WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY MESSAGE FROM SLAJ PRESIDENT UMARU FOFANAH
Good morning colleague journalists and members of the public. On this World Press Freedom Day on the 3rd of May 2010, I wish to thank all those who have made journalism easy for us in Sierra Leone in the last one year. We may not have been the most pampered, but have certainly not been the most persecuted in a world where while some see us as friends and heroes, others see us as enemies and villains. I hope those who have unnecessarily perceived Sierra Leonean journalists as enemies and intimidated, harassed and even attacked us will come to realise that we are only performing a cardinal responsibility to inform our people and speak on their behalf, no matter the odds that are stacked against us.
I am not unaware of the fact that in the course of doing this, some of our colleagues may have fallen short of their professional obligations – some deliberately, others inadvertently. Civilised aggrieved members of the public have done the right thing by going to the Independent Media Commission who has so far been very fair in their arbitrations. The not-too-civilised ones have chosen to go down the path of medievalism. They have telephoned and intimidated journalists, harassed them, or even beaten them up. The perpetrators have included Government officials and their supporters, opposition members and their supporters, and some outright bandits. We are seeking funds to take to court those who have remained arrogant in their wrongdoing.
In the last one year, a good number of our colleagues have died of natural causes. Their families have been left without proper care because their former employers have not met their obligations with them. Choosing journalism is not deciding to die poor or to leave our dependants to suffer after us. I know journalism, unlike most other vocations, is about passion not wealth. However, those who employ journalists should be mindful of the fact that they owe it to their employees – both in the sight of God and in the sight of the law – to pay them reasonable wages and meet their employer obligations. To address this, as a part of the West African Journalists Association, we are planning to embark on a collective bargaining certificate scheme to address this unfairness as agreed at the last WAJA Congress in Dakar last week.
There can be no press freedom for as long as journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty and fear. Those media practitioners who have shrugged off respect for nationalism and professionalism and embarked on defending the corrupt and denigrating decent people in society, are basking in corruption and undermining press freedom. With May Day just having been observed over the weekend, I wish to remind those media employers who do not meet their obligations with their employees that they are bad. And those who intimidate, harass or attack journalists are the worst. They undermine the country’s constitution which enshrines the rule of law and guarantees freedom of expression.
In the year gone by, it has not been rosy for us. But our hearts go out to our colleagues in The Gambia who are living in constant fear and danger simply because of their profession; the families of those colleagues killed in Nigeria simply because they chose to inform the public; and also in far away Iran where 30 journalists are still being detained for simply telling the story of their country. We join the call made on this day by the International Federation of Journalists for the immediate and unconditional release of these colleagues who have been in detention since June 2009. But as Sierra Leonean journalists, we are also envious of our colleagues in South Africa whose practice has been enhanced by the existence of a Freedom of Information Law, and our Ghanaian counterparts who live in a country where libel is not criminalised.
Despite the hurdles we have been faced with in the last year, my executive and I have not rested especially in the defence of our colleagues. Even if it came much later than we had expected, the Sierra Leone Police has shown character and courage to arraign before the Police Tribunal six of their men, including some senior ranking ones. In August last year, these officers were engaged in the horrendous act of illegally arresting a journalist in Makeni at night and subjecting him to inhuman conditions and treatment. The SLP has also sacked one of its officers found guilty of illegally waylaying a journalist and extorting money from him. We however await any action by the police and the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces against a police officer and a soldier who beat up a journalist in Kenema for taking pictures of them while they were apparently smoking marijuana in uniform.
Fellow journalists and members of the public, perhaps the most significant thing to happen to the media landscape in our country in the last one year has been the transformation of the state broadcaster to an independent public service broadcaster known as the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation. There may be teething problems in achieving what the corporation should achieve but we are heartened by the new status and wish to appeal to all to make it work in the interest of our country. In particular, we are gravely concerned, I repeat, gravely concerned, that the Ministry of Information has written to the corporation denying it ownership of all its transmission sites throughout the country, and its building at New England which currently houses Njala University. This is not just a breach of the SLBC Act, but an apparent attempt at stifling the corporation’s independence even before it kicks off.
Similarly, we are concerned that two components of SLBC, namely the former UN Radio and the former SLBS do not seem to be operating as one entity. It is shocking to know that even after they were deemed to have become one institution, they both chose to broadcast separately in the build up to our independence day and on Independence Day itself. This can only stoke up separatist idea in the staff who should be one entity.
In a separate but related development, the new SLBC and the rest of the country’s media will find it very difficult to operate well while libel remains seditious and criminal. Recently, President Ernest Bai Koroma renewed his willingness for a review of this obnoxious law. We know he has a lot to contend with, but this should be at the core of those things that will make our country the envy of not only the sub-region but the continent at large. We therefore wish to urge him to keep his willingness, and not listen to some people who believe in perpetuating obscurantism.
With this year’s theme centred around Freedom of Information and community radio broadcasting, I wish to remind all that a Freedom of Information Law will bring prosperity to our nation and will hold our leaders to account to us more properly. And this is not just about journalists and journalism. It is also about you members of the public. This law is only bad for secretive and corrupt public officials whom this country is tired with and is better off without. But it is very friendly and protective of upright public officials whom the public will not afford to speculate about under such a law.
At present, Sierra Leone can boast of community radio stations dotted almost everywhere. But we need to look at their survival and their independence. Despite repeated warnings, local government officials still interfere with the running of these community radio stations. I hereby repeat that they have no business doing this and any further interference will meet with the stiffest resistance from SLAJ, and if need be we will go to court. We however appeal to international partners that helping these community radio stations is helping Sierra Leone. SLBC cannot do the work of the community radio stations. Far from it! They have a role which only they can play. And they should be helped to perform it without let or hindrance. However, this comes with responsibility. Many workers at these community radio stations, even if on a voluntary basis, languish in penury while the Station Managers milk resources that come for the station. Some of these Station Managers should learn to keep a clean record of funds that come for the station, so they can spread the wealth around fairly.
I wish to remind journalists of our responsibility to the public, and the public of the freedom of the press. To the journalists, let me borrow, paraphrase and reapply a quote from the Friends of the 18th century French writer, Voltaire, to say that SLAJ may not agree with what you say or publish, but we will defend to death your right to say it. And to the public, to assure you that the Independent Media Commission will arbitrate, should you feel aggrieved.
Let me end by thanking the British High Commission, the United States, Egyptian and Chinese embassies as well as the United Nations and the World Bank for their support to journalists and journalism in Sierra Leone in the last year. I also wish to thank President Ernest Bai Koroma and Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana for their individual personal contributions towards projects we have undertaken. Without their support of these individuals and institutions, we would have found it impossible to be where we are today.Long Live Press Freedom Long Live Sierra Leone. I thank you very much.
Umaru Fofana, President SLAJ