Many great thinkers have held the belief that “a free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a great society”. It is against this background that a recent blog by the British High Commissioner, Ian Hughes’ blog (19/06/12) on the issue of press freedom in Sierra Leone must be hailed as a breath of fresh air; especially coming from someone looking from inside out. Sierra Leone enjoys an enviable status as one of the few African countries with the best press freedom to date. In years gone by, this was an unthinkable state of affairs. It is therefore not surprising that the country is now well saturated with media outlets. Every major town or city has its own radio station, and with that comes talk shows, phone-in programmes, websites, and blogospheres, local and national newspapers. This can only be good for democracy; for a free media should be the sauce with which democracy should be eaten. The High Commissioner rightly stated that “as the electorate mulls over its options, the role of the media comes to the fore”. This is a fact that cannot be over emphasised.
Some people may want to see it as a veiled attack on the state of the media in the country. But rather than bury our heads in the sand, it should be seen as a genuine reminder of the roles and responsibilities of the media in a democratic society. It should be seen as an attempt to buttress the importance of the media in our fledgling democracy; which had hitherto been hampered by internecine periods of interregna. In comparing the evolving relationship between governments, politicians, political parties and the media in UK with that of the Sierra Leone situation, it is easy to see how such relationships can be open to abuse, and can be adulterated if not properly regulated.
It is unquestionable that “voters depend on the media to describe and interpret what politicians and political parties stand for; and by so doing reflect the mood, views, wishes and aspirations of the voters in the same vein. By implication, the media should not only serve as the umbilical cord between the voters and the politicians, but also as the barometer of public opinion and thermometer of society. It is this relationship that makes the media vital, without which “effective democracy becomes impossible”.
It is an open secret that the media in Sierra Leone today is enjoying an unprecedented freedom of expression but such freedom, like anything else, must be tempered with a high dose of responsibilities. Unfortunately, such responsibilities have been adulterated by parts of the media which have become mouthpieces and literary griots for their political –party paymasters. To all intents and purposes, journalists should care about the effects of what they write; for a free press should not be guided by the writer’s freedom to write but by the citizen’s right to know
It is unquestionable that as the November election approaches, the voters are increasingly becoming politically constipated. As the race for political supremacy gets into overdrive, the notion that “a free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad” (Albert Camus) becomes glaringly but painfully realistic. Just when you thought that the country was clearly recovering from a decade of brutal savagery, tribalism has been allowed to rear its ugly head again. With memories still fresh in our minds, we can all recall how unscrupulous people tried to sow the seeds of tribalism into the rebel war; making it a north -south divide issue. Thankfully, it was never allowed to fester into the psyche of the people; as the indiscriminate manner of the atrocities put paid to that conspiracy. The decapitation, rape, looting or beheading did not depend on one’s tribal affiliation. It was brutal, inhuman, barbarous and indiscriminate.
It is therefore unfortunate that after serving the country for a near full term, the president’s ethnic background has recently become a topic for political discourse. The president of SLAJ recently highlighted this new cankerworm, that “certain media practitioners are also in the habit of recklessly promoting negative incitements, with little regard to what it (they) might provoke. This is where democratic institutions like the National Electoral Commission (NEC), the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC), the Independent Media Commission (IMC) and most importantly SLAJ should hold such individuals accountable for their actions. The professional Code of Conduct must be held sacrosanct and these organisations should directly or indirectly ensure that they are adhered to, by all those who profess to be part of the fourth estate.
It is true that the “pen is mightier than the sword” but the right to free speech does not mean that I have the right to falsely shout “fire” in a jam-packed cinema hall. It is so disheartening to hear Sierra Leoneans complaining of the state of the press as a turn-off. Most Sierra Leoneans, especially those in the Diaspora depend heavily on online media outlets for their newsfeeds. Sadly, such outlets are fast becoming a collective reservoir of disappointments. It is really sad that at a time when the country is enjoying such a period of press freedom, some custodians of this freedom don’t seem to know what to do with it.
I do not profess to be a political analyst but the voters would appreciate it more if Maada Bio and the SLPP will concentrate on telling them what they will do if they win the election. They would like the party to highlight what the APC has not done or not done well. They will like the SLPP to take a political scalpel to the heart of the APC machine, perform a diagnostic test and convince the voters on how they can do a better job, if elected. More of their resources could be better spent on delivering their manifesto for political mastication. On the other hand, the APC party should be telling the electorate about its achievements while acknowledging that there is room for improvement. The party could do with highlighting its shortcomings and plan for the future.
I take my hat off to Unisa Conteh, for his article in Cocorioko Newspaper (21 June), whereby he gave a 38-point catalogue of the “developmental programs and achievements” under the Koroma government. It may sound griot -like but preferable to the kind of title tattle that we have been drip fed on. The ruling party or its supporters should be spending more time on telling the electorates what they have done well, what they intend to improve; while by the same token acknowledge the short comings. In the green corner, the SLPP should be highlighting such shortcomings of the government, tell us what and how they could do a better job, if elected. In my book, it is called a manifesto. This would not only ensure a more civil and engaging debate but also generate a political discourse on the things that matter most to the electorate. Among other things, the elections should be fought on issues and the manifesto.
The forthcoming elections should be fought on issues and not personalities. It should be about the high cost of living, unemployment, crime, education etc. The average man on the street wants to know how the children can get better education, sleep on a full stomach and access to medical care. They are not interested in the personality attacks, the ethnicity of the President or whether Maada Bio’s visit abroad was a success or failure. They want to put food on the table. Unfortunately, these so-called journalists have embarked on self aggrandisement and chest beating bravado for their political masters.
Reading an article in the Cocorioko Newspaper, urging one Ibrahim Coachie Mansaray to apologise for calling the Mendes “stupid” was a near novelty. While drawing on the examples from Rwanda and Liberia, the paper gave a gentle reminder of how politics and tribalism can be a lethal concoction. If anyone needed a reminder of what a lethal mix these can be, look no further than Libya. NATO members had just popped the champagne for “mission accomplished” in “saving the nation from the brutal regime of Gaddaffi “; but the ensuing tribal war that has just erupted has left little to desire. Mr. Mansaray is allegedly a new member of the APC and his” his behaviour reminds me of one of my favourite African Novels, “Things Fall Apart”. Enoch, the overzealous convert to Christianity did not only have the audacity to kill and eat the sacred python, but went on to unmask an egwugwu during the annual ceremony to honour the earth deity. Such misplaced enthusiasm could only be summarised as the acts of the “outsider who weeps more than the bereaved.”
The Cocorioko Newspaper should be applauded for preaching the sermon of intolerance for tribalism. Unfortunately, the same paper like many others, is guilty of fanning the flames of tribalism with headlines such as “One Mende One Temne” equals Two Losers (May 28, 2012), “SLPP Promotes Tribalism by Expelling Wusu Boie Kamara” May 26, 2012), “Dauda Timbo Bangura says Temnes follow only Leaders who move the country forward” (May 23, 2012), “President Koroma is a Mende and so what?” (May 20, 2012), “Ernest Koroma Is A True Sherbro, So What?”(May 23, 2012), “President Koroma is A Krio, So What?” (May 23, 2012). How can one profess to be non-tribal with headlines like “Themnes Endorse President Koroma for Second Term”?
These headlines may, to all intents and purposes be “well-meaning” to some, but it is the inherent danger of the connotations that such headlines may generate that we should be wary of. Experience tells us that headlines with such pyrotechnics can be easy on the eye but can linger for long on the psyche. Other papers like the New People, Torchlight, the Patriotic Vanguard and many more have allegedly been guilty of such unwitting and subtle nuances along the same lines. There can be nothing wrong if papers declare their support for different political parties; but the peace and stability of the country should not be sacrificed in exchange as pawns on the political chessboard. As the British Commissioner indicated, The Sun, one of the most widely read newsprints in the UK embarked on a breast-beating exercise, declaring that it won the election for the Conservatives in 1992. . Newspapers and even TV media are known to have soft spots for certain political parties the world over. Take CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, New York Times and many more have their allegiances to their political paymasters. You only have to look at the run-up to the Iraqi war and see how the world was hoodwinked into the now infamous “weapons of mass destruction” conspiracy. This is not new, but it is the brazen audacity and recklessness with which issues like tribalism are used, abused and misused that make it an alarming joke. We know that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Sierra Leone is striving to achieve democratic excellence and the test of democracy is the freedom to criticise. But if we are to achieve any sense of sanity in this vein, the media would require a sanitary overhaul of its practices. Censorship is not an option because it will only reflect the nation’s lack of confidence in itself and breed an authoritarian regime. However, if the press cannot regulate itself, the right of the people not to listen will become the only valid form of censorship. It is no surprise that many people are fast ignoring the kind of gutter journalism that is being dished out and peddled on a daily basis. As a people, “we have a natural right to make use of our pens as our tongues but at our peril, risk and hazard” (Voltaire). Freedom of the press can be guaranteed only to those who own it (A. Joseph).
Unfortunately, the state of journalism today seems to justify the great Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarist. Our country may be littered with a plethora of media vents, but this should not be used as a conspiracy to disguise the extent of our political indifference. If this trend is allowed to continue, we risk becoming one of the best informed societies that will die of ignorance. To reduce the political debate to personality attacks, tribal sentimentalities and an orgy of political aggrandisement is in itself an insult to the intelligence of the average man on the street
The citizen’s right to know should not be abused or mistaken for plebeian allegiance and the media should not be seen as an amphitheatre of vested interests for political gladiators. I am yet to see a publication of “An Idiot’s Guide on How to Win an Election”, but the people of Sierra Leone, and especially those in far flung regions of the world would be more interested to know the achievements of the ruling party than whether the President is a Mende, Loko, Madingo, Serbian, Jew or Kosovan.
I do not profess to be a journalist but somewhere and somehow, some people may be committing some serious crimes against journalism. There have been a lot of rumours about the conduct of journalist and reporters alike. It is an open secret that some journalists engage in a practice called “coasting” whereby they accept money from organisations to write favourable stories (Allison Cross, Activism+Politics, 2009). According to Allison, critical or investigative journalism is virtually non-existent. No wonder Sorious Samura had a tough time; for having the audacity to conduct the “Timbergate” piece. There is a popularly held notion that “usai den tie cow…..”
However, it is difficult to discount the economic situation as a contributory factor to the practice of coasting. Allegations abound that some editors deny their staff salaries, ask them to pay typists out of their pockets to get their stories typed on a computer, or pay their way to chase up leads on stories. There have been accusations that it is not uncommon for journalists to approach a prominent member of society and threaten to write an unfavourable story about the person (Allison, 2009). It is a universal phenomenon that reporters trade in pain, because it sells papers. If these allegations are true, it is conceivable, though not an excuse that if some journalists want to continue practising journalism, and feed their families at the same time, they have to take the money provided by their paymasters, who invite them to their boring press conferences (Allison, 2009). Is it true then, that “no one is born criminal, society makes them so.”?
In the midst of all this, there are still a few good ones out there, and together, we owe it to the public; for “the theory of a free press is not that truth will be presented completely or perfectly in any one instance, but that the truth will emerge from free discussions (Walter Lippmann). Presidents, Political parties, and politicians come and go, but journalism goes on forever and ever and ever. Sadly, it sounds like you are “either with us or against us”; so George Bush-esque. But keep the faith.
May the last man please switch off the computer before you leave the room?