The world is again reminded today of the role of the press in today's world and what those in authority need to do to make the work of journalists less dangerous and more responsible. This year's theme on the media in governance cannot have been more aptly chosen given the lot of journalists all over the world.
In Sierra Leone, the day and succeeding ones should provide a forum for both journalists and their critics, especially the government to take a critical look at just how they relate to each other. Should they be like the proverbial "puss en dog" or should they both be partners for development?
The government of Sierra Leone says it is committed to a free press but as one international organisation, RSF, noted, the press in Sierra Leone is free as long as it stays clear from topics that point towards wrong-doing by those in authority, especially the President and his favoured ones. Indeed attempts by succeeding governments to muzzle the press shows just how important the fourth estate could be in putting in place a system that is fair and for the people.
Here is a country whose leaders claim to be democratic, whose leaders claim to respect the basic rights of its citizens and whose leaders are quick to tell critics that "under this new dispensation the press is free to write anything" and yet keep in place an obnoxious piece of legislation that's been on the statute books since 1965. The Public Order legislation makes it an offence, a criminal offence for anyone to say or print anything that throws an unfavourable light on government, yea anything that would tend to cause disaffection with the government. Anything that would tend to incite the people against the government....and so on and on. And who decides this offence has been committed?
President Kabbah, a man who has a background in legal matters, knows quite well that good governance, the rule of law and the freedom of the press are not guaranteed with this piece of legislation still on the books, yet nowhere has he been recorded as saying, nay indicating that he would like to see that section of legislation expunged from the books.
Recall this from a recent speech by President Kabbah as he launched the national anti-corruption strategy on Tuesday February 15, 2005.
That comes from a President who believes in a free press as he lays into the Anti Corruption Commission for daring to mention the C-word against his ministers. Disaffection for the government indeed!!!! Was the President issuing a veiled threat to the Anti Corruption Commission that the organisation was in breach of the Public Order Act?
While the Sierra Herald would roundly condemn any section of the press that prints or says things that have no basis, we would at the same time urge the government to put in place a more democratic way of using the courts for redress, thus respecting the basic human rights of the offending journalist. To have a system that allows the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists on the flimsiest of excuses is not, and never will be a commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human right. This is contrary to good governance.
There would be no need for the government to stand condemned for its treatment of journalists if functionaries operate in the open and allow access to documents needed for journalists to corroborate their stories. What is needed is a transparent system and once such a system is established the flow of rumours and complaints are bound to decrease.
Here is another bit from the President which should have sent a signal to him. That the problems he faces with the press is all of his own making.
The Sierra Herald would again want to ask the President that he kindly looks at this speech and his complaints again. As well as his 44th Independence Anniversary Day speech in which he praised the days of the late Sir Milton Margai. The perception that the President complains of he has himself to blame for and no other person. He was given all opportunity by the people to save the country from the same thing that plunged the country into a decade-long turmoil - deprivation and terrible governance brought about by corruption.
Why blame anyone for a corruption perception when despite what many say, he still continues to surround himself and reward those who are corrupt. There are documents, public documents available all over the world that show just how he revels in the company of the corrupt.
Finally on this day, journalists in Sierra Leone should remember all those who fell in the defence of the profession. Especially during the dark days of the AFRC/RUF coalition of evil attacks.