By Amin Kef Sesay
The Minister of information and Communications, Mohamed Rado Swaray, would want journalists and media stakeholders to believe that IMC and the Ministry held wide ranging consultations with journalists and media stakeholders before the draft IMC Bill which has sparked a lot of controversy and revulsion amongst journalists, Editors and media owners before the draft was crafted by the Law Officers Department.
The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) President Ahmed Sahid Nasralla flatly and openly denied that such discussions were ever held with the IMC on the Bill; rather, he said SLAJ was consulted on Repeal of Part 5 of the 1965 Public Order Act that criminalizes libel.
What came out of the discussion on Radio Democracy’s Tuesday morning program was that only two SLAJ IMC members sitting on the IMC Board were part of the consultations and apparently never gave any feedback to SLAJ as to what and what was contained in the draft IMC Bill for the Association to scrutinize and give their feedback as solicited from the membership that would have validated the draft document.
In the main, whilst Salone Times Editor, Thomas Dixon, gave glowing acknowledgement to the Head of State’s sincere commitment to provide a wide open legal and empowering operational space for journalists to ply their trade responsibly, accountably but without hindrance, there seems to be a hidden conspiracy by certain people to muzzle the Press as contained in Sections of the draft IMC Bill that Dixon succinctly pointed to as obnoxious, undemocratic, offensive and enslaving of the media’s freedom to operate as a business and to exercise its unfettered freedom of expression within the bounds of the law.
In democracies and authoritarian States alike, leaders intending on consolidating power are finding new ways to repress independent journalism, a report released very recently by Freedom House finds.
Whilst we believe in the sincerity of President Bio to rule the country and its people democratically, what we fear is that those Sections of the draft IMC Bill that highlighted as a threat to democratic freedom of the Press smirks of a new form of media repression trying to take hold in what is supposed to be an open society where the media is free to operate like any other business and to hold itself and society accountable for actions.
For example, in China, the Chinese Communist Party has rapidly expanded its influence over media production and dissemination channels abroad. Beijing influences news coverage around the world by suppressing critical viewpoints and managing important content delivery systems.
Equally so, anti-democratic leaders in fragile democracies have attempted to tame the media by deploying economic, legal, and extralegal tools to silence critical journalists and bolster friendly outlets. A lack of trust in mainstream news sources, an onslaught of disinformation, and a shortage of sustainable business models all grind down the media sector, laying the groundwork for co-optation by ill-intentioned political actors.
What is disturbing generally is that, in some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen a concerted attempt to throttle the independence of the media.
While threats to global media freedom are concerning in their own right, their effect on the State of democracy is what makes them truly dangerous.
Most worrisome is whether journalists as citizens under the law can hope for the IMC to come to their aid after repeal of the libel law if their basic rights are violated.
Mind you dear readers, even the Press in the USA is under similar threat, although US legal protections for media freedom remain strong. We see President Trump’s continual vilification of the Press as seriously exacerbated an ongoing erosion of public confidence in mainstream outlets. Among other steps, the President has repeatedly threatened to strengthen libel laws, revoke the licenses of certain broadcasters and damage media owners’ other business interests.
On the other hand, we see the positive relationship between strengthening media freedoms and democratic progress in countries including Ethiopia, Malaysia, Ecuador and The Gambia.