I witnessed roughly 60 Sierra Leonean journalists who gathered on Siaka Stevens Street to demand the repeal of the 1965 Criminal Libel Act, which restricts journalists from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.
It may be a long time before the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists can even get this repeal, but yesterday’s demonstration showed that if this country is to have a fully functioning democracy, it also needs a fully functioning media to go along with it.
To my Sierra Leonean colleagues, I offer some words of wisdom from my side of the pond.
It was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of my home country, USA, who said: “Were it left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
It was my current president, Barack Obama, who said: “When you (journalists) are at your best, you help me be at my best. You help all of us who serve at the pleasure of the American people do our jobs better by holding us accountable, by demanding honesty, by preventing us from taking shortcuts and following in the easy political games that people are so desperately weary of and that kind of reporting is worth preserving not just for your sake, but for the public(s).”
As members of the press, we are often disliked, which is an inevitable part of this job. As one of my journalism professors once told me, we are not doing our jobs properly if someone is not upset by what we write. Even in America, many people hate what we do. I confess that the press can be flawed when it comes to sensationalism and the prioritization of issues.
Why should the antics of a pop star be more important for the public to know than the senseless deaths of people in Darfur, Iraq or Afghanistan?
When people were getting their limbs chopped off, women were raped and boys were forced to shoot each other in this country, the Western press turned a blind eye in favor of sex scandals. And they continue to make the same mistakes.
In the aftermath of 9/11, many media critics say the American press failed to live up to their standards of reporting, foregoing fact-checking and not asking our leaders the tough questions that the public needed to know the answers to. In taking these shortcuts during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency, we failed our nation.
But like any individual or entity, the press is imperfect. But when the press has the freedom to perform at their best ability, it is a benefit for everybody. A democracy cannot reach its fullest potential without a strong media holding it accountable.
The desire of journalists in Sierra Leone to have these same rights that Western journalists have increases my admiration for a people who have been through enough hardship and tragedy already. The road to obtaining these rights may be a long one, but it is a goal well worth fighting for, no matter how slow the progress may be. I only hope that when they reach that goal, they can also learn from the mistakes of the Western media.