism training and mentorship that helps independent reporters produce in-depth, informative content. Our media partners produce work that engages citizens through education and two-way conversations. Media literacy programs give everyday people tools to combat misinformation.
How Supporting Independent Media Supports Good Governance
The United Nations identifies eight elements of good governance. Internews’ work, overlaid in orange, has a direct impact on citizens’ ability to participate and hold governments to account.
The Challenge for Journalists
In this video, Journalists from Kazakhstan, Kenya, El Salvador, Moldova, Pakistan and Tajikistan reflect on the challenges of working in media, trying to be a watchdog on the government:
Impact - Liberia
In advance of Liberia's historic October election, with the support of Internews, 126 public debates were held in every single district, a first for this post-conflict nation, enabling lower house candidates to reach Liberia’s electorate in person – many for the first time.
The town of Butuo in Nimba County was host to the first-ever debate for candidates wanting to represent the region in Liberia’s third post-conflict presidential and legislative elections. One of the residents, 59-year-old Joseph Dahn was happy to witness this historic event.
"Thank God we are talking democracy in Buuto, not war, because this is the birth place of the Liberian civil war that killed thousands of innocent people. People only remember Buuto when you talk about the war years, but the story is different today as we host a debate that will help citizens vote for the right candidate for this region.”
Informing Afghans About Elections
Two young women reporters, Wahida Faizi and Sofia Mohammadzai, along with several other reporters at Salam Watandar, received awards from the Independent Elections Commission for their outstanding elections coverage:
Impact - Moldova
In rural Izbiște, Moldova, head librarian Alexandru Rusu saw an opportunity to teach elders how to combat misinformation and propaganda while they waited in the local post office for their pension checks. With the post office door as a projection screen, Alexandru started media literacy classes, one of 16 librarians around the country participating in Internews’ MEDIA-M project.
"With the help librarians, who have the trust of people in their communities, we have encouraged citizens to analyze everything they see, hear or read; dissect the information that seems strange to them, and document it from the sources at their disposal.” — Oxana Iutes, Deputy Chief of Party with Internews in Moldova
Read more: Media Literacy Can Be Learned at Any Age
Strengthening local independent media to support citizen voice is at the core of Internews' work. For more than 35 years and in more than 100 countries, Internews has strengthened the capacity of thousands of media professionals, human rights activists, and information entrepreneurs. These partners have reached millions of people with quality, local information, improving lives and building lasting change.