In the Middle Ages, society was divided into three estates of the realm, namely the clergy, the noble and the commoners. The Fourth Estate emerged later to mean the media or journalists.
In his book The Fourth Estate, Jeffrey Archer observes thus: “In May 1789, Louis XVI summoned to Versailles a full meeting of the “Estate General”. The First Estate consisted of three hundred clergy. The Second Estate, three hundred nobles. The Third Estate, six hundred commoners. Some years later, after the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, looking up at the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, said, ‘Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all.’”
That explains the power the influence and the importance of the journalist and journalism. In spite of that, or may be because of it, many do not like us. Hear the author Henry Fielding in Covent Garden Journal: “None of our political writers…take notice of any more than three estates, namely Kings, Lords and Commons….passing by in silence that very large and powerful body which form the fourth estate in this community…The Mob”
Some have interpreted this to mean his dislike for journalists, likening them to a disorderly or riotous crowd of people.
Even though so many things have changed, with some defining the first three estates as the three arms of government, the fourth estate remains, and probably true to Edmund Burke’s statement, the most important today. I say “probably” because the trend we take sometimes is most compromising, to say the least.
The arrest of the publisher of the Awareness Times newspaper, Dr Sylvia Blyden, has raised many issues and asked many questions, not least pertaining to what goes on in the media fraternity. This article is not to discuss the merits and demerits of the circumstances leading up to her arrest. Rather, the fallout. But if you are interested in my views on that, I would NOT have published the controversial pictures, even though in my view, that does not necessarily make publishing them criminal.
Not many papers simply reported the story. No! Far from it! It is one of those stories probably difficult to publish without expressing an opinion. Sadly, it has largely been based on whose side they are on the political divide. And it is not new, even if getting much starker. Probably because of the persona.
Many people have said she is not a journalist, but a publisher. That may be true only if it is based on her public pronouncement that she is not one. Because, according to Wikipedia, “A journalist is a person who practices journalism, the gathering and dissemination of information about current events, trends, issues and people.” Sylvia does just that.
Flip through your pages and come along…But Sylvia is no friend of a free press, some say. Reason: she is not opposed to the unqualified repealing of the public order act. I have heard her debate on this issue over and over again and I must say that I disagree with her.
That said, when a journalist is arrested based on what they did in their professional line of duty, the journalism fraternity should express solidarity with them. Otherwise they should not be seen to be celebrating over the arrest. Therefore, the reaction of the SLAJ president to the arrest is something I disagree with. I know of instances in the past when expressed concern over issues concerning journalists in situations not even related to their professional practice.
But Sylvia Blyden herself is guilty of this. When the Standard Times publisher, Philip Neveille was arrested last year¸ her publications were celebratory. When Paul Kamara of For Di People was arrested, some newspapers sent him to hell. And I vividly remember telling someone that the position taken by pro-SLPP journalists when the two journalists were arrested was unfortunate because it could be them tomorrow. Tomorrow may be far but it will definitely come.
Sadly, today, the reverse is happening, with some even sexing up pictures to score some political points. This is unfortunate! It should stop otherwise politicians and unscrupulous members of society will thrive at the expense of our nation.
By and large, the reactions of some media practitioners have depended on which side of the political divide they are. So the question is: why do we allow ourselves to play into the hands of politicians? It would seem we have still not learned our lessons at all!
Otherwise, have we asked ourselves what benefit those journalists who attacked their colleagues for the SLPP can show for it, other than a poisoned conscience? And what will those baying for their colleagues’ blood today are get to show for it? If anything, it will eventually pass away while our conscience will forever hound us. In the words of Olu Gordon, my favorite Sierra Leonean journalist, “attack collect, defend collect, bad journalism”.
Why should any journalist attack President Ernest Koroma or his policies just because their sympathy lies with a political party other than the APC? Otherwise we cease being members of the Fourth Estate and become fifth columnists seeking to undermine an elected government for very selfish reasons. Or why should a journalist defend the president and his policies just for feeling part of him or his party? I think that should be the work of the official opposition and ruling parties’ newspapers respectively. Even that should be done responsibly.
The politicians are only interested in us because of what we can do for them today. The people look up to us for succor today and forever. And the moment that is compromised, disaster! By Umaru Fofana