“Sorry Mr. President we are just doing our job”

19 June 2012

When president Koroma threatened to turn on the screw on sections of the media during a speech at an event in Freetown, organised by the government’s own Open Government Initiative, there was widespread disquiet and consternation.

Although there have been ugly cases of harassment and police brutality against local journalists, the president himself has up to now been personally credited, for withstanding the temptation of routinely arresting and locking up journalists.

Hence it came as a shock, when a few weeks ago, president Koroma told journalists that he will soon be taking action, against those who he considered  to be publishing negative stories about his government.

The country’s professional journalists’ association and civil society groups condemned the president’s public dressing down of sections of the media.

They accused president Koroma of trying to stifle press freedom and curtail civil liberty in the country.

The views and opinions of the international community are terribly important, as they are regarded as key partners in the development of Sierra Leone.

But in many respects they are also widely regarded as the arbiter of the country’s nascent democracy and fragile peace-building process.

And the voice of the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone – Ian Hughes, has been and continues to be heard across many issues and challenges facing the people of Sierra Leone.

Presidential and general elections are five months away.

Already the political temperature is slowly reaching boiling point, even before the National Electoral Commission blows the whistle for the start of political campaigning.

The role of the media will be crucial in helping the people of Sierra Leone – 70% of whom cannot read nor write, access simple bite sized information, covering the myriad of alternative policies offered by the respective parties.

The press must also be prepared to take on the arduous, though important task of helping the electorate understand the meaning of those competing policy options and their potential impacts on society.

Ian Hughes points out that; “As the electorate mulls over its options, the role of the media comes to the fore.”

Writing in his British Foreign and Commonwealth Office blog, this is what he said:                

As Sierra Leone prepares for November’s election I’ve blogged about the wide variety of the organisations that will help to deliver effective democracy here.

Democratic institutions like the National Electoral Commission (NEC), the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) and the Independent Media Commission (IMC) will hold the ring while political parties engage with voters.

In the UK the evolving relationship between governments, politicians, political parties and the media is a topical issue. Is that the same here?

The media are accused and blamed or praised and hailed, sometimes in almost the same breath, for their influence on the outcome of the democratic process.

Everyone remembers the famous 1992 Sun headline “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT”.

Was this the mark of press arrogance or simple statement of fact? After all, who now remembers that it was in fact John Major who won that election?

Voters depend on the media to describe and interpret what politicians and political parties stand for. 

Newspapers, radio and TV tell us how well candidates debate, what they pledge for our vote and what their policies are.

Fair, objective and accurate coverage underpins the relationship between candidates and voters.

And as electoral razzmatazz fades, good investigative journalism can hold government to their promises. Without the media, effective democracy becomes impossible.

However, experience shows that when the media becomes a mouthpiece for one particular political party or personality, stories tend to be poorly researched or not factual.

Opinion can be twisted to suit party-political paymasters: then this force for good distorts rather than reports, hides rather than reveals. 

Editors can and should have personal and professional opinions, but factual reporting and political opinion must be clearly distinct.

The Independent Media Commission, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and the Guild of Editors are there to guard the integrity of professional journalism, but like many institutions they lack finance and capacity.

In these circumstances, journalists – individually and collectively, should shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the reputation of their profession.

But journalists are not the only ones who comment on politics: Sierra Leoneans everywhere are increasingly using social media: Facebook, Twitter and Blogs.

These give everyone a voice to comment on the issue du jour and allow interactions that are impossible to moderate.

And that puts the responsibility for accuracy, for moderation, for maturity on us too: you and me.

Are we fair? Are we thoughtful? Do we care about the effects of what we write?

As the election approaches and the political atmosphere becomes more charged, I hope that we will see the best of the newspapers, radio, TV, websites and the blogosphere remaining free and fair for the good of Mama Salone.

I hope you’ll pitch in!

How do you think the diverse aspects of the media in Sierra Leone can best support the democratic process as we approach November’s election?

“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad,” says Albert Camus (1913-1960) – French novelist, essayist and dramatist.

 

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