By Amin Kef Sesay
The two-day National Media Viability and Investment Conference which commenced Thursday, 21st April 2022, at the Bintumani International Conference Center in Freetown attracted media stakeholders, MDAs, CSOs and international partners. It was chaired by Dr. Issac Massaquoi.
In his keynote address, His Excellency, President Dr. Julius Maada Bio, stated that as a nation we have shown great resilience even in the long shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and the very difficult and challenging global economic crisis.
He maintained that wherever two or more journalists are gathered, there is always the possibility of being misquoted adding how some newspaper headlines have even misquoted his silence.
“But even at the risk of being misquoted in tomorrow’s headlines by some of our friends, I wish to speak from the heart today about the gains we have made as a nation in the last four years and why those gains matter for the future of this great nation of ours,” the President added.
He informed that the Independent Media Commission reports that we have over 500 registered media entities in the country, including newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and Direct to Home services. The President pointed out that we have one of the most liberalized, diversified, and decentralized media and communications sectors in the sub-region and in Africa.
He highlighted how he made a manifesto pledge to the nation in 2018 to repeal the criminal libel law, a law which he claimed had criminalized free speech, suppressed journalism, wrecked many lives, stunted democratic governance, and stifled the promotion and protection of the guaranteed rights of citizens to speak freely about governance.
President Bio told the audience that his commitment to remove that obnoxious law was not just about doing something; it was about doing what democracy requires. “For the first time in the history of our great nation, no journalist is in prison for the practice of journalism,” he intimated adding that no journalist is in fear of death or imprisonment for the practice of journalism.
He said his Government has increased the right to access information, access to redress and due process and access to justice.
According to him, for the first time in the history of this nation also, his Government has actively worked with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists to enhance professionalism among media practitioners, promote gender inclusion and participation, and provide safeguards for the safe practice of journalism.
He said through the revised Independent Media Commission Act, media practitioners are guaranteed a safe space for redress and fair hearings on perceived professional lapses.
“For the first time ever, media professionals are listening to media professionals and working with them to make the media industry ecosystem even better,” he maintained.
He argued that if the Centre for Disease Control assesses the country as a site of low threat for COVID-19, it is partly because the media has worked its heart out in risk communications and social mobilization just as they did during Ebola.
The President again stated that if we are assessed by the United Nations and the Millennium Challenge Corporation as a less fragile and more resilient nation and open society, it is partly because of a thriving media industry that supports good governance, protects and promotes democratic freedoms, and speaks freely to how we can all work together to make this country better in spite of the challenges.
He said ironically, some media practitioners misinform and dis-inform the public freely in one of the most liberalized media ecosystems in Africa where they do not fear persecution, imprisonment, or death.
The President divulged that his Government has guaranteed a minimum wage for journalists and access to social security benefits adding how
for the first time in the history of this nation, we have signed up to the principles of the International Coalition for Media Freedom.
He said in less than two weeks, the world will mark International Press Freedom Day to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and because of the nation’s commitment to those principles, his Minister of Information and Communications has been invited to this year’s UNESCO International Press Freedom Day in Uruguay to share with the world the country’s media transformation initiatives.
President Bio told the gathering that over the last four years, they, as Government, have promoted, protected, and supported the media because they believe it is essential for the growth and buoyancy of the country’s democracy.
He said there are partisans deliberately and increasingly spreading misinformation and disinformation in order to widen social and political tensions.
“There is anecdotal evidence of their association with groups or persons who spread untruths even about what is good for this country,” he said and lamented that unfortunately, even a few mainstream media practitioners embrace the worst of these unethical practices.
The President argues that such acts subvert the integrity of our democracy, civic polity, electoral practices, and our credibility and resilience as a nation adding how he personally believes that professional journalism is the best and the only antidote to the increasing spread of malicious information on social media.
“We need a credible and independent media to keep the government honest and accountable, devoid of partisan rhetoric,” he maintained.
He extended thanks to SLAJ for partnering with his Government to host such an important conference.
He said the financial and technical support of the FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office], BBC Media Action’s PRIMED project has been invaluable and thanked them.
The President talked about how previous speakers have bemoaned poor media infrastructure and poor investments in the media in general saying even more challenging is that the country’s resource- constrained environment has been complicated by global economic downturns due to recent events in Europe and the COVID pandemic.
“Fewer investment Dollars and Pounds or Euros are chasing up even fewer investment opportunities, especially in Africa,” he said adding that all over Africa, and especially in Sierra Leone, operational costs are high and revenues are much reduced. He said the media industry as a whole is not just about publishing and selling a few newspapers at road intersections but like food, water, and energy, citizens also want and are willing to pay for information, education, advertising, and entertainment.
President Bio informed that with Sierra Leone as a sub-regional hub for content creation and distribution, there is new money to be made.
“Investors simply need to develop a clear understanding of existing and emerging media channels and how they can develop and leverage them,” he maintained.
He said over the last four years, his Government has streamlined processes for registering and establishing businesses. “We assure potential investors of flexible and attractive investment incentives and excellent after-care,” he pointed out adding that their commitment is not only to facilitate investments but to also retain and support businesses to grow.
He said there is a raw talent pool available for investors to work with and develop.
The President stated that, however, media practitioners also need to re-imagine and adapt their business models in order to flourish as Newspaper editors should think beyond a few advertisements and sensational or partisan front page headlines.
He admonished media owners to think about new market possibilities that create new revenue streams.
“Take advantage of digital technologies and innovation to deliver new content in new ways,” he admonished furthering that in essence, produce, promote, market, distribute, and deliver content in new ways to national, sub-regional, and international audiences.
He said successful entrepreneurs see opportunity in change and make a profit by providing products and services that cater towards that change.
President Bio encouraged and challenged media practitioners to embrace new business models that have worked in peer nations and comparative media ecosystems.
“Owners, editors, publishers, producers, boards must embrace an innovation and diversification mindset,” he further advised.
He said as he has indicated, they have a Government that is fully committed to supporting and facilitating investments in the media.
“We have an ecosystem that nurtures and protects investments and especially investments in the media,” he said adding how some critical infrastructure and networks are in place that will support new investments.
“We will continue to invest more. Investors can make a profit by serving an integrated sub-regional market. Better still, they can feel safe to reinvest or repatriate their profits. So, private capital should feel comfortable investing in the media industry in Sierra Leone using new business models that are both profitable and sustainable,” the President suggested. He claimed that the independent media is getting less revenue from its traditional sources as a consequence of the recent global economic crunch and other technological factors.
According to him concrete international action is needed to guarantee a common funding source that will support independent media as other sources of funding shrink.
“I, therefore, make a public commitment to fully associate with and support the International Fund for Public Interest Media,” he said adding that international cooperation in supporting the fund will ensure the independence and operations of the independent media in Sierra Leone.
He stated that there is also scope for greater cooperation and joint action among the local private sector, civil society, and various agencies of Government. The President concluded that his Government also wants to hear what more it can do to facilitate such investments maintaining that it is good to talk, but it also makes a lot of sense to plan the future together.
On his part the Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swaray said the Ministry is proud to be involved in the planning and execution of the all-important event.
He said among a wide array of reforms by President Bio includes encouraging the private sector to invest in the media. The Minister highlighted how the conference was expected to be the next phase of media development in Sierra Leone following the repeal of the Criminal Libel law and the passing into law of a new Independent Media Commission Act.
He said the event, therefore, reinforces the President’s strong belief that such a platform can capably promote dialogue between State, political leaders, investors, and media professionals with the overarching goal being to secure a viable media in Sierra Leone.
The Minister said when the President promises he delivers adding that the rapidly changing global economic climate accentuates the need to reposition the media to play its indispensable role in society.
It is no secret that globally, the media industry is among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis. The socioeconomic impact of the pandemic is on a scale and spread the likes of which we have not witnessed in human history.
He argues that the slow but steady erosion of credibility of the media appears to correlate with loss of revenues and jobs and has hugely weakened the ability of media institutions to remain viable.
“But we must recognize that the need for the media’s financial resilience is more urgent than ever,” he stated maintaining that the media’s viability is inextricably linked to the robustness of the broader economy.
He said financially, the media is in a coma; it is gasping for breath; it is in the intensive care unit saying all is gathered to diagnose the ailment and try to administer appropriate medication.
“We want the media to live, it must not die,” he asserted arguing that the media sector requires, among other solutions, flexible and resilient business models; models that are nimble and dynamic; models that offer diverse offerings and micro-targets the unique needs of big advertisers and information consumers.
President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Ahmed Sahid Nasralla stated that as a country we are making another history as the first-ever National Media Viability and Investment Conference kicks off, marking the first conscious and determined step taken by media stakeholders with support from the Government of SL and the BBC Media Action’s PRIMED Project to begin to address the economic and other systemic challenges facing the media in Sierra Leone.
He said there is no better time this media investment summit could have come other than now, almost two years after the historic repeal of the criminal and seditious libel law.
The SLAJ President said one of the strongest arguments we put forward for the repeal was that that law was preventing private sector investment into the media in the country because no sensible investor would want to invest in a sector that could easily escort them to police cells or the Pademba Road Prisons (now the SLCS).
According to him, following the repeal, the expectation of the public was to see a media industry with heightened professional and ethical practice but to SLAJ, and other media stakeholders, the major concern was poverty of the media.
He asked the question: How do we lift the media out of poverty?
The SLAJ President said at this stage those from outside the industry who have come with cash to buy or invest they are not selling anything yet at this stage.
Equally too, he said those from within the industry who have come expecting to receive investment packages for their individual media houses, nobody has come to invest yet.
He said what they are doing now is to continue to critically look at their content, the service of news journalism they offer the society, and what recipe can they use to enhance their quality, and come up with innovative ideas on how journalists can design and package them well to attract buyers.
According to him we all need to work together as we have begun this journey to find that doctor, that cure that will wake journalists from their coma.
He touched on the Legal framework, especially lack of advertising laws and a national information and media policy; and how unfairly Government advertising is being distributed among the media, and the non-payment for adverts by Government agencies.
“We lamented the lack of tools and systems for credible audience measurement/research and potential return on investment; high taxation and the need to develop and implement the Digital Migration Policy, the need to invest in our national broadcaster SLBC and SLENA,” he stated.
He said in the print media, one layout and design professional handles an average of 15 to 20 newspapers.
“For those media houses that have struggled to acquire printing presses, every time the machines breakdown they have to import technicians from Nigeria and Ghana to come and fix them,” he said adding how for the electronics media, one studio engineer attends to 20 to 30 radio stations.
He said Africell is spending close to One Billion Leones on the media every month on collocation- that is providing power supply and towers to about 30 partner radio stations across the country, plus direct advertising to the print and electronic media.
That Orange SL is spending 300 Million Leones every month on direct advertisement to the media (press releases, promotional articles) and that excludes other support to the media sector.
He said Mercury International is spending Le330 Million on the print media every month, Le36 million on Radio Stations every month, Le194.5 Million on TV Stations and video producing companies every month.
He said the money sounds huge, but when it is shared among the number of media houses that are active the advertising revenue is very small.
The SLAJ President said they are looking at investment from two angles: private and public/Government saying for the private investment the benefit is profit maximization.
“For the public it is building the capacity of the media and its professionals to perform their public interest role efficiently and independently,” he stated.
He said some of the suggestions in terms of solutions that came out of the nationwide consultations include: The need for a national basket fund for the media, Government should allocate 3% of the national budget as subsidy to the media, especially to support the operations of community radio stations which are playing a very vital role in providing information to people in remote communities, Others called for tax incentives for raw materials used by the media that are imported into the country, the Political will and the need to take advantage of it.
The SLAJ President said never in the history of our country has there been such a political will to transform the media in Sierra Leone, and as President of SLAJ he is taking full advantage of that.
The Country Director of BBC Media Action Dr Mamoud I Tarawalie said: “Our greatest objective for this project is to create a healthier information ecosystem where a steady flow of trusted public interest content is more freely and widely available.”
“The media and communication sector has significantly diversified and decentralized, but a good number of the registered media institutions are not operational or fully functional. And this is where we started seeing a need for a conference about investment.” Dr Francis Sowa, MRCG National Coordinator
Hon Matthew Nyuma-Leader of Government Business, Parliament of Sierra Leone stated that: “We were convinced that international investment in the media can only be possible if we expunge Part 5 of the Public Order Act of 1965 which criminalized defamation” Hon Matthew Nyuma-Leader of Government Business, Parliament of Sierra Leone.
“To the fourth estate, we have played our parts; it’s now up to you to practice professionally. Investigate and balance your stories well as professionalism will also attract international investments in the country.”