Most of what Sierra Leoneans know about their political leaders, party politics or public policy comes from the media especially the newspapers, radio and television, which are the primary information link between the population and the political world. Hence the ‘eternal triangle’ – The media, The politicians and The Public.
The media try to explain the government’s goal and policies, helping to mobilize and reinforce public support necessary for effective political action, but they also focus attention on controversial policies, expose corruption and hold politicians accountable to public opinion. In Sierra Leone when the media report on politics, they select the issues that are to receive public attention and help shape the public agenda.
The free flow of a meaningful account of political events and issues is necessary for the public’s understanding of politics, forming of their opinion and their participation in the political process. The freedom of Information Bill if passed in the country and the freedom of the media from political interference will influence the health and vigor of the country’s democracy.
During the late Siaka Stevens era, there were bitter struggles between newspaper editors and political authorities. Editors and reporters were locked up, newspapers shut down, the right of the press to criticize authorities was banned and all have to be on the government’s side or be neutral avoiding critical stories.
The end part of the 20th century saw democracy replacing the one party rule and the media began to have some leeway that has continued up to now. The role of the media in Sierra Leone’s democratic armor was strengthened in 1996 when the press and public vigorously demonstrated against the junta rule of the second NPRC for a democratic election that ushered in Tejan Kabbah (Elections before Peace).
The 1991 constitution came into full force and freedom of expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communications gave formal recognition to a tradition of press freedom that evolved for some years, despite occasional setbacks.
The constitutional guarantees are not expressed or applied in absolute terms; there are situations when the principle of free press is expected to give way to what the courts perceive as more important, or equally important, interests of society such as the interests of fair trial and freedom of parliament.
The courts have been playing an increasingly visible role as guardians of the free press guarantee and the very meaning of freedom of press in the Sierra Leone context is in the process of being clarified as the media officials are fighting to repeal the criminal libel act that has been going on for some time now with no end in sight.
There are restraints on the flow of information on the government, which has caused lots of embarrassment to officials and the media as well. The reason, because the country has no freedom of information law that should help the media get the right information at the right time. The public’s ‘right to know’ is often sacrificed to the penchant of the government to conduct business away from the glare of publicity.
One reason for the government’s glare of publicity is accountability, between the press and the politicians with a major effect on the public. We always agree that the media’s job is to report and analyze but not to campaign on its own behalf. In the early days of journalism worldwide, politicians were held accountable for sexual improprieties (Bill Clinton was a victim), presently, a number of journalists want to place limits on investigation into this aspect of politicians’ lives, but it is a very difficult matter on where such limits should lie.
Widening the consideration of the press and politician relationship to include the third element, the public, whom are both ostensibly there to serve, we see there, something had gone wrong. Young people are largely outside the formal political process. This is not because the public did not care about issues, but because the older folks are refusing to let go and give the young some chance to prove themselves.
If we want to solve this problem, the political parties should be more open to membership by a range of different groups and encourage the young to take up more responsible positions within the party. Politicians might also be more open about difficulties and failure, journalists should act more responsibly and voters should accept that with their rights also come responsibilities.
The main issue in the relationship between politicians and the press is trust, politicians increasingly distrust journalists because of the way some of us practice this profession. What we are told may not be what we pass on to the public. The approach at times used by us is not conducive to the ethics of the profession. On the other hand, the politicians want us to be their PRO and believe that we can be in their pockets at all times.
The Government have a duty to explain but should be given a chance to do so. The use of “spin-doctors” or professional spokesmen was, however, seen by the press as an attempt at news management favorable to politicians. And while the latter are rarely thought to be deliberately mendacious, they are often thought to omit information from their statements which would allow a different interpretation.
I always think that an attitude of healthy skepticism on the part of the press is in order, and there is equally a feeling that mutual distrust has gone too far. In terms of the public discourse, I always thought we journalists should not approach politicians on a basis of plain disbelief nor with primary concern to expose differences of views between us.
It would be always helpful if the press make much clearer distinction between the news we report and our comments on it. Politicians too can help themselves by being more candid about the issues and options open to them. Like the MPs asking for a salary of $4,000 and a vehicle costing Le45 million is unrealistic when considering that the economy is donor-driven and most of the people in their constituencies cannot even afford three square meals a day.
A case like this will always bring disputes between the ‘eternal triangle’ because the press will never be quiet of such behavior. There have been many complimentary articles from esteemed journalists to analyze the situation and God only knows what will be the end result as we have a president as unpredictable as the current weather.
In the developed world, we have seen how the politicians and the media have shared such openness that had proved popular when practiced. Ministers need to engage voters in a language they understand, and the government should play it straight and the media play it fair.
There are questions that have been raised over the years on the press that we still need to answer. Should we strive for an objective standard of truth in relation to any question or should we accept a plethora of polemical views? Are the market forces making it more difficult for political questions to be made understandable for the public? Is the media distorting the picture to obtain audience figures and sales?
The media needs to reflect on their power, because we all seemed to understand that neither the press nor the politicians were reaching their overarching goal of an inclusive and publicly comprehensible discourse about major political issues.
While there is no silver bullet which could cure such complex problem, perhaps the Freedom of Information bill will give rise to cautious hope that, with recognition of the scale of the problem will make some of the necessary changes we are yearning for.
In my conclusion I believe that the media and the politicians are jointly responsible for the present low esteem in which they are held. Both sides would have to move together if they are to raise their stakes and help to improve the public discourse.
And I would suggest that when absorbing the news, the public should be covered against inaccuracies and distortions in the same way as customers were protected against flaws in other products.
By Austin Thomas in China