Mr Chairman, Hon Minister of Information, HE the British High Commissioner, Madam Chairperson of the Independent Media Commission, Chairman of the NCD, District and City Council officials, Chairman of the SLBC Board of Trustees, Board members-designate, representatives of civil society organisations, Paramount chiefs, Director of the Ghana National Broadcasting Corporation, staff of SLBC, other ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
I wish to express the profound appreciation of SLAJ to the Independent Media Commission and to the donors for organising this seminar. Coming in the back of a training organised by the BBC World Service Trust for SLBC Board members-designate and their Chairman, this seminar will not only educate the stakeholders about the new status of our new pride, but will also engender public interest in the corporation.
To that public interest should be added public respect and trust for a project that has taken us a generation to realise. And respect and trust are earned, not given. For that to happen, not only must politicians, not least the government take their overt and covert hands off the editorial content determination of the SLBC, the editorial staff of the corporation must also rise up to the occasion. Already an ugly situation reared its ugly head recently when a Government official was visibly furious because he could not have access to the corporation as he had been used to. That should be discouraged. Where it persists, the head of the corporation should have the courage to resist it. Nobody working for the SLBC should see their employment as a favour being done to them by anyone. They deserve it and that is why they are there.
I believe that Government officials meddled with the output of the former SLBS in more ways than one, and this is not peculiar to Sierra Leone. Reporters working in high offices would bring in news items that were long and rambling; sometimes lacking in news value and would want them aired as they’d prepared them. The editors and producers would be blackmailed into believing that if they edited their news, they would be reported to the powers-that-be. But I also believe that in a blatant show of sycophancy, some senior staff of the SLBS either did very unprofessional things or allowed them to happen, if only to prove to the government of the day that they were with them so as to shore up their jobs. This explains why the station became very distasteful to the public. Under the new dispensation, this must be discouraged lest it should appear like giving away your cow and holding on to the leash.
There have been instances when Local Council authorities have interfered with SLBS Regional branches. Some have quoted sections of the Local Government Act of 2004 to do so. They had better been informed now that with the SLBC Act 2009, these councils must not interfere with the editorial content of these stations any more.
SLAJ members are particularly proud of their association’s leadership for the stance we took in making the SLBC Act 2009 better than it initially was. We were slighted, ostensibly deliberately, in the promulgation process of the bill. But we showed character and remained steadfast. Even though there are still many grey areas in the Act which we would love to see amended in the near future, we salute the President, Ernest Bai Koroma, for listening to our reasoning and sending the Act back to Parliament when it was first passed by the House. We are also encouraged by the United Nations for their support in making SLBC a reality. Not only did they provide the initial funds that have set the process in motion, but they also remained engaged whenever it appeared that the process was being derailed.
One thing which has not been sufficiently stressed and I have to say here, is that not only has the Government of Sierra Leone shown character by letting go of the state broadcaster, it has also put in a huge chunk of money into it. The state of the art equipment at the TV department is testament to that. Good as that is, equal if not more emphasis should be given to the radio. It is the poor man’s main source of information because it does not require electricity or money to buy and repair television sets.
But even if all the latest radio, TV and online facilities are made available, if the workers do not have attractive conditions of service, if the corporation’s leadership does not treat and behave fairly and professionally to the other staff and forget about the old the-boss-is-always-right mentality, SLBC will revert to SLBS in all but name. And we all know what that means.
Equally important, the staff must see themselves as complimenting and not competing with each other. As SLAJ President, both sets of staff from the former UN Radio and the former SLBS are my constituents and I don’t mince my words when I say that they should not see themselves as being more qualified than the other; or perceive the other as behaving as such. There is a lot they all can learn from each other. That feeling of arrogance, unnecessary doggedness and imperviousness to change or to learn should be shed off. In this we learn everyday and so must be ready to adopt new and progressive methods of functioning. This is NOT a merger; rather it is a transformation. In fact, I am more concerned about journalists not doing their job well than political interference. Political interference cannot thrive where the corporation has a character. But even without that interference, the corporation will derail if the journalists lack character.
I wish to appeal to Parliament and the public that when we stand up for things we know more than they do, and we so strongly believe in, they must not misunderstand our position. It is for the good of our country. I wish to therefore appeal to parliament to speed up ratification of nominees to the Board of Trustees. And I hereby state that in Dr Julius Spencer SLAJ has nominated to the Board one of the best our country has to offer.
I wish to emphasise on the need for training for SLBC staff. I believe when they are fully constituted, the SLBC staff will give the best if they absorb the best.
Finally, with the SLBC now a reality, we hope and will continue to campaign for a repeal of Criminal Libel Law from our statutes, and for the promulgation of a Freedom of Information Act. This way, democracy will thrive and our country will progress. I thank you very much. By Umaru Fofana