By Amin Kef Sesay
As the World observed World Press Freedom Day on the 3rd May 2020, on the global theme, ‘Journalism without fear or favour’ the President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, delivered an all encompassing moving statement.
Prior to his statement proper, he first noted that as the day fell on a Sunday as an Association it was decided to defer programmes to Monday 4th May 2020 during which later on that day, SLAJ will hold a virtual seminar on the theme: “The Media and the COVID-19 Pandemic”.
According to D-Monk, as he is popularly known, the next day, 5th May, SLAJ also participated in a regional webinar discussion with counterparts in Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria organised by UNESCO on the global theme.
The SLAJ President, in his statement, said strangely the world is observing this year’s World Press Freedom Day amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and for us here journalists are doing so under the State of Emergency and a lockdown.
“Nevertheless, the media in Sierra Leone continues to play its crucial role in supporting the national fight against COVID-19 and re-positioning itself as a force to be reckoned with in our governance landscape,” he furthered.
He went on to intimate how the media in Sierra Leone, and by extension journalists, enjoy relative freedom underscoring that there is some encouraging degree of democracy, human rights, media pluralism and there is a seemingly general determination for progress and development.
The SLAJ No 1 personality disclosed how the Government of Sierra Leone has started giving annual subvention to SLAJ as a form of support to the media also revealing that they are working with the Ministry of Lands and Country Planning for the allocation of land for the construction of the Association’s headquarters in the Western Area and the regional headquarter towns.
He informed that the repeal bill for the Criminal and Seditious Libel laws has passed Cabinet and now in the final stages in the Sierra Leone Parliament.
“We are encouraged by the pronouncement of the new leader of Government Business in the House, Hon. Mathew Nyuma, that the repeal bill is among documents to be discussed by MPs in subsequent sittings before they go on recess,” he expressed hope.
D-Monk said looking beyond the repeal, the Association has launched its newly re-constituted Disciplinary Committee which now includes two members from the public and a new governance structure including district and regional monitors to aid the work of the committee nationally.
“The objective of the committee is to primarily enforce the SLAJ Code of Ethics through reactive and pro-active measures, which include training of journalists and public education on the work of the media,” he also disclosed.
He stated that in the 2020 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom index, Sierra Leone moved from 86 to 85 out of 180 countries which he said should be considered as progress, no matter if it is only one step forward.
The SLAJ Prezo said, however, the downside of press freedom in Sierra Leone is the continuous assault of journalists by some officers of security forces. This, he said, calls for serious engagement with the leadership of the security sector so that they understand and respect each other’s role in our democracy.
“Another downside is the economy of the media or rather poverty of the media which has been made even worse by COVID-19.
Businesses have closed, and adverts are not forthcoming. Prices of printing materials for newspapers, for example, have not only gone up but they are in short supply because of the COVID-19 restrictions locally and internationally.
Consequently, many newspapers have closed. Radio stations are struggling and scaling down broadcast time. The publishers and Station Managers are crying. Vendors are crying. The reporters are crying. The support staff are complaining,” he lamented.
According to him, in these tough times for the media, especially the print media, the Association is urging the Government and partners to come up with a financial scheme to cushion the impact of COVID-19 on the sector. “But we also urge the media to be creative and innovative. The COVID-19 pandemic might just be that long-awaited opportunity for the Sierra Leone media to redefine itself, be proactive, think innovatively, and take advantage of the digital revolution by moving away from traditional means of revenue generation to stay in business,” he expressed optimism..
He admonished SLAJ and its affiliate bodies (SWASAL, SLRU, WIMSAL, PPG and SLCRA), the Guild of Editors and Station Managers to re-invent themselves to be fit for purpose in this endeavour.
The SLAJ President averred that true to the global theme: ‘Journalism without fear or favour’, tensions continue to exist between some politicians and journalists.
“While the media is pushing for progress in our democracy, the rule of law, human rights, good governance, transparency and accountability, the politicians are reluctant to give themselves up to public scrutiny. They hate criticism, even if it is for the general good. The ‘yes men’ are still in vogue. The Politicians like to hear the tunes of the praise singers and their own egos. There should be a healthy relationship between politicians/public officials and journalists/media for a healthy democracy,” he lambasted and suggested.
He said on occasions like that, it is also imperative that journalists do some amount of introspection as media practitioners saying the growing interference of national politics in the media has left a thin line between who is a real journalist and who is a politician hiding under the cloak of journalism.
“This is hurting not only the media’s role as watchdog and holding the Government to account, but it is also undermining the effective administration of professional Associations like SLAJ,” the Monk highlighted.
He said meanwhile, as we continue to fully support the fight against COVID-19 they are urging the authorities to continue to respect and protect free speech at all times and ensure the free flow of information even in a State of Emergency.
“We also call on colleagues to abide by professional and ethical standards in doing their work,” he enjoined.
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, D-Monk said: “The only security of all is in a free press.”
He ended up paying tribute to departed colleagues from the last celebration, prominent among whom are the renowned correspondent for Agence France Presse (AFP) and former IMC Chairman and popular newspaper columnist Rod Mac Johnson; and former Press Attache to Brussels, Chernor Ojuku Sesay.