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The Space is Shrinking for the media

By Isaac Massaquoi

The world woke up on Wednesday 7th January to news of an attack of grotesque proportions on the Paris offices of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo. Two masked gunmen entered the office during a normal production meeting and wiped out the editorial staff in cold blood. On their way out they also murdered a police officer who was apparently responding to the situation at Charlie Hebdo. They then set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the killing of 17 people. They themselves would be killed and buried in unmarked graves a few days later. The world is still trying to come to terms with those horrendous events.

In the days following that, I received an SMS message, not the usual social media gossip about what the government is supposed to have done or not done or who the latest victim of the dreaded Ebola was, or even whether the figures released by the Ministry of Health reflected the truth of our struggle with Ebola; it was an urgent message from our correspondent in Kono, Septimus Senessie alerting the office to the fact that he had received several death threats from anonymous people, angry about a post he made on his facebook wall. I checked it up and saw a post in which Septimus called on the head of the local Ebola response taskforce to resign because Ebola cases were continuing to spike on his watch despite all the resources put in by the government.

My immediate conclusion was that I needed a bit more than that as reason for the taskforce boss to resign. I suggested to Septimus that he should consider all other variables around the issue before making the resignation call. But all that academic talk pale into insignificance considered against the immediate nuisance of a death threat. How could anybody threaten another person with death for simply calling for the resignation of a public official? I urged him to dismiss the nonsense as empty threats and carry on with his work.

However, the recent killing of the entire editorial team of Charlie Hebdo has now forced me to reconsider what I told Septimus. I think I should ask him to make a statement to the police so that the matter is investigated and those found to have made those threats prosecuted.

Now here's the link between Septimus in Kono and his murdered colleagues in Paris. A death threat against the magazine made a few years ago has been carried with unbelievable brutality in the heart of Paris. Since Tablet Newspaper offices were fire-bombed in Freetown in the 80s, Sierra Leone has had no experience of media people being hunted down and killed like those in Paris. Many journalists were deliberately killed during the war by the fighting forces but put in the general context of a brutal and disgraceful war, no comparison can be made with what happened in Paris.

But a death threat is a death threat and must be treated seriously. It doesn't matter whether it came from Yemeni-trained Al-Qaeda killers or from political thugs and criminals in an impoverished but diamond-rich district in the poorest country in the world.

So when I heard this recent big breakfast radio debate about a looming turf war between so-called citizen journalists operating mostly on social media and mainstream journalists publishing newspapers and broadcasting on radio and TV, I concluded that this was just one of those debates that media people of today like to engage in. For me, the real issue is not about a war of supremacy between the two camps created on that radio program, the danger facing the space for freedom of speech which many have fought and died to create and expand over many long years, is what is most worrying in Sierra Leone and in many other countries.

In all countries all over the world, freedom of expression is under attack - that space, so jealously guarded by decent democracies, is shrinking fast and I refuse to be taken in by political gestures like setting up an Access to Information commission that takes so long to stand up principally because, despite the fanfare that greeted the passing of the legislation, the commission like others, lacks the necessary resources to properly establish its relevance despite the professionalism of its commissioners.

I have quoted a speech by former US ambassador to Sierra Leone, Thomas N. Hull so many times that the man should probably ask me to pay royalties from now on. The point is, even though that speech was delivered at one of these many media workshops we organise every year in Sierra Leone, then as now, it goes right to the heart of where the media should sit in Sierra Leone's democratic architecture and the shortcomings of actual media practice that provide the opportunity for politicians and other powerful interests to use laws the ambassador described as "anachronistic", to throw journalists in jail and create a chilling effect throughout the media fraternity.

Here's how Hull situated the media: "From my perspective, the development of genuine democracy is vital to Sierra Leone’s recovery from the traumatic misrule and violence that have plagued this country for decades. Democracy involves more than successful elections or good governance. By its very definition, democracy is participatory and promises to hold politicians accountable to the citizens who elected them. A successful democracy depends on various institutions to enforce that accountability, such as independent judiciary and civil society organizations, but none is more important as a watchdog of democracy than the independent mass media that can inform and educate people about their government."

The last sentence is very important. While there are other vital organs of state that underpin a decent democracy that puts the people at the center of things, the ambassador notes in particular that '...none more important as a watchdog of democracy than the independent mass media that can inform and educate people about their government.' Yes, he is an American but a democracy is a democracy. The greatest blot on our democracy in Sierra Leone is the continued use or constant threat to use the criminal and seditious libel laws against journalists sometimes for simply holding an opinion different from the official narrative.

Since 2007, President Ernest Bai Koroma has not moved on his manifesto promise to repeal or review those laws to bring us in line with the rest of the world, minus about 15 other countries. Campaigns by SLAJ and international media rights movements and even a Supreme Court action in Sierra Leone have not removed the threat of criminal action from free speech as we know it. A recent ruling by the African Court of Human and People's Rights to the effect that it is illegal to imprison journalists for their opinions has gone largely unnoticed by our political authorities. And Sierra Leone is a signatory to the instruments that created that court.

So how have Journalists of today themselves helped closed down what their predecessors fought and died for? The quick answer to that is that somehow we have become unashamedly unprofessional since the Windhoek Declaration on a free and pluralistic press in Africa. This is certainly not unique to Sierra Leone or Africa as a whole. We have heard stories about journalists in advanced democracies going to jail for hacking the phones of celebrities, even dead children just to make good headlines and all that. We have also heard of the Jayson Blairs of this world. When such things happen, pressure mounts on politicians to act and the only way they know best is to go to parliament and legislate.

In that 2004 speech, Hull mirrored the media in Sierra Leone, saying, 'My concern about Sierra Leone is that many publishers, editors and reporters appear to compromise their professional standards, not because of government intimidation, but for political advantage or financial gain.  I made a statement last week about corruption, which many of you reported...Corruption takes many forms, however. When journalists knowingly publish distortions, half-truths, rumors, unsubstantiated allegations, and outright lies, they engage in intellectual corruption that is as corrosive to democracy as any other form of malfeasance, and thereby betray the public trust.  In a democracy, journalism must be balanced and fair to be credible.'

At that opening ceremony at the US embassy, then in central Freetown, the audience, mainly journalists, applauded this line. To me, we put a brave face on it but our noses were badly bruised. I can argue that we have come a long way from those days, thanks to technology and training but please don't ask me to agree with you that what Hull said in 2004 holds no relevance to media practice in Sierra Leone today. I will disappoint you.

So we can have a debate about the growing power of citizen journalists and the possibility of taking over media work and making people like us jobless. It's a nice debate to have particularly when it's in proper context. But I return to my earlier point that the most timely discussion should be, how to first of all protect the little space citizens have in a democracy to speak freely on public affairs and in fact expand that space further in line with our democratic aspirations.

I have very serious concerns about the editorial issues around the Charlie Hebdo killings, but that is completely besides the point. Society is such that we do not always agree with each other but how  non-state actors like the so-called Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, be it in the Arabian Peninsula or Islamic Maghreb or even Boko Haram go about disagreeing is what is totally unacceptable.

And all democracies must be unequivocal in their condemnation of all such practices that limit people's rights to hold opinions.

© Politico 28/01/15