Freedom of speech is not a license to abuse – it is a responsibility

Abdulai Mansaray

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 October 2016

In a democratic society, freedom of speech should not be seen or used as a privilege, but as an organic necessity in a great society.

The concept of free speech has historically never been an intrinsic part of Sierra Leone’s democratic infrastructure. In days gone by, and especially during the reign of the late Pa Sheki, the press was systematically muzzled into serving as the government’s griots.

Every newspaper was expected to toe the government line. Woes betide any journalist who fell out of step with the government.

The Pademba Road “correctional” Centre was the popular place of choice by the government. Journalists were meticulously taken out of circulation (pardon the pun) and kept in these pens, until “they came to their senses”.

Editors like the Pius Foray were regularly frog marched to cells, for their audacity to question Pa Sheki’s government.

We cannot deny that Sierra Leone has comparatively come a long way from those dark days. With our fledgling democracy, I am sure that many would subscribe to the notion that, there has been some semblance of freedom of speech in our society.

It is not perfect, but our press has operated with some freedom in comparable terms. There may be a lot of negatives that have and can be associated with President Koroma’s government; but even his detractors would admit that there has been some latitude in relation to press freedom.

Musicians like Emerson can tell us that “Munku boss pan matches” without fear of going to Pademba.

President Koroma at malabo ebola conferenceMany will say that president Koroma belongs to that group of endangered species of African heads of state that have not incarcerated their political opponents. That does not mean that there have not been times when the government had made attempts to squeeze the arteries of some journalists that it deemed as “enemies of progress”.

In the recent past, journalists like David Tam Mbayo, Jonathan Leigh and a few others, were guests at the Pademba Road “correctional” Centre.

Irrespective of the allegations against them, imprisonment was not the answer for their “crimes”. Under normal circumstances, they should have been summoned to the courts first, and following due process, given their punishment within the ambit of the law, if found guilty.

Criminalizing charges like defamation was plain wrong. Ali Kabba, one of the candidates aspiring to be the tenant at State House was forced to make a few trips to Pademba, on what many people saw as trumped up charges of bigamy. You wonder how a person can commit bigamy in a society, where polygamy forms the bedrock of its cultural landscape.

That brings us to the responsibility of journalists in our society. At face value, journalism should be seen as the barometer of society and the thermometer of public opinion. But in performing such a sacred duty, journalists should be mindful of the need to feed the public with the truth, and nothing but the truth.

The public has the right to know, but in doing so, journalists are expected to avoid the risks of falling into yellow journalism.

freedom-of-speech-5With the advent of the digital age, anyone can become a journalist overnight these days; thanks to social media. That can only be good for society; provided it is used for the public good; to inform, educate and entertain.

The social media has a lot of inherent pitfalls as we know. But on the bright side, it has removed the monopoly that journalists had over society’s opinion. Social media has provided forums for mass participation. Society is no longer waiting for a “few good men” to interpret our world for us. As a result of this new found freedom, a sense of “we are in this together” is slowly mushrooming across our landscape.

However, this phenomenon is not without its inherent risks. Among others, it provides us with the opinions of the uneducated.  By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, today’s journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community (Oscar Wilde).

Unfortunately, the current trend has exposed communities to some of garbage; as journalism continues to stray into entertainment. The lines between serious news segments, news entertainment, and news comedy are blurring.  Good journalism should be seen as one of the models of good conversation and communication in the wider social context.

These days, it is very common to see gruesome images splashed across social media. There have been several accidents on our roads, and some people have been so much in a hurry to splash such gruesome images on social media; all in the name of information.

A case in point was that of the former member of national football team – Mamadu Alphajor Bah (fondly known as “Gazza” – RIP), who lost his life in a tragic accident in Goderich. As if the loss was not painful enough, video images and running commentaries were published, showing his lifeless body, trapped in the wreckage being recovered from the scene.

Can you imagine the pain his family must have been going through to see their loved one’s demise catalogued in live stream for public consumption? Where was the respect for the dead?

The painful truth is that, it will be difficult to moderate on social media. But some of our mainstream media have not shown any decorum in splashing such gruesome images; all in a bid for sensationalizing their stories.

Newspaper seller in FreetownMainstream media is expected to self-regulate, in the interest of human decency, and should be in a position to set the standards in our society. It should resist the urge for the banal aspects of society.

But sometimes, it just requires an ounce of human decency to draw the line in such cases. Some may want to argue that it was in the public’s interest to get the information out. But are we saying that in our quest to quench our insatiable appetite for news, it should be a no holds barred affair?

These days, it takes only a smart phone and a Facebook account to masquerade as a journalist.

abdulai-mansarayThis article is not an attempt to censor. But the need for sanity in media reporting is worth considering. It might be worth considering the impact such images would have on the families before publishing. (Author: Abdulai Mansaray).

A good way to begin would be to ask oneself: “Suppose that was my family member?”

In a democratic society, people demand freedom of speech. But we should not demand it as compensation for freedom of thought, which we seldom use. I believe that freedom of speech should be protected, but so should a family’s right to privacy as they grieve their loss.

We know that the public has an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism is conscious of this today, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies such demands.

In our bid to exercise, promote and protect the benefits of freedom of the press, it is worth remembering that it belongs to everyone – to the citizen as well as the publisher.

Therefore, it is not about the publisher’s ‘freedom to print’; it is, rather, the citizen’s ‘right to know. “Let’s have some decency please.

Don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room.

2 Comments

  1. Winston Ojukutu-Macauley Jnr,

    I don’t get you at all for saying that: “Pius Foray is still alive…he is not yet ‘late’ as stated in your article.” Where did Mr. Abdulai Mansaray state about “late” Pius Foray?

    Please make the necessary clarification on this issue anytime soon. Amen.

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