By Amin Kef Sesay
Within a historical perspective, the numerous intractable governance and development challenges that the country and its people faced during the decades of 1970 up to the start of the war largely had to do with repression of not only the right to free speech and assembly but also casting aside of constitutional rule by the then APC Government that after killing democracy totally in 1977, declared the country a one-party State in 1978 where only one voice could be heard.
In which direction, reports maintain, that the Independent Media Commission (IMC) is moving dangerously towards drastically curtailing freedom of speech in the country after Parliament would have repealed the seditious and criminal libel Sections of the 1965 Public Order Act with what many journalists and jurists call draconian restrictions to Freedom of the Press including sole owners not setting up media businesses, unnecessary qualifications to publish, etc.
The Bill, reports say, has been published in the Government gazette for laying before Parliament for ratification.
It is regrettable that under whatever disguise, the New Direction Government which has vowed never to tamper with individual rights, should seek to make laws to tie the hands of citizens from freely investing in the media and heading those institutions as Editors, Publishers, etc.
Measures to combat disinformation or rogue journalists from bastardizing the ethics of the profession must never prevent journalists and media actors from carrying out their work or lead to content being unduly censored.
What this would depict is that Press Freedom in Sierra Leone is more fragile now than at any time since the end of the war.
Journalists seemingly increasingly face obstruction, hostility and violence as they investigate and report on behalf of the public.
Urgent actions backed by a determined show of political will by the Government must be shown to improve the dire conditions for media freedom and to provide reliable protections for journalists in law and practice.
Government using its imperative to control the State as a pretext to introduce disproportionate restrictions to Press Freedom is a counterproductive approach that must stop. Particularly in times of crisis, we need to protect our precious liberties and rights.
Legal protections, according to reports, will be weakened and denied with the wholesale passage of the new IMC Bill as drafted. Many surmise that this would result in the space for the Press to hold Government authorities and the powerful to account severely eroded.
As such, we can only appeal to the conscience of liberal journalists-politicians like Hon. IB Kargbo, Hon. Hassan Priest, Hon. Chericoco and others who are known to stand stoutly for individual liberties, freedoms, rights and privileges to lead the fight in Parliament to have obnoxious sections of that IMC Bill that seeks to muzzle Press Freedom expunged before its passage.
We ask Government to urgently take all measures necessary to create a favourable environment for a free and independent media and to end the many acts of violence, harassment and intimidation reported by journalists against them in the performance of their work as the people’s ears, eyes and mouths.