One Year On: New Direction and the Media

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The 2018 end of year presidential cocktail for the media was fantastic. Yes it was. There was a massive turnout of journalists from across the country with some unusually frank speeches, with important announcements and nice music from the Ballanta Dance Band.
For those of us who have spent the best part of our adult life in journalism, we looked like strangers among the many young minds who joined the profession in the last decade. The President, Vice President, the First Lady and staff of State House Communications Unit mixed freely, photos taken, business cards exchanged in addition to the broad smiles, all in the Christmas mood. Right?
The event was the first ever presidential cocktail for the media. I wasn’t in this business under Siaka Stevens and JS Momoh but Aljahi Kabbah had too much to do throughout his tenure to care about media cocktails. And certainly, Koroma did not have a lot of official face-to-face meetings with the media.
In fact, his Advisory Note Number 8 prepared by one of his advisers at the time, IB Kargbo called for regular meetings with the media but such was largely ignored after one such event following Koroma’s return from a meeting in China.
JM Bio says this cocktail will now be an annual affair. We’ll see.
Once again JM Bio has committed his Government to the repeal of the obnoxious Criminal and Seditious Libel provisions in the Public Order Act of 1965. He says his Government is one that says and does things. So the repeal would take place “within the shortest possible time”. Ordinarily this should be enough for the media to celebrate. But just before he spoke at the cocktail, the President of SLAJ, Kelvin Lewis told the gathering about the same REPEAL promise saying “we don’t want another 10 years of promises.” This was indeed an open reference to the last Government of EB Koroma.
When Ernest Bai Koroma announced his Turn Around Agenda going into the 2007 elections many Sierra Leoneans were prepared to give him a chance. The document looked impressive with ideas that were not exactly new or transformative but Koroma was a new broom promising to sweep the country clean of corruption and opening up the space for all Sierra Leoneans to play their part in moving the post-war country forward.
Koroma’s message of change resonated across the country.
By this time the Government of Alhaji Tejan Kabbah looked exhausted and bereft of ideas of even how to trumpet their own achievements including ending the war and restoring vital democratic institutions between 2000 and 2005. Many of those institutions were targeted at guaranteeing civil liberties and demystifying politics.
One of those manifesto commitments that suggested this was no deja-vu was Koroma’s promise to “use the mass media to serve as a medium to educate the public on State matters and how these matters impinge on their daily lives, be committed to greater freedom, and democracy and we would enhance the role of a free, unfettered and responsible press”.
He said he would achieve that by “reviewing the 1965 Public Order Act, assisting the fourth estate in building itself up in terms of capacity, professionalism and ensure its independence, improving public trust, confidence and interest through information sharing. Whilst in office the bottlenecks and obstacles that stifle this free flow will be removed”.
By the end of his 10th year in office, I am sure Koroma looked back at these lines quoted above from his manifesto of 2007 and hoped nobody called his attention to them in his retirement. Those repressive sections of the 1965 Public Order Act are still in place.
His best opportunity to kill this anachronistic colonial relic came via suggested constitutional provisions contained in chapter 12 of his own Constitutional Review Committee report. He rejected that without a wink in his government’s white paper on that report. A month or so before the release of that White Paper, his Attorney General travelled to Bo and addressed a SLAJ congress. He left the meeting with many journalists openly satisfied that at last Criminal and Seditious libel would be gone long time ago from our law books.
The media enjoyed a reasonable degree of Freedom but the Government was never shy to arrest, detain and prosecute any journalist who shaved too close to Koroma’s skin. I have a list of such cases including the famous ones of the Observer newspaper Editor, Jonathan Leigh and broadcaster David Tam-Baryoh, a friend of Koroma who dared asked critical questions about the deal to buy public service buses from China and speculate about the management of funds to fight the dreaded Ebola Virus Disease which killed thousands of Sierra Leoneans. The entire editorial board of Politico newspaper was dragged before a Court Martial trying fourteen (14) soldiers accused of mutiny.
Their sin was publishing an editorial raising questions about the pace of the trial which had lasted more than two years with the officers locked up at Pademba road maximum security jail. They mentioned the case of a soldier who lost his wife while in jail and had his request to physically bury her denied to bring the plight of those soldiers to light. Despite the best efforts of their brilliant lawyer, Roland Wright, in a heated courtroom battle with a state prosecutor, the young lady who wrote the article was jailed.
The rest were told to go home and sin no more. The government quickly pulled back under local and international pressure and released Phedalia Allie after 24 hours. A few weeks later all the soldiers were cleared. If journalists are too scared to raise such issues to force the authorities to respect the rights of their own citizens, why are they in the business then?
Koroma’s government also scrapped the Kabbah era budgetary allocations for the running of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists. It happened under the watch of I B Kargbo a former SLAJ President while he was the Minister of Information. Nobody in SLAJ believed that was possible. Koroma encouraged a kind of divide and rule in the media. In essence, the trick worked because he enjoyed the longest honeymoon with the media compared to any other political leader in the world.
So here we are now into President JM Bio’s New Direction and we are dealing with the same issues. We have another manifesto commitment that is wide ranging and stronger than that of 2007. Bio says he will REPEAL not REVIEW the criminal and seditious libel provisions in the 1965 Public Order Act, restore budgetary allocations to SLAJ and rebuild the State broadcaster. The President wants the country to believe he can deliver on these promises. There is nothing wrong about believing in something. Bio won the presidency because he believed. Scratch the surface a bit and you will find out that even some of his closest friends then and now did not believe that much.
People close to several rounds of negotiations between this Government and the leadership of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists told me that substantial progress has been made toward the repeal of part five of the Public Order Act of 1965. But as we have just celebrated the first anniversary of the new Government, it is very important to acknowledge that effort and also to state that “substantial progress” is definitely not the final thing. I also know from speaking to those sources that there has been a lull in completing the documentation and bringing the issue to the cabinet table. So discussions are still at a point where anything could go wrong and push the repeal effort back to where it started. JM Bio says it will be done “within the shortest possible time.” We’ll see.
I was part of last minute efforts by at least two Ministers in the last Government to get the Koroma cabinet to discuss and approve the same repeal proposals. After one of the last meetings I attended along President Kelvin Lewis and a few other colleagues, a Minister told me as we left the room that he wasn’t sure there was enough support in cabinet to get the proposals through. I didn’t say this to the colleagues who attended that meeting at the time. I went home regretting I attended the meeting at all.
So the New Direction was quick out of the blocks with this issue but as they say, it is not over until it is over.
For the first time in history an accreditation system is being worked out for the whole media to have access to the presidency. This has always been the exclusive preserve of the state media. In my days in the newsroom of the SLBS, I constantly had to deal with requests from colleagues in the private media to come over to our office to get copies of government statements and other news materials relating to State House. Social media was an elaborate dream. State House Communications Unit is doing a great job by attempting to release news stories about the work of the President in a timely manner. Their website is also being updated regularly. That’s fine.
The truth however is that most media organizations would prefer to have their own reporters covering the presidency and reporting according to their own house style. This will save the time it now takes for some media houses to change angles and points of emphasis in news items released by SHCU. No matter how well written they may be. Why the State House corps is still not operational at the end of the first quarter of 2019 is something I find hard to understand.
In 2019, the promised subvention to SLAJ should come through. When the money was first given to the organization by the Government of Alhaji Tejan Kabbah there were complaints in certain quarters of SLAJ that it was a bribe targeted at bringing the media under the control of the Government. I was among those who disagreed with this position for the following reasons: firstly, SLAJ has no control over the editorial policy of any media organization and has largely refrained from undertaking any serious peer review drive on the daily news output of their member organizations.
Secondly, state subsidy to the independent media is not strange. It is widely practiced throughout Francophone West Africa, a region which has some of the most developed, powerful and critical newspapers in the continent. Thirdly, the money actually goes to SLAJ to fund the running of the Secretariat like paying the yearly rent, staff salaries and basic office supplies. So the benefit to individual SLAJ members is indirect and cannot influence editorials.
In the New Direction so far, some sections of the media have still not left their partisan trenches. In fact they are reinforcing their positions. The point is, it is in the interest of the opposition to keep pushing and in typical Sierra Leone style everything is politicized with a barrage of fake news.
The media machinery that helped bring JM Bio to power must quickly discover that this is time to govern. So while it may gratify the base to continue kicking the defeated APC, they may have very little time left to engage the rest of the population on the real issues facing the country and for which the people threw the APC out.
Many journalists in the so-called traditional media are covering the new Parliament having members from four political parties and some independents and a completely changed political landscape in the same way they covered the Koroma years. For them small parties and independents are completely missing in action. Reporting is still around Green and Red. How wrong!

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