Sierra Leone’s troubled media – the oligarchs hit back

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 26 November 2013

Newspaper seller in FreetownSierra Leone’s brave and embattled media is now facing serious financial meltdown, if the country’s ruling class is to have its wish granted by the courts, following a series of criminal libel lawsuits.

And just when you think that the country’s media had seen the worst of the political backlash created by its need to push the boundaries of press liberty and freedom, its very survival is now in question.

A hefty fine ordered by the court, is about to cripple the wealthiest of publishers – Standard Times Newspaper, who was last week found guilty of libel.

The Newspaper has been fined a whopping Le30 million in damages and compensation to the sister-in-law of the president – Ms. Finda Koroma, whose reputation the court accepts was damaged by the Standard Times Press in 2011.

Is this the beginning of the end for Sierra Leone’s free press?

According to the court, the Newspaper alleged that Ms. Koroma “is of questionable character in relation to her work in Liberia, Congo and the United States of America where she was a subject of the United States Department of Integrity probe, where she operated in war-torn DR Congo as a confidante of its President Joseph Kabila; she along with President Kabila was accused of squandering US 100m provided for the demobilization of fighters.”

Failing to provide evidence to substantiate the published allegations, Justice Browne Marke had no choice but to find the defendants guilty of libel.

But what is most shocking about the court’s decision is the size of the financial damages awarded to Ms. Koroma for the injury inflicted on her ‘reputation’.

Le30 million (equivalent to £5,000) by Sierra Leone’s economic standards is a lot of money, far beyond the reach of most working Sierra Leoneans, whose average annual salary is less than £2,500.

Sierra Leone’s media is generally regarded as one of the most impoverished and deprived industry sectors in West Africa, with almost all of the publications classed as substandard in their quality of print.

Average daily sales per publication is estimated at Le600,000 for the top Newspapers – not much to pay staff salaries, let alone the printing cost, overheads and taxes.

But miraculously, over 60% of the country’s news media outlets have been in existence since the end of the war in 2001.

Reasons for their longevity are debatable. There is an argument that several of the publishers and editors earn their income through what is locally referred to as ‘brown envelope journalism’.

They are accused of harassing and threatening to blackmail the ‘well to do’ in society’, who may have been caught in uncompromising personal circumstances, to part away with extortionate bribes in order not to have their names splattered  across the front pages of the media.

But there is no doubt that such unprofessional and criminal behaviour is not pervasive, and is now less common. The newly appointed commissioners of the country’s Media Commission are getting tough.

Most Newspaper publishers, editors and staff in Sierra Leone are struggling in the face of ever increasing cost of printing and distributing their newspapers: poor electricity supply, archaic production and printing technology, poor access to government information that ought to be in the public domain, intense competition for sales in a country with an average daily household income of about a dollar, and over 60% of adults who cannot read.

A tough place to make money publishing and selling newspaper.

The pressure on journalists in making a balanced judgement between journalistic efficacy, freedom to inform and educate, and ethical standards, can be very risky, dangerous and costly.

And in Sierra Leone where political tolerance is not in abundant supply, and corruption in high places is very widespread, the oligarchs will do everything to bring the heavy weight of the criminal justice system and the judiciary to curtail the powers of journalists.

Newspaper business in Sierra Leone is not a financially lucrative industry. The country is yet to produce a multi-million dollar media magnate or tycoon.

Awoko1The most popular daily publications – Awareness Times, Standard Times and Awoko, are still struggling to break that glass ceiling.

But with the fate of two journalists still hanging in the balance, faced with seditious libel charges for publishing unpalatable remarks about the president, questions must be asked about the future of journalism in particular and civil liberty in general.

Although few would argue against the guilty verdict reached by Justice Browne Marke at the High Court last week against the Standard Times Newspaper, the question is: did the president’s sister-in-law suffer damage to her reputation to  the value of Le30 million as a result of that publication?

Most fair minded readers would say – no she did not.

Therefore, if it’s about the principle of restitution, one could argue that Standard Times at most should have been required by Justice Browne Marke to publish an apology and a retraction, rather than be subjected to a fine that could bankrupt the publisher.

But then, with the current mood of the criminal justice system geared towards protecting those in power and their corrupt surrogates, there is little appetite for press freedom and the protection of journalists.

law_court_buildingEven the country’s Bar Association appears to be throwing its two pennies worth into what is fast becoming a crowded arena.

In its press statement published last week, it said:

“WHEREAS by virtue of its mandate, the Sierra Leone Bar Association remains committed to its promise to be the vanguard of the efforts for the promotion and defence of the Rule of Law, Good Governance, Social Justice and the Dignity of all persons in Sierra Leone.

“AND WHEREAS the Sierra Leone Bar Association is conscious of the obligation of journalists to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in the Constitution of Sierra Leone Act No. 6 of 1991 and to highlight the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people of Sierra Leone

“AND WHEREAS the attention of the Sierra Leone Bar Association has been drawn to the recent trend in the practice of journalism in Sierra Leone, in particular the Bar Association is cognizant of the following:

“a. Open warfare amongst Media Practitioners;

b. Vitriolic comments made by and against Media Practitioners;

c. Unprintable words published against other journalists, politicians and members of the public;

d. Indecorous conduct in the practice of journalism:

“The Bar Association sadly notes that some of the conduct of the members of the media profession hinge on breaches of professional and ethical standards of media practice and fall foul of existing laws of general application in Sierra Leone and derogate from international standards of journalism.

“The Bar Association also notes the on-going trials of journalist for libel contrary to provisions in the Public Order Act No. 46 of 1965:

The Bar Association hereby resolves as follows:-

“1. That the Independent Media Commission follows the Independent Media Commission Act 2000 as amended and the Independent Media Commission Code of Practice to the latter, particularly in respect of the manner in which Media Practitioners carry out their trade, so as to ensure that they conduct their trade in a more professional, ethical and imitable manner.

“2. That the Independent Media Commission and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists be implored to run training courses for Journalists, in a bid to ensure that their conduct accords with generally acceptable standards of media ethics.

“3. That Bar Association condemns in unequivocal terms all illegal personal attacks by Media Practitioners of all persons in Sierra Leone and more especially so, family members of persons in position of authority.

cartoon - leave the police alone - the jamaican observer“4. That the Judiciary and the Sierra Leone Police ensure that all persons either under investigations or facing criminal trials in Sierra Leone are accorded their due process rights and be assured of their fair hearing rights

“5. Condemnation of any action likely to give the impression that anarchy, impunity and disrespect for the rule of law are alive and well in Sierra Leone.”

That press statement attracted the ire of the country’s media profession body – the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists. In a frosty reply published on the 20th November, it says:

“The attention of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has been drawn to the Press Release issued by the Bar Association dated 8th November 2013.

“SLAJ views the press release as done in very bad taste, especially so when the release categorically blankets the whole media in Sierra Leone as bad, without any conscious effort to distinguish those who have been practicing professionally and upholding the ethics of the profession.

“It is particularly disheartening that the Bar Association Press Release displayed clear bias by categorically outlining what they believe are the bad practice of media practitioners, while in the same vein the release failed to strike a balance by equally stating clearly the basic human rights violations suffered in the hands of the Police and Judiciary by journalists.

“The Bar Association has lost its direction. They have chosen to make politically supportive statements instead of standing up for the rights of the people which is their core function.” says Kelvin Lewis SLAJ President.

“SLAJ believes the Bar Association should concern itself more with dealing with unethical practices among some lawyers rather than making blanket criticisms of the media. Practices like:-

“(a) Senior Lawyers exchanging physical blows while Court is in session;
(b) Lawyers’ involvement in fraudulent land deals;
(C) Members of the public complaining that lawyers have taken their monies and not rendered services, and others.

“SLAJ therefore calls on the Sierra Leone Bar Association to be objective in its assessment of national issues, particularly where they have to do with violations of citizens’ human rights.”

So, will the Standard Times Newspaper survive this financial onslaught?

Will journalism in Sierra Leone remain the same, following this ominous outcome of the Finda Koroma versus Standard Times court saga?

All eyes are now on the outcome of the seditious libel court case, involving two senior editors of the independent Newspaper. Will president Koroma show humility and strength of courage, and do what is right?