In the words of Issa G. Shivji, in his work titled, ‘Let the people speak; Tanzania Down the Road to Neo-Liberalism’, the press owes a responsibility to ensure that while all differences in our society are freely and openly discussed with a view to doing that democratically, these differences are not propagated as divisions.
With the above quotation in mind, may I state that, the main aim of Political parties the world over is to attain political prominence through the ballot box and in an attempt to achieve such, they use different means, and among these means, being the Media, whether print or electronics to freely and openly discuss their political differences. As such, the two main political parties in Sierra Leone, namely the APC and the SLPP have their own political radio stations which they use to sell their political messages.
Not only radio stations but newspapers as well and so, when the ‘We Yone’ normally comes out with sensational headlines on political issues, the ‘Unity’ press of the SLPP which once used to be politically vocal, would again come out with its own to counter the views of the APC but alas, ‘Unity’ press has not been on the newsstands of late. But there had been arguments of late on whether it is political are ethically and morally right to have radio stations.
Over the weekend, I had a difficult time as I was confronted by former university colleagues, Sheka Kawa, and Desmond Pessima, among them at Aberdeen Road on whether it is ethically and morally right for a political party in any given state to have a radio station, and in this case, the two main political parties in the country, the SLPP and the APC.
Fair enough, I did all I could in trying to convince them[friends] that as far as I was concerned, there was nothing wrong with that. However, opinions are polarized on such an issue.
My friends submitted that, there is the potential of political party radio stations, especially the one that is being controlled by the ruling party to undermine the credibility of the state owned radio and that, for most time, government officials would prefer using the radio station of the political party in power than the one controlled by the state, and in this case the SBLS.
One reference they made has to do with the fact that, when the President, Dr Ernest Bai Koroma wanted to address the nation during his first 100 days in office, he used the APC radio station and the state run radio stations were asked to relay as a second channel of communicating to the public. Well I submitted that, at times, the channel should not be much of a problem but the message that is being sent out, because, in communication, a faulty communication channel sends out faulty message. It is however true that, not all Sierra Leoneans listen to the APC radio station, just as in the case with the SLPP since those with opposite views as that of any of the two will obviously not listen to the other.
Again, I tried to seek the views of other people on the issue and one of them, Abu Kaloko who works for the New Citizen press saw nothing wrong with that and in fact he rhetorically asked, if political parties have newspapers, what is wrong with them having radio stations? But for Ehila Noah, a student awaiting her degree from Fourah Bay College, in as much as there is nothing wrong with that, it also has the potential of undermining the existence of state media like the SLBS.
But what did the Independent Media Commission say regarding this? Nothing except that, in Clause one, of Section one of the Independent Media Commission Code of Ethics, journalists are expected to be accurate in their reports, and that they must ‘take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading…materials’. The whole of that section talks about the ethical aspects that are expected of Journalists.
But even Section three of the code, which specifically deals with the electronic media made reference to the IMC Act 2000 which says, among other things that broadcasting license shall be granted to (a) ‘a citizen of Sierra Leone but nothing on political parties. And that, the Commission shall not grant application for the establishment of a radio or television if (a) it is not in the public interest and (b) they are compelling reasons for refusal founded on technical data, national security and public safety.
And looking at what is public interest, the Press Complaint Commission in the United Kingdom states that, the public interest matters include but not limited to ‘detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety, protecting public health or safety and preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organization. Perhaps, these are the areas that may actually warrant suspension of the licenses given to both political party radio stations.
Prior to and immediately after the local council elections, I was monitoring the two political radio stations and I must state that what I heard coming from them the two stations was very disappointing.
The messages that are being sent out by the two political radio stations should be a concern to people and not the aspect of them, owning radio stations. The ethical aspect of journalism for these two stations! Well forget it because, it would be very difficult for any of them to be detached from their political beliefs when reporting because, they will ever be looking at the political pitfalls of the other.
Again, every code of ethics, to which the one in Sierra Leone is no exception, agrees that, there are basic and fundamental factors in the field of journalism and they include impartiality, fairness, objectivity and accuracy. But from the view point of political radio stations, things like fairness and balance would not be achieved because, they have, in the first place, identified themselves with parties and thus, they are bound to promote the interest of their political parties.
To be fair means, you get all sides to a story. My News Writing Lecturer, at the University Issac Massaquoi, told me when I was reading Journalism, that ethical journalism entails fairness, objectivity and balance, but it is very obvious that, radio stations like the ‘Rising Sun’ and the ‘Unity’ of the APC and the SLPP respectively will not adhere to such journalistic dictate, because JJ Saffa would not allow his political counterpart, Victor Foe to make political gains through his radio station.
So when it comes to ethical and moral considerations in Journalism, it all depends on how one views both because, what one considers as ethical could be overridden by public interest matter and when public interest supersedes any other issue, then the public interest must be seen as above all other matters .
Again, ethics dictates, accuracy, but when it comes to covering political issues especially by political radio stations, such journalist ethical consideration is put on hold by the political stations. An independent media can obviously do its best in going by the ethical dictates of journalism.
Truth, from a coherent point of view, when exaggerated out of proportion, becomes a lie and where a lie keeps being repeated by the media, it is perceived as a truth in popular consciousness, and this, the two main political parties must be mindful of. A case in point being the allegation that Afsatu Kabbah was going round intimidating supporters when in actual fact, she was reportedly at the residence of the President at Goderich. This was not true and the opposition kept repeating this, and at the end, it became truth in popular consciousness.
So the question should be whether political radio stations can be in a position to maintain the ethics of journalism and not whether it is right for them to own radio stations, because, it is true that, they have to propagate their political messages and that could only be done through the channels they think suitable for them.
May I end with the words of Blackstone, the 18th century legal commentator, as quoted by Issa G. Shivji, that ‘… every free man has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of the press [media]…’, so political parties can own radio stations, thus propagating their political messages but what they do must be left to the public to decide whether it is good or bad.
By John Baimba Sesay