The office is claustrophobic. The floor is bare at one end whilst the other is covered with well worn-out linoleum. It is furnitured with rickety chairs and tables. There are no air conditioners but squeaky fans which produce hot breeze than cool air. It is devoid of modern office equipment but the only things that evince the slightest trace of modernity are one or two Pentium Two computers and long dead land telephones.
Often, crumpled A-4 or “off-cut” papers litter the floor while assorted newspapers are pyramided in a corner. At times, dirty ‘cookery plates’ or pap cups are casually flung in a corner or left on the tables.
The office is peopled with some men clad in either shabby clothes with shoes that have seen the cobbler a million-and-one times or clad in coats and ties that are a quarter-of-a-century out of fashion, coupled with mismatch trousers. They are bent over pieces of papers on which they prepare their copy because they cannot operate a computer. In some cases where there are computers, ‘manageable’ secretaries work the keyboards so badly that it makes it very easy for ill-equipped proofreaders to do their job effectively ineffective.
My dear reader, the above is not a page torn from my unpublished short novel or scenes from any of my five unpublished plays. But a scene you are likely to find in most newspaper houses in Freetown.
The dilapidating state of most newspaper offices in Freetown is a microcosm of the state of affairs in the newspaper industry nationwide. It is sad that most journalists can no longer claim the “watchdog” role in our society because the manner in which they go about the tricks of their trade leaves much to be desired.
How many of my colleagues can cast the first stone when it comes to the issue of the fight against corruption? What I have noticed is that many Editors banner with corruption stories, in most cases, after their efforts at blackmailing failed or when they are not given a slice of the loot. How many times have readers not laughed to scorn as certified kleptomaniacs are being ‘Jesusnised’ by ‘attack-and-collect’ journalists? And upright people scapegoatised or injected with the Pull Him/er Down (PHD) needle because they refused to be blackmailed?
It is a fact that the most sheep-headed student of Mass Communications at Fourah Bay College knows that the traditional roles of the media, the press in particular, are to inform, educate and entertain. But how effective have we, as journalists, been going about portraying these traditional roles in the pages of our newspapers? What most Editors are ramming down readers’ throats are trash, recycled news and outdated press releases coupled with culled infotainments from the Internet which are far removed from realities in Sierra Leone.
Are newspapers in Sierra Leone really educating the public on issues geared towards national development and enlightenment? Only a handful. Most Editors do not even know the issues of the day let alone try to write on them. At times I feel ashamed when I see some Editors dishing out half-truths, or writing shameful phrases like: “unconfirmed sources reaching this press…” or “all efforts to contact so and so proved futile…” This shows that investigative journalism has reached its nadir in Sierra Leone. In most newspapers, one is appalled to note that some of our so-called “experienced” Editors do not even know the difference between a “caption” and “headline”. Because they often write: “according to a story captioned…”
How many newspaper Editors can boast of having undergone refresher trainings in the last three years? How many of our so-called well-educated Editors have read a new novel in the last five years? Without keeping abreast with modern dynamism of the profession and the English language, one can not only be handicapped in facts-processing but can only be a factory for speculations and half-truths. That’s what most of our Editors are!
I always tell some of my reform-minded young colleagues that 95% of newspaper proprietors do not have any moral authority to comment about the poor conditions of service in other institutions, as most of the hellish work-unfriendly conditions are found in newspaper offices in Sierra Leone. Most newspaper proprietors do not pay salaries to their reporters let alone pay their NASSIT. Most reporters do not have medical facilities not to talk about end of service benefits. In fact, there is no phrase such as “Letter of Appointment” in most press houses.
Frankly, how many Editors can truly speak about injustice when most newspaper offices are bespattered with it? Let’s take a case where a junior reporter has crossed the Ts and dotted the Is, marshalling facts and figures, and writes a masterpiece copy. S/he comes to the office with the satisfaction that there are no grey areas to be blackened only to be told by the Editor that a Sacred Cow would be taken to the abattoir if the copy is published.
It is disheartening that most young journalists in Sierra Leone no longer find role models in many of their older colleagues. Because many of those who claim that they are no longer wet behind the ears epitomise all what is wrong with journalism in this country. When you hear about doctoring of photos or sexing up facts or writing without cross checking, you will find the bulk among our so-called experienced colleagues.
Though we are now screaming blue murder for the expunging of the 1965 Public Order Act from the country’s law books because it criminalises libel and makes our profession a sort of Russian roulette; but the contents of some of our newspapers are giving concrete reasons why this hated Act should be kept in the statutes of this country. Many Editors do not have the simple courtesy of giving their readers the opportunity of exercising their Right To Reply. Some of my colleagues invade people’s privacy and write stories with disregard for those people’s hard earned reputations.
The reason why I have decided to wash our dirty linens in public is because I believe there is urgent need for reform within our profession. We need to acknowledge that our profession is at present in a pretty prickle and the only way out of this mess is to frankly speak out—in this case write out. I do not believe in hushing up the truth and pretending that everything is alright. If we want readers to take us seriously we, as journalists, should be seen as people who believe in accuracy and objectivity. We should first put our house in order before claiming qualification of being society’s watchdogs—though I hate that metaphor because I would have preferred ‘society’s sentinels’.
This article is intended to be a wake up call, telling ourselves that if we want to improve the state of affairs in the country generally, we should first try to improve the state of affairs in our profession and become fair commentators. So I want my colleagues to take this piece as a token from someone with a kind heart. with Mohamed Sankoh