Commitments, Challenges and Prospects

Media in 2020:

By Janet Brima

Sierra Leone’s media has gone through a series of trials, all connected to the existence of a law that criminalises free speech, the Public Order Act (POA) 1965. The political class continues to enjoy often the pleasure of utilizing media outlets and professionals in pursuit of their desires, however, failing in their duties to actualize the values that foster free speech and ensure a pluralistic press. This is one reality that continues to have an adverse effect on the practice of journalism. Governments, both current and previous, have made public their commitment to repeal Part five of the Public Order Act 1965. But nothing tangible has happened, just the same rhetoric, well, as the typical Sierra Leonean politician would act.

Last year provided tremendous opportunities and challenges plus the political commitment to repeal the criminal libel laws. There has not been a case of imprisonment of any media practitioner by the current administration – positive development in two years of their governance but there is more it. The country continues to see a downward trend in the use of very criminal libel in threatening free speech, with bloggers being invited to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) for trivial social media post.  Some politicians (ministers) now take pleasure in engaging in social media rants and threats all in the name of using their ‘power.’ This is the sad state of affairs the country is faced with. Against the backdrop of a joyful evolution in media both in quality and quantity and with the linked effects of the growth of social media on the very practice of journalism, one wonders what should be the outlook for the media in 2020.

Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, President of Sierra Leone Association of Journalists. On the law that criminalises free speech, he is optimistic that with time Part 5 of the Public Order Act 1965 will be repealed.  “We are almost at the finishing line now in terms of the repeal of the criminal and seditious libel law (and I am positive that by the time your magazine is out we would have crossed that line). You may recall that by mid-December 2019, the Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swarray, presented the repeal bill in Parliament and the First Reading was done.  That is a big achievement when you consider how far we have come with this bad law.”

The political will can be made available at the highest level, but where other arms of government like the legislature are not ready to help the process, it becomes another cup of tea, altogether. SLAJ continues to engage with MPs at various levels because as lawmakers, according to Nasralla “…they understand their role and the fact that the ultimate goal is to safeguard a fundamental human right of freedom of expression and the press and to which they have signed various international treaties and conventions. Some MPs even expressed determination, but challenged with resources, to go to their constituencies and engage the people to help them understand and to assure them that there are very strong safeguards in the civil libel law, as well as at the level of SLAJ and IMC, and it’s not going to be a free day for journalists.”

SLAJ is convinced that the government has already demonstrated a very solid political will by approving a repeal of the law at Cabinet level. “If it were left only to the Executive arm of Government, the criminal and seditious libel law is no more in our law books. And we commend His Excellency the President, Dr. Julius Maada Bio for the commitment he has shown to deliver on his party’s promise. But you know there are other equally important arms of Government, and in this case the Sierra Leone Parliament which has the responsibility to legislate,” said the SLAJ President. Agreed, it’s a matter of following due process, since laws are themselves not changed overnight. However, Nasralla said, his Association would also want to look at the commitment of Government post-repeal. “The economic condition of the media is degenerating every passing day. Government and developing partners need to intervene and salvage the independent media to save our democracy and to ensure public officials are held to account.

Beyond looking forward to Government’s annual subvention and support, Nasralla spoke of their vision of having a self-reliant SLAJ, not one that will continue to go cap-in-hand begging for funds. “We are thinking of getting into business; investing in printing presses, importation of printing materials, and other media-related services so that the media will have access to these products, facilities and services on a cost-recovery basis and the Association will also generate revenue to run its Secretariat and finance its own initiatives. We want to invest in shares in various credible companies as part of our sustainability goal.”

With all that it has gone through in the last decade, what should 2020 bring for the media? SLAJ’s Nasralla believes “2020 should be a positive turning point for the media as we anticipate the repeal of Part five of the Public Order Act 1965 which criminalises free speech. The repeal will lead to a turnaround for the media, opening up the struggling industry to more and more opportunities for training, scholarships, fellowships and, most importantly, private sector investment.”  The need to also strengthen the Independent Media Commission (IMC) is crucial. Where the IMC is strengthened and made to function effectively, the courts become less occupied by those who feel aggrieved by the media practice. Media institutions have the moral duty to comply with their statutory and professional obligations, including payment of taxes and providing improved conditions of service for journalists.

Like society, Nasralla also looks forward to a media that will be “independent, critical, fair, honest and a development partner” and with “more women coming into the profession, empowering themselves and aspiring for leadership positions within the male-dominated industry. Arguably, the existing unprecedented challenges like fall in revenue, existing forms of censorship, public distrust and competing with social media are disturbing for effective media operations. However, the media should stay independent to represent a range of opinions in society. Added to this, media ethics should be adhered to and professionalism pursued. SLAJ is aware that one of the main concerns of the public regarding the repeal of the criminal and seditious libel law is the safeguards. “People ask what SLAJ is doing to control its membership; to ensure journalists practice responsibly. The public, as well as the Government, want assurances,” said Nasralla.

So, in addition to continuous training of membership, the media parent body, SLAJ is also strengthening their internal control systems towards self-regulation, having reconstituted the Disciplinary Committee to include members from the public and an increase in responsibility. “The DC will be responsible to enforce the SLAJ Code of Ethics. They will now have District and Regional representatives who will monitor the conduct of media houses and journalists across the country and report to the Committee.” There will be more specific trainings and popularization of the Code of Ethics and the “Disciplinary Committee will also engage on media literacy programs that will help journalists review their work as well as help the public understand and appreciate the work of the media.”

All things being equal, 2020 should be the media’s springboard to a brighter future given the opportunities for further growth though with challenges, which are bound to be surmounted. SLAJ is challenged to ensure that when Part five is repealed, the public concern is managed and media professionalism maintained. Above all, there is the individual responsibility that practitioners should work on, beyond the collective role that the parent body-SLAJ is expected to lead.

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