Some few days back, the Society for Democratic Initiatives lunched a media report on the state of the Media in Sierra Leone. The report did look at what had happened with the media under the current government since they assumed political power a year ago.
The report was compiled with the view that, as a media watchdog institution, there was every need for SDI to evaluate the current government from the view point of the Media landscape in the country.
No one need overemphasize the point that, the media is a major tool for national development and as such, there is the dire need for the media to get the enabling environment under which, it could perform it duties. We have seen the way the media contributed to national development with particular reference to the country’s democratic transition.
Notably, institutions like the Independent Radio Network, Awoko, Standard Times, New Vision, Cotton Tree News, Search For Common Ground, Radio Mankneh in Makeni and many other media institutions, did all in their best to ensure voices were given to the citizenry of the country, during and after the local council elections, and even the 2007 presidential and Parliament elections.
Even where certain political parties were not granted airtime to state owned media institutions, the independent media has always tried to bridge that gap, by providing airtime and columns to all parties, irrespective of ideology. This is all what democracy is about.
In the report, the predicaments of SLBS and SLENA were highlighted. Over the years, we have seen how the state owned media- the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service has gone down the drain, in terms of capacity and human resources, not to refer to SLENA. And all of these issues were brought out with good intentions.
There is also the issue that has to do with the seeming refusal by state authorities to address the culture of impunity. A case in point being that of the late Harry Yansaneh, who was beaten and allegedly died as a result of the assault on his person . The culprits are yet o face justice and there is also the case of a few journalists who were also recently beaten by police officers attached to State House. The later is outrageous because, police officers ought to be protecting the lives and property of people, and not to manhandle people.
The case of Harry Yansaneh must be reawakened if the culture of impunity is to be addressed. A Member of Parliament was charged to court but in what appeared to had been the most outstanding political manipulation of the Judiciary, the coroner’s report was rubbished by the then Attorney General on grounds of technicality. There were conflicting reports between the Government Pathologist on one hand, and the Police Medical Doctor on the other hand.
The report also, did catalogue physical attacks that have so far been meted on Media practitioners in the performance of their professional calling, and also the arrest and court actions against media people, ranging from the arrest of Sylvia Blyden, to the beating of two journalists in Kenema allegedly by supporters of PMDC, to the court action against Philip Neville of Standard Times by the Minister of Health and Sanitation, Soccoh Kabia to that attack on journalists at State House.
Least one forgets, the matter of Kemoh Sesay against Jonathan Leigh was also highlighted in the report. What we need to realize as a people is that, the attack on one journalist, has an adverse effect on the credibility of a given government. I am not in anyway saying, media practitioners are saints, because, just like any other profession, there are ‘bad’ journalists.
But I have never seen or heard of a situation where in a medical doctor is charged to court for making a mistake in his professional call, so why criminalize a journalist for expressing his or her view on national issues, and in the process, a mistake is made.
I am mindful of the fact that, press freedom has received tremendous boast. This is evident in the proliferation of radio stations and newspapers in the country. It is also demonstrated by the statements of IB Kargbo, in each and every meeting SDI has held with the Minister of Information and Communication, and as I told him recently, we are, at the SDI level, looking forward to his support in the fight to repeal the criminal and seditious libel.
IB Kargbo has ever been a determined person and this is what we are looking forward to. As he said recently, even enacting the Freedom Of Information Bill will help reduce the level of libel in the country. The issue of having access to information, the issue of repealing the criminal and seditious libel and many other issues are not only meant for media practitioners but the general public as well.
In a democracy, people must be provided with the opportunity of expressing their views on national issues. This is what we are calling for, by asking for access to information. Despite the growth in media outlets, there seem to be an absence of protection for media practitioners in the country, as demonstrated in the instances referred to above. It is only when media practitioners are assured of protection that, they will be in a position to adequately contribute to national development.
We are aware of the commitment of President Koroma in ensuring that, Media practitioners get the enabling environment for press freedom, because, even during his state opening of parliament, one of the things he spoke on, was his plans to ensure a free and pluralistic press in Sierra Leone. But this has not been seen as a realistic package, because, there is still, the existence of the outdated Public Order Act of 1965, and above all, the Access to Information Bill is yet to be enacted by government.
Coming to look at SLENA, one may say, SLENA is a living corpse. This is a reality. Over the years, there had not been much attention to that body both in terms of human resource and capacity. Staff moral is low, if any, and so when Umaru Fofana wrote few months back in Concord Times that, there does not seem to be any blue print to resuscitate the news agency, I was not taken aback. But with IB Kargbo as Minister of Information, we are looking forward to seeing a ‘new’ SLENA.
Even as we have prepared a report on the state of the media, we are of the conviction that, the recommendations could be taken with good intensions, since we brought out these issues in an effort to get the attention of those concerned for the good of all.
By John Baimba Sesay