Sierra Leone’s media under attack: A Strange Contradiction

Raymond Dele Awoonor-Gordon

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 June 2013

Obasanjo and president KoromaI am sure that you are aware that a toad does not run in the daytime for nothing. Similarly, you also know that even if a driver is sober, having a horde of screaming drunks in his poda-poda turns that vehicle into a lethal, unpredictable weapon.

So let’s watch out. The chips are coming down and the hidden fangs of the hunter are beginning to show. Oppressively dark and fetid corners are becoming visible in our governance.

It would have sounded simply farcical if not that experience has triggered off alarm bells. Predictably, the narrative of bad politics just never seems to end.

Already, one can almost hear the cackle of satisfaction from beyond the watery grave, as a succession of meddling, bureaucratic grave voices assures the President, that not clamping down on the activities of a segment of the press, with wholesale failure to reflect the views of government, would guarantee a sequence of calamities.

In a bid to ensure an unbalanced promotion of partisan political views, a wide-eyed cartel of disciples has embarked on floating down from Tower Hill, to cast healing sunlight on all the ‘dirty nooks and crevices’ of an already comatose media.

The sardonic smirks on their faces not only speak volumes about the sinister intentions under wraps, but also stem from a grotesque and perverted political ideology of a Doctor Death.

It is another example of the apparent absence of joined-up thinking within the government.

imcThe recent persistent bleating over what is being described as unacceptable behaviour of the press and the unedifying spectacle of publicly rubbishing non-conforming arms of the media, as well as the damning verdict on the activities of the Independent (?) Media Commission, are an assault on that portion of freedom, where privacy from the state is entrenched.

The wheels of our democracy have always been well lubricated by the media, even at the height of Siaka Stevens’ repressive regime; and even the emergence of Ernest Koroma as president is largely due to the role played by the press

So it is a big puzzle that a government, which claims to be media friendly, is surreptitiously pushing ludicrous plans for press reform; while the Freedom of Information Act remains prostrate on the legislative table and the long clamour for the repeal of the obnoxious, ancient and repressive Public Order Act, goes unanswered.

Undemocratic utterances, official or unofficial, that gives the impression that the press needs a fresh coat of paint, brings the government into disrepute and sours relations.

It is an abhorrence that also undermines the reputation of our democracy and governance.

hungry cowThe media in Sierra Leone is ill. There is no doubt about that. But then, this is because it is stooping under the jackboot of successive regimes’ unwieldy and un-necessary prescription of interference as a panacea.

It is also as a result of the low political intelligence which virtually all the previous administrations have painfully exposedm, as they see the media as a tool that must be manipulated at all costs.

The result has been the fragmentation of the industry, as its members sought survival ahead of the sacred principles of their profession.

So, going down the lane of trying to cow the media comes across, like when a really boring guest takes their leave of a party, and then, just when everybody is breathing a sigh of relief, walks back in again.

One cannot therefore understand what the underlying vision of this proposed compliance effort is all about.

Since the last election, there has been a relentless criticism of the seemingly uncompromising, neutral or opposition media.

This is not only bad manners – but also bad politics. Especially when the government has for example, failed to acknowledge the fact that it continues to heavily influence the television news agenda and that ninety five percent of the industry has lost its conscience and sold its most sacred duty for coco ebbeh, at its footstool.

With incomplete verities and blatant, doctored explanations, our new generation of power wielders, are heading to repeat the mistakes and vanities of the past; by trying to force the positive independent principle of the local media, to a comically high degree of fascist compliance.

Those with dollar-coloured eyes and giddiness from the aroma of power, need to remove their blinkers.

It is imperative that Sierra Leone assumes a tidal wave of democratic autonomy that would sweep away the creeping dominion of government, on what is consumed in national and private media.

Journalists silencedThe masses are entitled to unfettered access to information and the freely expressed thoughts of one another, including those who are not necessarily against the personalities in power, but against the trend of governance, such as this intended and dastardly abuse of power.

An important part of journalism is providing arguments that will lead to consensus and contributing to a constructive dialogue and sustainable solutions. So, the increasingly heavy-handed reaction to media ‘protests’, especially since pre-election last year, is in danger of undoing President Koroma’s undoubted good work in the country.

If those around him do not see this, he, as the pivot on whose table the buck stops, must see reason and take a leaf from his predecessor’s disposition to media reporting. He needs to keep banging the drum of a free press, not hand over his reins to ferocious officials.

Everyone is wearily familiar with the stalking horse. This development is a clear cut case.

Therefore, lovers of political novelty will do well to speak up against any attempt to muzzle, not only the media, but also the supposedly independent watchdog (which I described as a toothless bulldog in a previous article) for simply not doing the bidding of the government.

pressI just hope President Koroma has not given in to the murky demands of power, as orchestrated by his snooping advisers who appear to have a bee in their bonnets about the press not falling in line.

This appears to be more of a proxy war than a magic formula for a better society and media.

Without doubt, one certain fact of political life, especially in developing nations and Africa in particular, is that those in power, no matter how benevolent or liberal they portend to be, often fall for the age-long scare-mongering, and doom-laden warnings of their officials, that an antagonistic media is a threat to their very existence.

Forgetting what they espoused while seeking power, the precautionary expedience of protection, forces them not to appreciate that what really exists in their domain, is a cowed media, which will generally shy away from confrontation with authorities, for fear of the draconian laws of sedition, libel, treason and the seemingly uncontestable hammer of national security.

Knowing this, those responsible for the continued entrenchment of the divisive and inherent socio-political and economic factors of our society, as well as the perpetration of corruption as a national legacy, make it difficult for the media to help chart the path of national aspiration and self-portrait.

Consequently, the same old corrupt practices and political shenanigans go round and round in a never-ending cycle. The nation takes a step forward and two backwards.

These are the issues that need attention and which the government should be flexing its muscles, if it wants to be taken seriously.

Journalists and reporters serve as whistleblowers to the public. Their primary duty is to hold governments accountable and put the exercise of power under public scrutiny.

policingTherefore, if they were to be put under straight-jacket, disguised as sanitation, how then is the role of government as regulator and supervisor being segregated, to ensure all necessary checks and balances and the implementation of world-wide accepted best practices and standards are in place?

Similarly, once it starts, there will be no limit to the absurdity of always making the media a scapegoat that needs cleansing every time a new administration emerges.

Anyway, the inability to distance itself from the allure of the carrots of a Greek gift, especially at election time, by officials seeking office or hoping to entrench themselves, is one of the reasons why the Sierra Leone media is in such a sorry state as it is today.

Ordinarily, the media should be a critical and objective body. Its practitioners, as members of the fourth estate of the realm, ought to be the custodian of the power of the ordinary man on the street – by investigating claims of human rights abuses and other vices in society, like corruption, mismanagement and regulatory failures.

But alas the Sierra Leone media is like a man fighting an opponent, having had his hands amputated.

While it is self-inflicted, a government with societal values as its cardinal principle should be helping to tackle the impediments preventing the media from performing its role, as a result of the high cost of printing, the archaic laws, inaccessibility to information, by promulgating laws that will ensure freedom – not further tie the press in knots.

If this is not forthcoming, then the media itself, instead of thinking about dwindling print circulation, right now, should unite to find a champion to win its war of independence first.

Its very future is at stake more than ever before. In the horizon is a vuvuzela that threatens to make it even more difficult for the din of the media to be heard and ensure that it is cocooned in a bubble of irrelevance.

Remember this: “If the press is to hang on to a modicum of decency and be recognised as an agent of social revolution, then it needs to align itself with the desire of the people for a move in different direction; for a change in our political set-up and for accountability in governance irrespective of what personal cost it takes to achieve this.

It needs to wake up to its traditional role by sensitizing the people on their rights (which includes freedom of the press) and giving them a voice that will help them to shed the primordial ethno-religious and political sentiments that have torn the fabric of our society apart.

If not, in the aftermath of the current political bullfight, it is the media that will suffer the most. And with all our institutions, values and ethics gone to the dogs, it is not in our own interests to allow the fourth estate of the realm to be slaughtered by professional assassins masquerading as politicians.

Journalism remains the last bastion of defence for the common man and if it is debased, we might as well kiss our future goodbye as we launch a new banana republic.”

(RANDOM MUSING: THE PECULIAR MESS OF THE WATCHDOG—05/01/2012)

And years ago at the height of the devil’s horn government versus free press brouhaha, I wrote inter alia:

“Defacing statues, posters, pictures or such; is one of the cherished freedoms that in itself is also the beauty of democracy. For one, it gives a clear picture of the segment of society that is diametrically opposed to the government of the day. It also stresses the point that we all can’t be sleeping facing the same position. It should have been noted and utilised for the opposing view.

Going further with legal action (medicine after death) is a subtle allusion to the nagging fears that press freedom is at risk under the guise of good rapport. It also says that giving the association of journalists a befitting headquarters and co-opting their members into positions at home and abroad is nothing but a bribe for a good press”.

(RANDOM MUSING: The Blyden saga: First sign of the veil dropping or a bad call? 10/3/2008)

The historical truth that the only things that remain the same in this country since the colonialists went away, are the pitiful calibre of our politicians and their cohorts. The whole truth and nothing but the truth that matters, is that like all the others, the press will outlive those who seek to shackle it. Three cheers for a free press and long may it stay free.

Meanwhile, those who are still fasting and praying for the repeal of anti-press laws and the promulgation of the Freedom of Information bill; reach out for your glass of beer, water or brandy and forget it.

 

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