Sierra Leone might have a huge population that are classed illiterate, that is 75% or so. However it is also true that this great country has since colonial days produced very illustrious academics, technocrats and fire brand journalists whose recognition has gone beyond the borders of this country. Let us face it Salone media has come of age, never mind the bashing from some sectors of society, time and time again. Recent sensationalism experienced in the Salone media almost went sour but thank God, it is simmering down. Sure, as a nation we will get over all this.
To have over 50 newspapers coming out daily is really not an easy feat. Do not call this an irony at all because I believe that in every household in Sierra Leone there is sure to be some literate person. I only wish many many copies are sent to the regions. But again you will tell me that most people up there do not read. I say No because conversely since they do not get the newspapers, then of course they cannot read them there. Oh how nice to hear that the SLAJ President, our own Umaru Fofana has been chosen to lead the campaign for the enactment of the freedom of Information Act for the whole of Africa! Isn’t this something that big, something we should all be proud of. Indeed so much has happened in the media landscape over the last few years and much of it is very positive never mind the small small charm mots here and there.
I have been talking to media practitioners mainly about the regulatory aspects of the media, especially the role of the Independent Media Commission (IMC). I think whoever was the brain behind the establishment of the IMC does not only love Sierra Leone, but also loves the Salone media. Some of the current practicing journalists or media practitioners might not easily see the great essence of IMC. This is mainly because there have been quite a good number of complaints about journalists, and most of these have been settled in a win-win manner.
This I think is a great blessing which is often overlooked. Personally I think Mrs. Bernadette Cole’s chairmanship of the IMC was full of challenges, but for the most part her team was able to weather the storms. The kind of heated political waters we have had course to swim on kind of, needs a mother figure like Mrs. Bernadette Cole to steer safe along with losing bearing. I really wish her well and congratulate her for sailing through a rough tide. For goodness sake let journalists not wish for the so-called radical or hot head to head the IMC as that will negate its whole essence and drag us back to God-knows-where!
I hope that the new Chairman of the IMC that is going to be appointed will take it from where Madam Cole stopped and push the IMC to further heights. The IMC was set up as an autonomous body for the regulation of mass media institutions and for other matters connected therewith. As the name implies it is independent. The IMC has the responsibility of promoting a free and pluralistic media throughout Sierra Leone. The IMC is quite unique in the sense that its members are not drawn mainly from the civil Service and the ministries, departments and Agencies. Perhaps the only little gap is that there is no provision for a representative from civil Society.
Pert of the mandate of the Commission is to protect the interest of the public against exploitation or abuse by media institutions; and to promote fair competition among media institutions and persons engaged in the provision of media services. The promotion of free media also entails the enactment of the freedom of Information Act. I think the IMC should give its full support to the campaign. In fact I am beginning to think that some civil society representatives should be on the team. These can help with strategic plans and operational plans. It is very interesting that the public is protected from the media excesses that hurt their dignity. As we press for the passing of the freedom Of Information Act, the fourth estate should help to promote the ideals on which it stands.
In the area of the IMC promoting fair competition among the media, the IMC has a big challenge. On the one hand the appointment of the Commissioners is somehow political and that has some trappings. Also since it is inevitable that some portions of the press might enjoy political patronage or perhaps might be compromising when it comes to certain parties, then fair competition might prove difficult. One thing we need know hear is that the term neutrality may not be really possible. Rather we may want to say that, like Civil Society, the press should actually be on the side of the people who are the objects of bad governance and human rights abuse.
Our media can be divided into certain categories: First we have the Party ones. These do anything and everything to promote their party agendas. There are others who are really promoting the interests of certain parties without saying that much. These are the ones that are sometimes as vocal as the issues become heated. You have another set which for the large part maintain human interests. This last set may not be the most popular or widely read, they are the ones I call civil Society papers.
They stand for the truth and seek to protect the people especially against the violation of their rights and depravity. The word neutrality can hardly stand the test of time. Every human being is almost always having some preference or the other. People for the most part belong somewhere. The only difference is that they may not openly support a party because of some ethical considerations related to the job they do.
In which ever case we need to know that journalism itself is a business and as such profitability has to be kept in view in order to keep running. This is where the media becomes quite complex and it becomes so difficult for it to keep a balance between staying on the side of the people and also surviving.
The IMC was established partly to carve out a peaceful co-existence between the media and the public, especially people holding public offices that are accountable to the tax payers.
The Commission also seeks to maintain fair competition among media houses. In other words, it tries to play the role of an arbiter when there are impasses. Here there seems a very close affinity between the IMC and the PPRC. About a year ago the Guild of newspaper editors was established.
I think also the IMC should help strengthen such bodies in order to minimize unnecessary press wars which though fought with pens, can sometimes leave very lasting animosities. What the media needs to always bear in mind is that the IMC is an independent Body that is not necessarily expected to be on the side of the Media when they fall foul of their ethics and code of conduct.
By Bob Cambayma