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.
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).