By Kemo Cham
Sammy Haffner is an anxious man; he faces the prospect of six months in jail if he fails to pay Le30m by the end of September.
Haffner, who is Vice President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), was penalsed by the High Court of Bo after two journalists he stood for as surety jumped bail in 2015. Julian Kerry and Samuel Lahai, in hiding for the last two years, were accused of impersonating agents of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in pretense of investigating an alleged financial misappropriation at a Bo secondary school. They allegedly demanded and received Le100, 000 from the school’s management as price to ‘kill’ the story.
Haffner, who was at the time Chairperson of SLAJ Southern Region, says he felt obliged to support his colleges who betrayed his confidence. The case has become a reference point for a phenomenon preoccupying media development experts and rights defenders in the country.
Harassment, intimidation, extortion and blackmail are some of the words used to describe the conduct of media practitioners in this part of the country. Some observers say the situation is so terrifyingly rampant that it has raised a huge question mark over the true definition of the journalist.
Monetization of journalism, also called ‘Brown Envelope’ journalism, is by no means isolated to the south. In Freetown, for instance, most reporters dedicate their time hunting for press conferences, workshops, launching and donation ceremonies which often provide financial packages in the name of transportation. Sometimes reporters, who fondly refer to the practice as ‘Coasting’, reach out to politicians and business people and offer to write promotional articles on them or their businesses for a negotiated fee.
The last year or two have also seen a proliferation of unofficial journalist organisations, like the so-called ‘Journalists for Peace’ or ‘Journalists for Attitudinal Change’, who identify people, mostly politicians and businessmen, and confer awards on them for some make-believe achievements.
Consequently, the pages of newspapers and radio and TV news bulletins are dominated by promotional stories with little or no consideration for the public interest.
In Bo, journalists have taken the trend to another level, says Jeremy Ben Simbo, chairman of the Civil Society Movement in the Southern Region.
“There are journalists here who aren’t interested in promotional stories. They will go for damaging stories against people when you refuse to heed to their demand,” he says.
Simbo, who coordinates the activities of the Freetown-based NGO Center For Accountability and Rule of Law in the Southern Region, says the phenomenon has persisted because the rogue journalists have gone unchallenged. And he fears that this way journalists are stifling the fledgling democratic process by abdicating their responsibilities.
There are accounts of reporters moving in groups, like in the case of Kerry and Lahai, searching for victims to intimidate into submission over some made-up allegations. But in some cases the allegations are genuine, like in the case of a technician with the Electricity Distribution and Supply Authority (EDSA) who received money from a desperate client to install an electricity meter at their home. The technician pocketed the money without doing the job. Aware that the transaction was illegal, the client couldn’t report the matter to the police, instead opted to use a reporter to coerce the technician to refund her. The reporter decided to negotiate for a cut from the technician.
These rogue journalists sometimes extend their operations beyond the Bo district. In nearby Pujehun, Paramount Chief Sheku Abdulkadiru Monyaba Koroma Gbujan II of Pejeh Chiefdom is still bitter over the experience of one of his villages in the hands of a journalist who allegedly extorted Le500, 000 from them.
The reporter had got hold of information that the villagers had buried an Ebola victim in contravention of government rules during the 2014 epidemic. PC Gbujan II was out of town at the time. But he recalls the account of the villagers on how the reporter’s demand as price to ‘kill’ the story led to the entire village been summoned to the ‘Court Barray’ for negotiation.
Bo is one of four districts that make up the southern region of Sierra Leone. With a population of over 500, 000, it is home to Bo city, the country’s second largest city after Freetown. There are about five radio stations in the whole district.
On the backdrop of a noisy traffic in the Lewabu neighborhood of the city, I had a bit of a tough time trying to converse with some local journalists on the issue. It was all defensive on record, until I turned off the recorder.
“We do not like it but what can we do about it?” one of them offered, before cataloguing a long list of reasons he believes was forcing journalists to do what they do to make ends meet.
Most of them are volunteers, he said, and if they are lucky they are sometimes given at most Le100, 000 a month. “What can you do with that kind of money when you have a family to take care?”
Kallil Kallon, Desk Officer of the Independent Media Commission (IMC) in the Southern Region, agrees that poor remuneration is a fueling factor of bad journalism but he says the behavior of the reporters also represents the actual picture of the reality in the larger society.
Kallon says despite the deafening complaints of unprofessionalism in the open, the Commission is yet to receive any official complaint bordering on extortion and impersonation against any journalist. And he believes this point to apparent guilt on the part of those who fall prey to rogue journalism.
“I have always said [that] it is because society is corrupt that is why those officials who think they have been harassed have failed to come out with their complaints,” he says.
Kallon, a former journalist himself, now lectures part time at Njala University where he runs a recently introduced media development course tailored for journalists who do not meet the requirements to enroll for a degree level course. He says part of the problem is also the emergence of community radios which lays no premium on quality of output of personnel. The journalists themselves see no incentive to upgrade their standard, he adds.
Some other critics say SLAJ is itself helping to maintain the status quo by standing out for its members when they are found wanting.
But Haffner argues that as an association they are obliged to not ignore one of their own when in trouble. He however admitted that they were aware of the concerns and were doing something about them.
As Vice President, Haffner chairs the committee that vets applicants for new members of the association. He says they have over 700 pending applications because of the meticulous approach they have taken in the approval process.
SLAJ is looking at making it even more rigid, he adds, noting that they want to get background information of individuals from not just work experience but also record at community level. Every member may have to be first a member of an affiliate organization, like the Women in the Media, Sports Writers Association, and the Reporters Union, for about two years, to be eligible for SLAJ membership. Employers and these affiliate member organisations will have to recommend them for approval. But all this is subject to approval of the association’s AGM slated for the end of September.
To sanitise the behavior of journalists in Sierra Leone is also a matter of life and death for SLAJ which is hoping to put to an end to over a decade of campaign to repeal one of the most notorious media laws in Africa - the Criminal Libel Laws. Haffner says politicians have recently shown interest in doing away with the law but that anytime progress is made, some recalcitrant journalist does something that further embolden opponents of reform.
“Bad journalism is happening largely because people don’t pay their workers or they don’t pay them properly,” he says. “But it is also important that we scrutinize them properly to limit the chance of this happening.”
This story was written as part of a journalism fellowship with the U.S. Embassy in Freetown. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the journalist and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Embassy.
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