Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 May 2021:
The President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and his executives have come under serious fire on social media, after receiving large consignment of cooking items, including 40 bags of rice, 50 gallons of cooking oil, 10 bags of onions, cartoons of Maggi as Ramadan gifts from President Julius Maada Bio.
According to State House, the donation was made in recognition by the president that “Ramadan is a month of sharing, adding that the donation was geared towards supporting Muslim journalists who are fasting in observance of the month of Ramadan”.
“His Excellency the President has been a great champion of media freedom and free speech. Therefore, as we observe the Ramadan, the President believes that we have a great opportunity to show that we care for Muslim journalists,” State House said.
State House media also said that “After receiving the items, President of SLAJ, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, expressed appreciation for the donation and stated that the media umbrella body has also enjoyed a great relationship with the President.
“As an Association, we will always support where things are done right and hold the government to account where it is necessary. We are grateful for this donation and we will ensure those who are fasting benefit from it,” the SLAJ President assured.
Since receiving the donation from the president, SLAJ executives are being heavily criticised and accused of risking compromising the integrity and independence of SLAJ by accepting the gifts. (Photo above: One of the posts shared on social media accusing the journalists of accepting gift from “a dictator”).
This is what the SLAJ president – Ahmed Sahid Nasralla said today in a press statement in response to those criticisms:
“Hello fellow Sierra Leoneans. Thank you all for your comments on this issue of a donation to SLAJ as posted by Chernor Bah. Take away the insults and derogatory snipes, your comments are all valid- FOR or AGAINST.
I read anger, frustration, disappointment in the majority of the comments here, and some of you have already passed judgment but as SLAJ President I take them all in good faith, and I am sure they emanated from the height of esteem you have held our Association.
I bear no ill will to any of you; as a matter of fact, this is what we want and what we have been fighting for in our 50 years of existence as an Association: that is your RIGHT to have your say on national issues even if our leaders (and people like us in positions of trust) do not agree with them. It is that right we fought hard to uphold and protect, and even seeking to expand, through the repeal of the Criminal and Seditious Libel Law; and now with the Cybercrime Bill 2020.
So it is well within your right to hold us to account, and I am humbly presenting my own side because I have the obligation to give an explanation for our action as an Executive to ACCEPT the donation from His Excellency our President Julius Maada Bio.
On Friday, 7th May, 2021, I got a call from the Press Secretary at State House informing me about a donation of food items he wanted to present to SLAJ the following day, on behalf of His Excellency, ‘for members of SLAJ who are observing the month of Ramadan’. I said OK, let me inform my Executive and revert. I did, and we agreed with the proposed date, time, and venue for the presentation- Saturday 8th May, 2021 at SLAJ Headquarters, 56 Campbell Street, Freetown. When I got back to the Press Secretary to confirm the donation, I insisted that we should invite the media to cover the presentation and he accepted.
During the presentation, as you may have read from the news story from State House (or the Tv news) on the donation, the Press Secretary said he was presenting the food items on behalf of President Bio to SLAJ ‘for distribution to your members who are fasting’.
Accepting the gifts on behalf of SLAJ and the members concerned, I thanked the President for the gesture and I made it clear to the Press Secretary and his team that our acceptance should not in any way indicate that we would stop holding the President and his Government to account.
In our culture and tradition, we always find ourselves in situations that make it very difficult, if not impossible, to reject gifts/donations; and I personally don’t think it is a sign of respect to refuse a gift from our President. In fact, I considered it an honour for the thought alone, and the spirit of Ramadan encourages such kinds of exchanges as long as strings are not attached.
Now, there are two things about gifts or donations given to organisations like SLAJ. One is how we receive it and, two is what we do with it after receiving it. We are aware that accepting gifts goes a long way to undermine our principles of independence, credibility, and objectivity, and there is also the issue of conflict of interest. All of these actually do need to happen, they only need to be perceived, and that is exactly what has happened in this particular instance.
So how did we receive the donation? The fact that we insisted on media coverage of the donation is a clear show of transparency and accountability to the public. The next step was to account to our membership. So we immediately put out a notice to the general membership that we have received so and so from so and so and it is for so and so. The donation was not done in secret.
What did we do with the donation after receiving it? That is the stage we are in now. The donation was meant for our Muslim members who are fasting. On May 5th, as part of our activities marking World Press Freedom Day 2021, SLAJ supported the hosting of Iftar during which we provided food and drinks and Ramadan lectures to non-members of the Association.
Individual members of SLAJ have also been giving donations here and there during this Ramadan. Therefore, accepting a donation of food items from the Presidency does not imply that we are starving or we are cheap.
As I write this response, the SLAJ National Executive has reached a decision to hand over the foodstuffs to the Iftar Committee in SLAJ to distribute to our Muslim members because it is meant for them.
Having said that, let me also kindly make several things clear:
1.SLAJ is an Association of professional journalists, not an Association of people who own media houses in the country. So SLAJ does not determine the editorial policies of the more than 200 registered media houses in the country. Whether the association accepts gifts or not, there will always be media houses promoting the programs of the government of the day and there will be others constantly opposing. The FACT is, like every other sector of society, the media is also sharply divided along political lines.
2.This is not the first time SLAJ has received gifts/donations from a sitting government. We can go back decades and decades to give instances. And beyond governments, SLAJ solicits support from time to time from MDAs, mobile phone companies, Banks, Mercury International, Embassies and High Commissions, CSOs, NGOs, even the Sierra Leone Police with who we constantly have clashes, and many more to finance our programs and in many instances, the support is provided. And we do not sign any MOUs with these organisations/institutions that say that in return for their support we should not hold them to account.
Nevertheless, let me hasten to point that I am not making reference to activities of past administrations of SLAJ or our culture of soliciting support from those we should be holding to account to justify our current action, but this is just the REALITY on the ground. Granted it’s an ETHICAL DILEMMA that we have been grappling with, and those of us with political lenses, including you the members of the public, are not helping the situation.
Since I was elected President of SLAJ, my vision has been HOW DO WE MAKE SLAJ SELF-RELIANT and hence INDEPENDENT? God knows we are trying, but help is needed. If Mercury International and Africell decide to withdraw their support to the media in the form of advertising, more than half of the media houses will DIE! And you can imagine how many of our colleagues will be unemployed.
So let me end by borrowing a quote from the statement of DAIRE COURTNEY, the Second Secretary of the Embassy of Ireland in Sierra Leone, delivered during our program marking this year’s World Press Freedom Day:
“It is significant that journalists in Sierra Leone have maintained the ability to hold those in power to account and also be able to speak to them as colleagues and to work with them to really make progress. I think that has been very significant. I see you even continue to do that now on other issues.”
That has exactly been our approach to make things happen for the media. This is how we achieved the historic repeal of the law that once criminalized free speech. This how we got the government to be giving annual subvention to SLAJ, no matter how small. This is how we got the government to make a commitment that SLAJ will have its own land and headquarters. This is how we got the government to make a commitment to support community radio stations to ensure information filters down to our people in remote rural areas. This is how we are making progress with the cybercrimes bill by accommodating most of our concerns in the area of protection of free speech, free media, and people’s privacy rights.
To us the President is not an ENEMY, neither is the Government. We strongly believe that as the Fourth Estate, we are a key partner in development; and the Government of Sierra Leone has an obligation to support the media to be professional and independent to efficiently play its role in our democracy- providing accurate information to the public, exposing corruption, holding the government, its agencies and public officials to account, and above all setting the agenda and providing the platform for healthy democratic discourse.
If you care for the media and respect the role we play in society you should be genuine with your criticism and help us to grow.
Thank you once more for your contribution to this important conversation. Be rest assured that we have not in any way been compromised, we will never be compromised, and we will continue to perform our selfless duties to the best of our abilities.
I humbly remain, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, President, SLAJ” (END).
Elections in Sierra Leone are just two years away, and the ruling SLPP party campaigning has started. The president will no doubt be looking for assistance from wherever he can find it to stay in office.