Growing up with the desire to become a journalist almost always had a dampener. There was always the caution, warning if you prefer, that it’s a risky enterprise, a suicidal one, if you like. So when in October 1997 I was shot in the leg by soldiers because of my vocation my mum almost won the argument. “I told you so” she said. That shooting left my tibia bone shattered and but for the help of the French humanitarian organisation, MSF, I would be an amputee today.
But how close are we as journalists to those dark days of our country’s history? Today, if anything, the events of last week have succeeded in instilling fear in many journalists, especially so because some of the ruthlessness happened in a place where rights should be best safe-guaranteed – STATE HOUSE.
Blame it on them both! The Sierra Leone People’s Party and the All People’s Congress party. And of course the fools who avail themselves as foot soldiers just for the political survival of people whose genuine interests do not include theirs. How many of those who hurl invectives and stones at their opponents or their office really have anything to show for their unintelligible loyalty?
The two political parties that have ruled Sierra Leone since independence nearly fifty years ago are the reason decadence has not decayed in our land. The TRC report could not have put it better by saying that there is no ideological difference that separates the SLPP and APC and that they have only one ideology and intent – to capture political power and I dare say seek the interest of their inner circles only with crumps dropped for the rest, among them those bigots who say they will kill for these two parties.
In the words of the TRC report, “While they may claim to be ideologically different, in reality the two parties [SLPP and APC] have always shared a brand of politics that is all about power and the benefits it confers…” How true!
If anything these the country’s two oldest existing political parties are perfecting in their lack of care for the plight of the people they claim to be running for office for. The attack on the headquarters and radio station of the SLPP was as abhorrent as it was shameful; fast-deeming our hitherto fast-sparkling reputation as a beacon of democratic pluralism in the region. The knock-on effect that led to the beating-up of journalists was as callous as it was uncivilised. And the fact that most of the beating happened within the premise of the office of the president leaves so much to be desired.
Bigotry seems to be beclouding the lenses of our political leaders. The PMDC and the APC were so incensed by the victory parade of the SLPP in Bo about two weeks ago that they created a scene that led to the attack on the SLPP party office in the town. Invariably, the victory parade in Freetown following the inauguration of the APC-swept Western Area councillors and mayor angered the SLPP. In their over-zealousness, the party’s supporters made cat calls at the Mayor of Freetown, calling him stupid names among them “Cocaine Mayor”. And the SLPP leadership sees nothing wrong in that; hence their reticence over it. Instead they draw parallel with the chanting of Kailahun Court Barry that followed last year’s presidential and legislative elections.
Seriously galling is the apparent parallel security force that seems to be running State House. Despite denials by government officials that nothing like MEN IN BLACK exists, it was men clad in black suit that disgraced and beat up some of the journalists at State House on Wednesday. It was MEN IN BLACK that I saw in Port Loko during the parliamentary by-election early this year driving in a pick-up van with bandanas tied around their head. It was MEN IN BLACK that eyewitnesses say stormed the SLPP office on Wednesday!
Anyway, in bid to quickly quell the political rumpus, President Koroma took a brilliant move by inviting the SLPP leadership for a pep talk at State House. But that was desalinated by some people right under the nose of the president. Even the Assistant Inspector General of Police, SIS Koroma was searched head-to-toe by men who do not constitute a constitutional security outfit. Whoever put them in charge of the president has created more problems for him. The notoriety they are EARNING for themselves can only bring the president along with them and slur his reputation.
These men and some police officers turned innocent journalists into punching bags. In a manner that only smirks of an orchestrated campaign, up to seven journalists were brutalised. It also smirks of how they can smack pressmen with apparent impunity. And look at how easily men in power forget so fast. Just a few years ago, policemen who felt they were above the law, brutalised me with impunity. Apparently scared of embarrassing the government who it would seem had issued a licence to the police to go for journalists’ jugular, the UN that I worked for at the time failed to condemn the folly of policemen. I was handcuffed and crash-landed into a land rover like a suspected rebel would be treated at the height of our civil war. Not a cough of sympathy let alone apology from the office of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah whose guards were behind the attack, in the middle of it, and in front of it.
The same police force, acting on instructions “from above” and buoyed by the impunity that goes with such brutality, have done similar or worse to many other journalists. And when they are backed by an unknown group of MEN IN BLACK, it is much scarier. This, despite President Koroma being a friend of the press. At least before he became what he is and in the weeks following that. It is no secret that he owes a lot of his success to the presidency to the media. How many times for example did I personally bring him to the world? How many times were his messages and reactions to issues publicised by the media, hence bringing him out of obscurity. Today, all of that seems to have been forgotten by those who feel they love him more than Christians love Jesus!
The beating-up of our colleagues, among them a lady Alimatu Fofana who was kicked, beaten to the ground and dragged like a US soldier would do to an AlQaeda fighter, deserves the strongest rebuke from the president who has so far not expressed a word of regret over the deplorable development. Even when we thought he would attend the Concord Times lecture on Friday to use the occasion to atone on behalf of his irate boys, he did not show up or even send a message of sympathy to the ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate. Has he forgotten so soon?
Now IFEX, the international media watchdog, has Sierra Leone on its front page, competing with Georgia where a war with Russia has led to the killing of some four journalists. This is ominous and only brings our ranking down, and with it many implications.
And the sweating defence as well as stout lack of contrition being put up by some senior police officers makes an already ominous situation grimmer. Over the weekend on UN Radio, Assistant Inspector General of Police for Crimes Service, Francis Munu sounded arrogantly unremorseful over the incident and was cloaked in denial of any responsibility; calling the journalists “so-called” and spewing a completely stupendous spurn. Surely appeasing the politicians like he, together with his boss, did with for the SLPP is surely not the surest way of becoming the Inspector General of Police.
Even though Minister of Information, Ibrahim Ben Kargbo sounded contrite, apologetic and reconciliatory in a BBC interview over the incident, the fact he did not even mention it as a highlight in his briefing note at a press briefing on the following day was surprising to say the least. Despite the issue having occupied the front page of most of our newspapers and a lead story on many radio stations. And the fact that the President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists did not even raise the issue at the same press briefing also makes relevant today what former President Joseph Saidu Momoh said about SLAJ. “I have no respect for SLAJ but for individual journalists”. I only hope that was an oversight by the SLAJ prexy.
This is no different to how Tejan Kabbah would react to the beating-up of a journalist when he was head of state. So, under the AFRC military junta, we suffered. Went the AFRC and returned the SLPP for whom the AFRC had given us hell on earth. Again, we were pursued, jailed and hated! Then re-entered the APC, and here we are again! And in the experience of veteran journalist Christo Johnson who had his car almost burgled as he struggled to rescue his stolen phone at State House, that experience had never been visited upon him. Not even under the notorious AFRC! It seems the more things change, the more they remain the same. How endangered we are! By Umaru Fofana