By Isaac Massaquoi
The IMC AWARDS of 2010 will always be remembered for two statements. IB Kargbo, the former president of SLAJ took the stage and in a long and rambling speech assured former employees of the Sierra Leone Daily Mail that their long-delayed retrenchment benefits would be paid them within two weeks. The applause was long and loud. I imagine some of those people were already drawing up their budgets.
Next, the current President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, SLAJ, Umaru Fofana, in his usual fiery style warned media workers not to ignite another civil war in Sierra Leone by what they say on radio or publish in newspapers.
Two years on, former Daily Mail workers have still not been paid; unrepentant IB Kargbo continues to make promises that go unfulfilled – taking him by his other promise, the Access to Information Law would have been in place eight weeks ago. I was not among those who applauded that promise at SLAJ headquarters on the eve of World Press Freedom Day on 2 May, because I was at the British Council before that when IB Kargbo and the Speaker of Parliament openly contradicted each other regarding the status of the Access to Information bill. I wasn’t amused.
It’s on Umaru Fofana’s side of things that I want to concentrate this week. On the night he made that statement, I was among a handful of journalists who suggested to him, that he had just exaggerated a perfectly manageable situation, which was not unique to Sierra Leone. We had a small argument about the issues that informed his statement but I left the ceremony thinking he probably had his fingers on the pulse of the nation.
Fast-forward now to June 2012 and you begin to see in very clear terms the reason for what at the time, looked like a desperate call by a war general for his troops to hold fire and not commit war crimes because he could find himself in the dock facing war crimes charges for bearing command and control responsibility.
Look around Freetown today and see how many newspapers are published daily, listen to the many radio stations all over the country. You are confronted with an industry that has grown beyond recognition in size, scope and power. Consuming media on the variety of platforms available day in day out has become, to many Sierra Leoneans what drinking water is to the survival of the human race.
Walter Lippmann argued many years ago that “the only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of the event.” I suggest that in practical terms Lippmann was referring to the power we have as journalists to set the news agenda, frame the national discourse, shape perspectives and more often than not today, show the people how to respond to certain situations. In other words, the feeling Lippmann talks about is aroused by the issues we select as news and the angles from which we approach those stories when we report them.
After the 2007 elections, Awoko newspaper published the map of Sierra Leone and inserted RED in areas that voted APC and GREEN in SLPP areas. There were small patches of ORANGE showing support for the PMDC but there was a line right across the country indicating that Sierra Leone is politically divided, very deeply indeed. For many Sierra Leoneans that line also represents TRIBALISM, MARGINALISATION, LACK OF OPPORTUNITY, and DENIAL OF BASIC RIGHTS AND DEVELOPMENT.
We can have academic arguments about whether they are right but the issue on ground is: This is what they believe and that has informed the messages they are passing on to the media which become the raw material the journalists work with.
I am sure our readers have heard at least something about the infamous role of the media in the Rwandan killings of the 1990s. Much of the responsibility for the genocide in Rwanda was put on the shoulders of the media. Radio Mille Collines was the hub around which the anti-Tutsi propaganda project was organised.
Yes only a few journalists were tried and imprisoned for the consequences of their work but the truth is; the whole media in that country was on trial and African Media in general has been on trial since, otherwise we wouldn’t be discussing the same issues a few months to elections in Sierra Leone.
The trial chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda in their ruling in the case brought against Journalist Ferdinand Nahimana of Radio Milles Collines told him among other things “… you were fully aware of the power of words, and you used the radio – the medium of communication with the widest public reach – to disseminate hatred and violence…Without a firearm, machete or any physical weapon, you caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians…”
The chamber also told the other Journalist Hassan Ngeze “…you were in a position to inform the public and shape public opinion towards achieving democracy and peace for all Rwandans. Instead of using the media to promote human rights, you used it to attack and destroy human rights…you did not respect the responsibility that comes with freedom. You abused the trust of the public by using your newspaper to instigate genocide…”
Please note that the trial chamber raised the question of the “trust of the public” being “betrayed” by the media. It is for Sierra Leoneans to decide if their trust and the privileges society afford media workers have been betrayed or not. It probably isn’t a yes or no answer; they could decide to have a national debate on this issue.
I am afraid that as a nation, we aren’t having any serious national conversation because credible people, with high integrity, have simply withdrawn from the centre because of the unashamedly partisan and intemperate language of whatever political conversation is taking place now to save their reputation and that of their families in the eyes of a gullible public. Those who have managed to get stuck in are simply being bullied by the dominant voices in a polarized media landscape, where only the fittest of the fittest have survived.
A pluralistic and accountable media industry is an indispensable part of building democracy and the voices of hate can only be neutralized if they are confronted with a variety of alternative points of view.
In Kenya and Ivory Coast the media were reprimanded for their role in election violence that killed people and destroyed property. As recently as the last elections in neighbouring Liberia, three media institutions were found guilty of inciting violence and causing deaths of innocent people.
The criminal prosecution and conviction of the journalists was immensely important. It established the principle of the accountability of journalists for the consequences of what they publish and broadcast.
The influence of media content on public behaviour has been a subject for endless and inconclusive academic study over decades. I cannot say with any certainty whether, for example, violent television programmes will pre-dispose children to behave violently. Yet many serious commentators have concluded with certainty that the Rwandan radio broadcasts incited genocide.
The easiest way to deal with hate speech and inciting comments on radio is for Media owners to take full control of their editorial guidelines where one is available or develop one and then keep a constant eye on the IMC Media Code of Practice. A few of our colleagues have of recent easily surrendered editorial control to certain people and interests. That has resulted in one-sided TV and radio programs and unnecessarily aggressive and skewed newspaper stories.
Some phone-in programs have become platforms for nightly attacks and counter attacks spearheaded by groups of know-it-all Texters who are always in place to as they say “make my own contribution”. Phone-in programs, like letters to newspaper editors were meant to serve as democratic tools by which the people’s voices could be heard directly through the media by leaders. We should ask the inevitable question, which people? The whole thing has been hijacked by a handful of people who either enjoy putting themselves in the headlights of national publicity on a daily basis or are serving faceless political masters. I think the latter is the most likely. And that’s dangerous because the media’s key roles, which are serving as independent monitors of power and providing a forum for public criticism and compromise, are threatened by this.
Sierra Leone is now preparing for elections and we know what the media will look like in the next few weeks, the opening skirmishes are already taking place and as I have pointed out the collateral damage in all this is high quality national debate and informed decision-making.
While we must try hard never to go down that path of Rwanda or Kenya, we must be courageous enough to say now that the elections eve is fraught with indecent media attacks and diatribes.
As technology improves and media continues to occupy or influence people’s lives, I hereby suggest that newspapers, radio and television are becoming very dangerous tools to play with. If journalists misuse them and create mayhem in society, the journalists and journalism will become causalities of that indiscretion along with the rest of society.
Today, out of fear that certain people, including journalists could misuse their newspapers, radios and even the only failing TV station ahead and during the 2012 elections, people are calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC), to establish a presence in Sierra Leone. It’s not only about the media, but this is a very bad situation to find ourselves in.
The Independent Media Commission must have power to play its role as an Independent Media Regulator. As we speak, crucial amendments to the IMC act, put forward more than a year ago are still with Law Officers Department.
What we have is an IMC from which much is expected but which can only deliver a few things, given the position of its powers. An IMC that is being attacked daily from unusual quarters – meaning the journalists themselves – just because they disagree with some IMC rulings. Some have even done argumentumad-hominine attacks on the personality of the Commissioners.
IMC complaints adjudications and resolution processes are open and the rulings are available but some colleagues ignore the fine arts of media ethics and bring extraneous political matters into the debate with the sole motive of misleading a gullible public about the integrity of people on the IMC board. How far that has affected public respectability for the IMC is for us to judge.
Again, we can freely discuss what kind of media regulatory mechanism we want in Sierra Leone. They are doing that in the UK now following the horrendous phone-hacking scandals.
I have managed to put a few ideas out there that the readers can look at. I suspect however that we shall be talking about these issues for a long time to come so there is no harm starting now.
This article is based on a paper presented at a recent media seminar in Freetown.