By Kemo Cham
Last October the role of the Sierra Leonean media in the fight against corruption was put to a test.
One of the country’s telecommunication operators was found wanting for tax evasion. According to the National Revenue Authority (NRA), the company understated its tax returns, among other offences.
Only a small section of the media got wind of the story; journalists from about half a dozen media outlets who had been tipped off about an impending operation to shut down the offices of the telco. Later, agents representing the operator allegedly sought to bribe all them to kill the story.
With the exception of the state owned Daily Mail and Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), no media outlet aired or published anything about the incident. All the other media houses reported to have sent journalists to cover the operation denied knowledge of it.
People familiar with how the media operate say this is an inherent phenomenon; businesses, politicians and other interest groups and individuals use money to influence reportage at the expense of public interest. This was the subject of discussion in a recent training on investigative reporting, one of several funded by the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) as part of an ongoing national campaign against bribery.
The ‘Pay No Bribe’ (PNB) campaign, a UK government funded initiative, aims to minimise small scale corruption which anti-graft experts say has had a far reaching implication on the lives of the ordinary people.
Corruption generally remains a major concern in Sierra Leone which ranks 119 out of 168 countries on Transparency International (TI)'s Corruption Perception Index of 2015.
In the same 2015, TI's Global Corruption Barometer ranked the country among the top four most corrupt countries, behind South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana, in a survey involving 28 countries in Sub Saharan Africa.
Both TI instruments gauge the level of response of public institutions to citizens’ needs.
41 percent of Sierra Leonean respondents admitted paying bribe within the previous year, according to the GCB. It revealed that while some people paid bribe to avoid punishment for crime, others were forced to do so to get access to basic services that they desperately needed.
The PNB campaign was designed so that citizens can report any form of corruption or bribery experienced while seeking services in one of five service sectors: health, education, security, energy and water. The goal, say ACC officials, is to ensure effective service delivery. The Commission intends to use the data generated to effect policy changes that minimise bribery and corruption.
The PNB campaign was launched in September. And as of mid December, over 5000 reports had been lodged, according to figures on its website.
A number of interesting points were raised at the media training session held in the conference hall of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists in Freetown, indicating awareness on the issues hindering reportage on corruption. These issues range from media poverty, to the slipshod procedure involved in acquisition and ownership of media outlets.
Access to information and the unfavourable legislative environment were also identified by journalists as hindering their work thereby exposing them to the risk of jail terms or even death.
The rules governing acquisition of media licence in Sierra Leone is one of the least restrictive. Government and media rights activists say this is quite in place to safeguard freedom of the press and allow for the flow of divergent views.
Nevertheless, in many ways this system has proven counterproductive to free expression as it has allowed vested interests to infiltrate the media landscape.
According to the Independent Media Commission (IMC), between 2002 and 2015 it has registered 162 newspapers. Of these only about 25 were daily and only about 15 of them were regularly published. A major consequence of this overcrowding is a huge competition for funding in the form of advertisement.
Government and corporate entities allocate advertorials to newspapers on the basis of who they protects their interests. This way some section of the media has been used against the other.
Journalists use the pages of their papers to attack fellow journalists who dare publish ‘negative’ stories against such business, political and individual interests they protect. Some publications even go the extreme of engaging in blackmail to get advertisement from businesses and individuals of questionable characters.
This situation has set in motion a circle of poverty, so that just a handful of outlets are really able to sustain their publications. One effect of this is that very few reporters are in salaried jobs. Most are so poorly paid, or not paid at all, that they are susceptible to all forms of corruption.
Publishers deliberately contribute to this by encouraging reporters to use their press cards as means of payment, say reporters and media observers.
A great number of journalists have made it a routine to attend press conferences and launching ceremonies, taking advantage of the accompanying incentives like transportation refunds. Some negotiate the price for publication of the stories generated from such functions.
A director of a Freetown-based educational centre narrated their experience. They had hosted a launching ceremony for a new project and invited journalists from five leading media houses. Each of the reporters was provided Le100, 000 as transportation. But the reporters openly protested what one of them described as an “insulting amount.”
An additional Le100, 000 had to be given to each of the reporters.
The director feared that if they did not pay, their story wouldn't get published and they were only interested in seeing their functions publicised.
From the outsider’s view, this may appear appalling, and rightly so, but the reality in newsrooms, according to the testimonies of some reporters, provides a convincing, even if not justifiable, explanation.
Samuel Kargbo worked for one of the leading newspapers in the country for four years and he was never on fixed salary, even though he had been hired as a staff. He says a piece of promotional story for a politician or a businessman can earn him a whole month’s salary. He gets an on average Le150, 000 a month, depending on the number of stories he published within the period.
“When I write a promotional story for a politician, they sometimes give me at least Le100, 000 or Le150, 000, depending on the nature of the story. What I get for the whole month's work I get for just one work," he says.
Kargbo narrates how he would approach a politician or a businessman and offer to write promotional stories on their carrier or business for a negotiated fee. It pays higher, he says, when he had a story that makes for ‘bad press’ for a politician or businessman, like if they were mentioned in allegation of corruption. Such stories he would either ignore or twist in favour of the accused.
Kargbo says sometimes he does not even talk to the person concerned. He just goes ahead to do a story by talking to various people who have good words for the individual, especially if they are a politician.
“I have a family to take care of…The media owners threat us as if we are not important. Because if you say we are important, you must pay us something we can appreciate,” the young reporter who now operates as freelance tells Politico.
Amadu Lamrana Bah, President of the Sierra Leone Reporters’ Union (SLRU), agrees. He says as a reporter, he had himself gone through the experience as had many of his colleagues.
“Journalists, even when they have stories on corruption to investigate, they are easily compromised and some others spend time on event based reporting instead of investigating stories,” he says.
“We may not largely blame the reporters because publishers and media owners do not invest in investigative stories and they [journalists] mostly are not on salary and need to survive.”
"The fight against corruption and the role of the media is very important but sadly media poverty is a serious challenge," he adds.
Poor remuneration has drained the Sierra Leonean media landscape of competent hands.
Consequently,there is hardly any practicing journalist known for any specialised reporting.
Few has any grasp on the issues they report on. This leaves most of them at the mercy of the officials or institutions they are investigating, as they barely know the right questions to ask.
There is no doubt that there are a few journalists who are true to the principles and ethics of the profession, regardless of their financial status. But for these, the culture of denial of access to information and the notorious criminal libel law have connived to provide persistent obstacle.
Even though Sierra Leone has passed an Access to Information law, journalists still find it difficult to access information from public officials. The reasons vary, but it all boils down to delay in responses to requests.
Some officials have complained that lack of knowledge on how to request for information has caused some of the delays.
Part Five of the Public Order Act which criminalises libel and imposes a jail term of up to three years has also served as an effective tool for rogue politicians and businesses to keep probing journalists at bay.
Sierra Leone’s libel law is unique in that the truth is not necessarily a defense. Many journalists say the best bet is to keep away from reporting something that is likely to cost them their freedom.
Copyright (C) Politico 2017