By Isaac Massaquoi
A week of activities commemorating World Press Freedom ended on Sunday with a thanksgiving mass at Saint Anthony’s Parish. Chief Celebrant, the Reverend Father Thomas Blake delivered a powerful homily. The man of God was well prepared for the occasion. For a moment I thought we were listening to the lead presenter at a media peer review seminar. His questions were pointed and searching and his communication skills, absolutely spot on. Uncharacteristically for Saint Anthony’s, the most conservative of catholic churches in Sierra Leone, Father Blake received a very loud applause at the end of his homily almost as if it was Reinhard Bonnke entering the stadium for the start of a prayer session.
As we left the church compound, we recalled the main points made by the priest.
Father Blake used a passage from the bible in which Jesus Christ dealt with the question of the identity of the true Christian. “Essentially, a true Christian is identified by his actions to his fellow man…he should love his neighbour”, he said. The man of God argued that no matter the outward expressions of piety and charity we display as symbols of our Christian identity, if the Christian fails to love his neighbour, they have a problem. That message was apparently targeted at the whole congregation.
Father Blake then turned to the journalists seated on reserved benches on the first row to his left on the Savage Street end. Still using the identity imagery, he asked this double barrelled question: “who is a journalist and who is a good journalist? It’s the kind of question we ask young people applying to enter the mass communication department every June. It’s not as if we expect them to deal with the question the way final year students would, sometimes we only want to know if they did some reading in preparation for the interview.
A former student of mine seated close to me looked at me with a wide grin and for one moment, I felt as if he was going to raise his hand, classroom-style to attempt a typical text book answer. The priest continued by asking SLAJ to look for the answer to that question very quickly as a first step towards determining the true identity of those who call themselves journalists. Father Blake didn’t press too hard as we thought he would. Apparently, he was careful not to ruffle too many feathers on the media benches – you shouldn’t do that to your guests, should you?
Back home, I thought I should bring my own perspectives to bear on some of the issues the priest tried to address in his homily as I ask what next after World Press Freedom day. Yes we attended seminars and exchanged views with the young people joining our trade; we marched all over the country and presented the usual petitions urging the parliament to pass the Freedom of Information bill and president Koroma to start the process of de-criminalizing libel now – so what then?
Lest I forget, we will remember our encounter with Hon. SBB Dumbuya, the man who has only a few days left in parliament. He, decided to attack journalists, telling them the bill will never become law just because our colleagues carried placards asking for the long-awaited bill to be passed before the House was dissolved for elections. I will simply say to Hon. SBB Dumbuya that we didn’t do anything wrong as Sierra Leone is a democracy built on our sweat and blood. He finds himself in a powerful position today to humiliate journalists and block the bill but the people will decide his fate in six months time. Many of those colleagues who demonstrated at parliament building will still be around to read the result. Please remember SBB Dumbuya when the bill eventually comes into force, the first documents we will apply for are lying in that building.
Now back to Father Blake’s questions. With respect to the priest, let me say this from the outset, that the question of who a journalist is has never been definitively answered, in part, according to David Weaver “because journalists themselves often don’t want to be licensed, certified or classified by any official authority or by anyone outside journalism, and in part because there is no specific body of knowledge that journalists must master to practice their craft.” The Medical Profession certifies its members before they start work even after university. In fact their license is renewed every year. Lawyers also go through Law School after university and then they are called to the bar before they can represent any client in a courtroom. Not so, journalism.
History tells us that some of the greatest never entered a university. Yes we have structured media courses in many universities today and journalists have signed up to professional codes of practice in much the same way as people in the classic professions do.
Karen Sanders notes in her book, Ethics and Journalism that “journalism…is more akin to a craft or trade, learned by doing. It should be open to all those who show the right aptitudes usually summarized as a nose for news, a plausible manner and an ability to write and deliver concise, accurate copy to deadline”
In Sierra Leone there are many journalists who have never been to a media school and are not members of SLAJ but they are publishing relatively good newspapers and making radio materials to international standards. We can argue about what other people think about the quality of their work, but that is just journalism. It’s done out in the public so the public is able to comment freely when they begin to see things going the other way.
Now let me bring in a question of my own and then use the answer to deal with the priest’s double barrelled question.
What is journalism?
The answer to this should help throw light on the question the priest asked; who is a good journalist? Here we go: Since the ‘invention’ of journalism in the sixteenth century it has been required to be at least three things, often at the same time:
- A supplier of the information required for individuals and groups to monitor their social environments; that’s what communications scholar Dennis McQuail has characterized as a medium of surveillance
- A resource for, support to and often participant in public life – in liberal democratic societies particularly, the discursive foundation of what Habermas famously called the public sphere
- A medium of education, enlightenment and entertainment – what might be grouped together as its recreational or cultural function.
This is Brian McNair’s answer to Father Blake and I agree with him entirely. A journalist and a good one at that is the one that keeps his journalism with this framework.
I hope I have also replied that lady parishioner who approached me after the mass about the priest’s questions and what she called the falling standards of Sierra Leone journalism. She also asked whether we teach students at mass communication department to “attack people all the times”. I have had cause to answer this question many times before and I will only reproduce the same reply: firstly more than 95% of the people in journalism in Sierra Leone today have never been to mass communication department, FBC and that doesn’t mean they have not received media training in other recognized institutions. What it means, is that I should not be answering questions about the quality of their journalism. Secondly, even the five percent who have found their way into the media; hold no editorial positions and hence cannot decide which stories to report and from which angle. I urge my fellow parishioner to scan the media landscape and take me on again.
Father Blake told journalists at the service to “criticize constructively without causing offence, analyze properly, talk less, and write more.” We will remember these words during this year and then in May next year we will do a peer review session again to see if we obeyed the man of God.
The point is, we like to commemorate events. We meet in places, talk a lot and sometimes make resolutions we have no intention to keep. Isn’t that why we are today chasing an elected government to do what it promised when they were in opposition. Some of the animals on Manor Farm in George Orwell’s Animal Farm realized early on that the pigs were beginning to act contrary to the constitution of the farm. They were powerless to act against the pigs because like any state, they controlled the forces of coercion – remember those fierce dogs? They are the modern equivalent of the police in Sierra Leone.
The police are even worse, they can shoot people all over the place from Bo to Bumbuna, concoct lies about how the events happened, blame the people for shooting themselves dead and then arrest and then arrest and prosecute passers-by.
We remember the APC manifesto very well because the party promised to “REVIEW” part five of the Public Order Act during its first term. We are right at the end now and with the uncertainty of elections, I have no idea who will be in State House after November. Why can’t the APC just do as it promised?
“REVIEW”? – One of those weasel words that help politicians to waffle and escape blame for their inability to deliver promises made in the heat of an election campaign. We asked for a total repeal but I suppose that close as we are to nightfall, we can accept a Review at least.