Journalists can never be silenced in Sierra Leone 

Abdulai Mansaray: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 January 2019:

There has been a spate of reported attacks on journalists recently in Sierra Leone, with the latest taking place against AYV reporters in Makeni two days ago. The attack took place when the CID officers visited the former President Ernest Bai Koroma for an interview, regarding statements made by his APC party executive about the Commission of Enquiry.

This is not only a new low, but a new departure point. Threats and attacks on journalists are nothing new with the trade. Those who can remember would recall how the press was successfully muzzled under previous regimes in Sierra Leone, prominently under the rule of the late Siaka Stevens (Pa Sheki).

This kind of atmosphere was aided and abetted by the lack of an opposition party, during the one-party regime of the APC.

In the absence of an opposition party, it became incumbent on the press to fill the void as the opposition by default. (Photo: Female AYV journalist alleged to have been attacked by APC supporters).

It was therefore not uncommon to see fearless journalists like Pius Foray being frog marched as a regular guest at the CID and Pademba Road Prisons.

There was a time, you could be forgiven for assuming that Pademba Road Prisons was his second home and that he had a key to the entrance.

Politicians know full well that whoever controls the media, controls the mind. But In spite of all the intimidation, threats, beatings and imprisonment at the hands of Pa Sheki’s APC One Party, Pius remained true, steadfast and loyal to the cause and his beliefs.

This is not an attempt to glorify Pius Foray, but he was among a few, the beacon of journalism in the country. In those days, it was evident that the APC party was allergic to freedom of speech and expression.

But things have changed since the inception of our embryonic democracy. As a nation, our collective psyche has been sanitised by the brutal war; the causes of which were fermented by the absence of the rule of law under the Sheki and Momoh governments.

There are no surprises for guessing that the rule of law and especially the need for a free press and freedom of speech, were identified as part of the building blocks of our new sense of democracy.

The notion was that if our democracy was to blossom and be glorified for the benefit of all, then press freedom and freedom of speech was as important as oxygen to a diver. A new-found sense of freedom was unearthed.

But with the new-found freedom of speech and the press, many will question whether the press had actually figured out what to do with it. There is no doubt the terrain of Sierra Leone’s press is littered with yellow journalism. It is not uncommon for newspapers to have soft spots or sympathy for particular political parties. Some have not only been sympathisers but have become overtly echo chambers.

This is not to offer an excuse, but with the kind of economic climate on the ground, it is easy to see how easily our press can be compromised, bought and sold at the drop of a hat.

When this becomes the modus operandi, it is easy to see how easily the public can lose confidence and trust in our media. With such loss as a backdrop, truth usually becomes the first casualty.

It is therefore understandable that rather than be the voice of the people, the checks and balances for the government, most of our press body have conveniently carved out a niche for themselves to keep the milk flowing. And that in itself is a gross betrayal of trust. I heard you say, “look who’s talking” right?

But newspapers depend on sales to survive, and the biggest life blood of our press is payments from advertising.  But who is the biggest advertiser in the country?  The government of the day is the BIGGEST ADVERTISER.

It goes without saying then, that most newspapers or media houses would find themselves at the mercy of the government of the day, just to survive. Considering that, ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’, it stands to reason that most newspapers will unfortunately toe the line.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but that is the sad case of reality. Given such a situation, it is inevitable that some parts of the press will become ‘jelibas’ for governments.

With truth as the first casualty in those circumstances, the potential is for news outlets to cry more than the bereaved, in their bid to position themselves for the benefits of their paymasters. And that is when the credibility, respect and the desire to tell the truth goes out of the window.

It then becomes a matter of dangerous liaison between the press and the public. Trust dies and truth becomes a rare commodity, which sometimes leaves the public frustrated and let down by the very fourth estate that was supposed to cover their backs.

A case in point was the reaction that followed Tam Mbayoh, when he decided that he was no longer going to continue enjoying his cult figure status with the masses. He switched his allegiance to the then APC ruling party – and the rest is history.

Good journalism should be a reflection of a nation talking to itself. Unfortunately for many of our ‘journalists’, writing has given some people the illusion of control. This makes some of us feel that we have the power to set the agenda. This could be true in many cases.

Like religion, journalism could be the opium of the masses. But we must also take cognizance of the fact that what we print and what we don’t print matters a lot. The tendency to resort to gutter journalism is tempting, and this is to a point that so many people regard some of the publications as “organised gossip”.

And that is why such an opportunity should be treated and defended with all the responsibility it deserves. Journalist should be seen as watchdogs and not lapdogs.  It should not be used as a tool to bully others or gain an unfair advantage over others.

I know, it’s easier said than done. If journalists want the respect they deserve, then it must be earned. Thanks to God, I am not a journalist.

But even under those circumstances, it does not give any justification for people to attack media personnel. It is obvious that not everyone would be pleased with what is written or broadcast by the media. No one is pretending that the media is saintly when it comes to disseminating news.

Unfortunately, there are some parts of the press that have resorted to gutter journalism, much to the angst of some parts of the public.

And when such situations occur, the public would cease to see them as the Fourth Estate, but rather as the megaphone of vested interests. Unfortunately, some people will begin to see them as enemies of the people, which in reality is false.

It is no secret that people in authority have since been resorting to turn the public against the media. This is especially so because of their failure to curb or influence the press. Donald Trump has been the chief architect of this tactic, simply because he couldn’t get his way with them.

Since Donald Trump called the media in America the “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE”, there has been a rise in the number of attacks directed at media personnel worldwide.  It will be erroneous to conclude that what is happening in our country is a direct result of Trump’s actions. But do we have the Donald Trumps in our midst?  We cannot allow the same to happen in our country.

Just like the journalist, our politicians also have the responsibility to keep our media sacred. The relationship between the media and politicians, and in effect governments, has always been and will always be a hate-love relationship. Both need each other.

Governments need the media to convey their message and the journalists need the fodder to keep their papers alive. But in doing so, mutual respect, integrity, trust, fairness and honesty should be the watch words.

It is one thing to use supporters and loyalists as human shields, but it is an entirely different kettle of fish to allow or encourage them as attack dogs against this vital life blood of our democracy.

We cannot have a situation where people can violently and physically attack journalists, because “Impunity is poisonous – it leads to self-censorship for fear of reprisal, depriving society of even more sources of significant information.” (UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova).

The death of Khashoggi in Turkey is an open secret that will send chills through the spine. “Unless potential perpetrators know that their attacks will have legal consequences, these instances of violence against journalists will persist. Sadly, the victims will not only be the journalists themselves but also societies as a whole that end up being deprived of critical information.”

If our democracy and civil society should exist as we know it, the press will inextricably be tied to the umbilical cords of the people. Any attempt to sever that may lead a return to the dark ages.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter (M. L. King). Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.

1 Comment

  1. Journalists should be protected to tell us what is going on in the country and how the government is doing – good or bad.

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