Progress towards press freedom in Sierra Leone but there are emerging threats

Ahmed Sahid Nasralla: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 5 May 2022:

On 3rd May 2022, SLAJ joined the whole world to observe World Press Freedom Day 2022. And this is the official statement of SLAJ marking the day.

PRESS FREEDOM STATUS

Since the historic repeal of the Criminal and Seditious Libel Law in 2020, Sierra Leone has made commendable progress in the area of freedom of the press.  No journalist has been put in jail in relation to the practice of journalism.

No media house has been closed down for what they print or broadcast, except Justice FM which was days ago banned by the IMC for 10 hours for alleged ‘un-radio-like language’ and ‘threatening remarks…’.

The incidents of arrest and detention of journalists by the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) on orders from above or on orders from influential people have reduced considerably since 2020.

In the World Press Freedom Index 2022, Sierra Leone moved 29 places higher from 75h position to 46th out of 180 countries due largely to the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law, the passing of the IMC Act 2020 as one big step towards addressing minimum conditions of service of journalists and other media workers, and media pluralism in the country.

And for the first time in the 22 years’ history of the Independent Media Commission (IMC -the statutory body that regulates the media and which was established to support the media’s move toward self-regulation), His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio approved all 7 persons nominated by SLAJ, including the Chairman, to serve in the new IMC Board of 12 professional members.

SLAJ is working with the Security Sector and trying to realise the MoU we signed last November, which is of foundational importance to realising press freedom.

Moreover, the Government of Sierra Leone has announced an increment in its annual subvention to the media from Le250 million to Le500 million, although it is yet to disburse for the year 2021 and 2022.

Just last month, the Government in partnership with SLAJ and the BBC Media Action, held the first national media viability and investment conference with the aim of positioning the media in Sierra Leone for investment opportunities.

THREATS TO FREE MEDIA AND FREE SPEECH

However, while it is good on a day like this to highlight the progress we have made in the area of press freedom, it is equally necessary to red-flag the emerging threats which have the potential to reverse all the gains we have made since the repeal.

A number of incidents have been recorded by both SLAJ and the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG) from 2021 to present which is a cause of concern for us.

Harassment, intimidation and detention of journalists have started happening all over again, including the digital space, and especially from the Sierra Leone Police.

At the close of 2021, a popular Sierra Leone rapper unleashed a scathing video against the personality of the Station Manager of Radio Democracy 98.1FM, simply because the station reported the issuing of a bench warrant for him in a court matter.

A journalist working for the Government of Sierra Leone, Abdul Fonti Kabia, was widely reported dead on social media in an attempt to intimidate him.

The SLP assaulted and detained AYV Media photo journalist, Ransford Wright, when he attempted to cross-check certain information with the Police.

President of the Sierra Leone Reporters Union and Head of Digital Media at the AYV Media, Amadu Lamrana Bah, suffered humiliation and almost missed his flight to the AFCON 2021 in Cameroon after flight officials at the Freetown International Airport attempted to drop him allegedly on orders from above for a critical sports update on his Facebook page.

The SLP sent two officers to Bo city, Southern Sierra Leone, to arrest Journalist Solomon Joe of KISS 104 FM for a broadcast concerning a transaction between two businessmen. A statement was obtained from him in Bo but he was transported to Freetown and spent one night in police custody.

Worse, an apparent assassination attempt on journalist, Gibril Gottor and his family in Kambia town, Northern Sierra Leone, has left the investigative journalist in fear for his life.

Furthermore, a free press goes beyond arrest and detention of journalists but to the political economy of the media; for example, the unfair distribution of Government advertisement and non-payment for such.

But we are not just concerned about threats to free expression for journalists, SLAJ is also worried about the arrest of other citizens, including dissenting teachers and mentally challenged people for freely expressing themselves, as well as the suppression of peaceful protests and certain popular cultural activities.

SLAJ is concerned that the SLP now seems to be using the vague offence of incitement as an excuse to clamp down on free speech and we are worried that the SLP is overreacting to dissenting views expressed by people.

When in 2021, one year after the repeal, and on the occasion of our Golden Jubilee celebration, we recognized His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio as Champion of Free Speech, we did so for good reason and we reminded him that the title carried immense responsibilities. Freedom of the press is freedom of expression for all citizens, not just journalists.

President Bio must ensure the fundamental rights of everyone, including those opposed to his government, are respected and protected. As His Excellency prepares to deliver his address at the State Opening of the 6th Parliament, we look forward to hear his strong commitment to provide greater protection of freedom of expression for not only the media and journalists but also the general public.

FREEDOM WALK

SLAJ, with support from the European Union Sierra Leone, will mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day with a PRESS FREEDOM WALK (WPD) 2022 under the theme: ‘Protect,  Promote & Expand the Space’ to reflect upon the historic repeal of the criminal libel law in 2020, a milestone which set a positive dynamic and an enabling framework for the protection and promotion of freedom of opinion and expression, including press freedom, and the civic space in Sierra Leone.

The freedom walk platform will further be an opportunity to encourage the Government of Sierra Leone, all Political parties, the Parliament of Sierra Leone, and the Security Sector (especially the Sierra Leone Police and the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces) to strengthen their commitment to respecting and protecting free speech and free media in the country for everybody and at all times.

The Freedom Walk is not an end in itself but the beginning of a long march to free press and free expression in Sierra Leone, the attainment of which will be SLAJ’s main priority in the coming years as we head to the city of Makeni in June 2022 to elect a new executive and renew my mandate as President.

We, therefore, look forward to work with the European Union, the British High Commission, the United States Embassy, the Irish Embassy, and other national and international organisations and experts such as our partners at Bournemouth University in the UK, the IMC, the Right to Access Information Commission, the MRCG, the BBC Media Action, the Faculty of Mass Communications, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, the Mass Communications Department at UNIMAK, and the Government of Sierra Leone.

CALL FOR RESPONSIBLE PRACTICE

Meanwhile, SLAJ has received many complaints of alleged reckless practice by certain media houses across the country.

Let me remind colleagues, and all media houses, that media freedom is important to be used responsibly. Journalism is a privilege, a service to the society, not to be wielded irresponsibly, never to be misused. This too is a priority for SLAJ, and we will continue to initiate more training programs to continue to build the capacity of our practitioners.

SLAJ is therefore calling on all journalists and media houses to ensure professional and ethical practice at all times and to put public good ahead of all other interests or considerations.

About the author

Ahmed Sahid Nasralla is the National President of Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ).

 

3 Comments

  1. In walking on a tight rope, balancing between a government that is quick to use intimidating tactics in the form of CID invites for saying the negative things against them or in this case withholding funding for the SLAJ body, the opening statements of this article which portrays a utopia press nation, where press freedom and free speech is highly encourage by the government, seems to have been a figment of imagination by the highly politically connected SLAJ president. Yes, on paper since 2020, no journalist have been put in jail for considerable amount of time for practicing journalism. However, can the SLAJ president keep count of the number of citizens, journalist or ordinary citizens, who have been frog match to the Central Investigation Division (CID) for simply expressing their opinion regarding certain governmental policies?

    As noted by the SLAJ president himself, Freedom of speech is guarantee in our constitution exclusively to all citizens, devoid of any political inclination. That means, citizens of all political shades and backgrounds should be able to speak up, ask questions, and inform others about any negative development or policies that the government is embarking on , without risking being invited or drag to the CID for a grueling, intimidating, and prettifying questioning session, that sometimes last for over 72hrs behind CID detention rooms before being release with absolutely no charges.

    It’s a complete joke and a play on citizens intelligent for anyone to suggest that, freedom of speech or press freedom has improve under this regime; when the fact remains our citizens have never been scared to death in criticize or speak up against any sitting government compare to this current regime one. Only God knows the number of innocent citizens who have been dragged to CID or PAOPA hit squads secretly hunting them down for simply expressing their views towards certain government policies. They couldn’t even spear a mentally challenge citizen, Blacker, who numerously has been violently attack and brutalize by PAOPA thugs, with the government now officially charging him to court for purported ‘insulting of the so called dear leader’. Our nation is doom!

  2. The article is a true reflection of the rather murky and love/hate relationship between the press and the public, particularly public figures. This holds true all over the world, even in the well known democracies where journalists are not openly arrested and jailed, but practice their craft with some caution, especially where issues of national security are concerned. Journalists who contravene this hidden code of self-censorship are usually dealt with in a forceful clandestine manner which could threaten their career.

    The Bio government is not subtle about the way it treats journalists which reveals their utter hypocrisy. And their actions have nothing to do with national security but their ego. Bio tells the citizenry and international community one thing and does the other at complete odds with his pronouncements. To Bio and his gang, journalists are an incurable disease whose pain requires special opium to ease it. Former Chief Minister, Francis, knows all about it; he had a journalist locked up just for wanting to ask him about a mysterious $1.5 million that appeared in his account.

    Whatever Bio does in the open, such as abolishing libel laws, has an undercurrent designed to sweep away whoever interprets his actions literally.But he is fighting a lost battle; he may muzzle the press in Freetown, it’s quite another thing for him to do so outside of it. Social media are forever ready to blast him to kingdom come. How I wish he could try to lock up personnel of The Sierra Leone Telegraph, the medium based in England, which allows real free speech.

  3. Kudos to Mr Nasralla for a unbiased report on the state of freedom in SL with regards to Freedom of Expression.
    Rulers should be thick-skinned

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