When plurality strangles press freedom
By Kemo Cham
By 2011 the Independent Media Commission (IMC) of Sierra Leone had registered 62 newspapers, 67 radio and five TV stations. That’s a major leap from just a decade earlier, when there was only one radio and one TV station nationwide, and a handful of papers.
With the current trend, according to the Commission, which regulates the media, the number of outlets combined is sure to have doubled, if not tripled, by 2018, an election year. Newspapers are expected to experience the biggest growth. One IMC official estimates that they will have reached at least 150, citing the frequency and number of applications received in a month.
This explosion of media outlets is a sign of achievement of one of the cardinal motives behind the creation of the Commission - protection of media plurality.
But a closer look reveals a worrying reality.
Politicians and corporate interests are exploiting a pervasive trend of ‘media poverty’ and weak legislation and monitoring to silence critical voices. Journalists, weighed down by the effect of this poverty, have become ‘mercenaries’, airing and publishing things against their consciences.
“Naturally, no one would like to hurt his or her master,” says Joseph Turay, Managing Editor of the Public Review.
The Public Review is one of a growing number of erratic publications that have cropped up as a direct consequence of a phenomenon that seems to have closed all doors of opportunities to younger journalists like Joseph - poor remuneration and conditions of service.
After working as a reporter for about ten years, Joseph realized he would never grow professionally in light of what was happening. Editors, he says, would not publish news reports that were critical of people or institutions which gave them advertorials.
Yet, while they worked under dismal conditions, the proprietors were the only ones benefiting, Joseph claims. Joseph recalls going for up to three months without salary.
Three years since its establishment, the Public Review, which started as a tri-weekly publication, struggles to print even once a week these days. Eight people came together to establish it. Joseph is now alone. All his colleagues left because things didn’t turn out as they’d expected. Many of them have gone on to establish their individual papers.
This has become the trend in Sierra Leone, where opening a newspaper is one of the easiest anywhere in the world.
Plurality and Diversity
Towards the end of the (1991-2002) civil war, as democracy as was taking roots, there was a rush in establishment of media outlets. As a control measure, government hinted at introducing measures to restrict ownership.
Salieu Kamara, former journalist and now civil society activist, recalls that the resistance from media rights campaigners led to the creation of the IMC. He says plurality was at the core of the minds of its founding fathers.
Kamara laments that government and corporate interests are now deliberately propagating a status quo which places their voices over the masses’.
“Opening up the media is good, so that more people will have access to it, but plurality is not just about the number of media outlets, but [also] the diversity of voices given access to,” he says.
According to IMC, out of the over 60 publications, only about 27 are published regularly. And only about 15 of these are dailies.
With this growing number of papers comes competition for the limited available resources in the form of advertisements. Newspapers or radio stations which refuse to openly support the policies of government or publish unfavorable reports against the corporate world, are left out.
Yet for an overwhelming majority of these, whether they get published depend on the availability of adverts.
This leaves publishers at the mercy of corrupt and selfish procurement officials who demand commission as condition for approval to publish an advert, in addition to political loyalty. Between 10 and 15 percent is charged as commission per advert.
“Some procurement officials would even demand advance payment of this before the advert is published,” laments Joseph.
On average it costs between Le800, 000 (US$1 = Le6, 600) and Le1.2million to produce a 12-page, black and white colored edition of about 500 copies of a newspaper.
This is a lot of money for most media houses in Sierra Leone.
That’s probably why very few resist the temptation of giving in to the conditions that come with these adverts.
“If you cannot make a breakeven, but you have services to pay for, salaries to pay, materials to buy… At the end of the day you will be tempted to forget about your public service responsibility,” Kamara notes.
The biggest advertisers in Sierra Leone are government ministries, departments, and agencies. And then you have the private companies, for whom being political has become a necessity to land lucrative government contracts.
Meanwhile, some politicians and corporate groups are taking advantage of the weak regulations and monitoring by the IMC to establish newspapers which only come out to captured adverts.
Several papers are known to collect monthly stipend from some corporate bodies, notably the sports betting company Mercury International.
As a survival tactic, other proprietors, especially of the smaller papers like the Public Review, go as far as accepting far less than the official advert rate.
Best practice requires that procurement officers distribute adverts with consideration of strength of circulation, but this is hardly the case, laments Abubakar Sheriff, editor of the Concord Times newspaper.
The Freedom of Expression Committee of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has drafted a Freedom Chatter, which represents a commitment to over a dozen principles aimed a guaranteeing a free press. Principal 10 of this document which is yet to be launched, among other things, addresses the legal and administrative measures used by government to favor or harm media or journalists, in the form of granting or withdrawal of advertisement.
“These actions take different forms, such as the application of discriminatory and abusive taxes and duties, placement of official advertising not based on the criteria of efficiency and fairness, lack of transparency in the award of radio and television frequencies…,” a citation in the document reads.
Sierra Leone prides itself as home of the first print newspaper to be published in Black Africa. It has also produced some world-class writers and broadcasters who are highly revered among this generation of journalists. But this piece of valuable history, some worry, has been stained by both journalists and politicians.
Throughout its first five year term, the government of Ernest Bai Koroma trumpeted the idea that it had a clean record in terms of press freedom. By that it meant it had not jailed any media practitioner. Despite a few issues here and there, this was hard to dispute, until 2012. Towards that election year, things dramatically changed with frequent reports of arrest of journalists.
Government-media relations took deeper dive when politicians, intent on stifling reportage on corruption in handling Ebola funds in 2014, upped their game.
All these have reflected on the country’s performance in the annual world press freedom index by Reporters Without Boarder.
In 2016 Sierra Leone ranks 83 out of 180 countries. That’s a major drop from 2014 when it ranked 72. In 2015 it was ranked 79.
Sheriff, the Concord Times editor, paints a picture of the forces of evil versus the forces of good.
“We may have a lot of newspapers, but the key essence of newspapers is to checkmate the excesses of maladministration, to bring out critical issues about society. But are we doing that?” he asked.
Sheriff says the IMC should focus on strengthening regulation so that the right people are in the field, which may deprive politicians of the pretext to crack down on the genuine critical voices.
“Unfortunately, those who are in the field for selfish reasons have far outnumbered those of us who are in it for the good of it,” he says.
With an LLB degree, Sheriff is due to enroll in the law school this year and he is not sure he wants to come back to the media. He says while he would prefer journalism, the conditions of service, particularly with remuneration, makes it difficult to stay on.
“I am ashamed as an editor to say how much I get as take-home [pay]. But for some of us, it’s the passion for the job that keeps us here,” he adds.
“And because media owners are reluctant to pay, they recruit everybody, including dropouts…. All they need is a reporter who gets the news. Whether well sourced, they don’t care. This is why there has been a drastic drop in quality.
“You pick up some newspapers and you can hardly see an original article written by someone who works there. This is bad for the profession. It is killing a noble profession.”
IMC has no intention of restricting registration of newspapers, arguing that it goes against the constitutional provision encouraging a pluralistic press. IMC chairman, Alieu Kanu, says proliferation of newspapers is good for democracy.
“The more we have the better... As long as those newspapers remain in conformity of the law, I don’t see any problem.”
But everyone else seems to see things differently, even if no one appears to have any immediate answer to the problems.
But one project with a potentially long term solution is the UNDP-funded Media Development Strategy (MDS).
Implemented by the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG), the MDS is an outcome of a study conducted in 2013. Its overall aim is to strengthen democratic dialogue, consolidate peace and ensure development through professional, independent and pluralistic media.
MRCG is chaired by veteran broadcaster, Ransford Wright. He says that the idea was for everyone to have unrestricted access to owning a media so that politicians could not skew how this was done.
MRCG comprises key stakeholders in the media including the IMC, Guild of Editors, SLAJ, and the government. Its flagship project is the comprehensive review of the national media curriculum.
Wright says they operate on the assumption that the present generation of journalists is compromised beyond salvation.
“Those who are bad, are bad. The idea is for us to groom the next generation to operate with a different mindset,” he says.
But the impact of MRCG’s effort is not expected to manifest until at least five years from now, according to him.
In the mean time, the question remains: what’s to be done for the present generation?
There are a lot of competing priorities yarning for attention – from threats of epidemics like Ebola, Zika, and cholera, to issues bordering on the economy.
One suggestion has been to amalgamate the fragmented media. But this, warns Kamara, has been tried before without success. He doesn’t see any chance of it succeeding now.
Government, he adds, can also look at the possibility of helping to diversify investments in the media.
There are a little over a dozen printing presses for the whole country. This means the number of newspapers far outnumber printing machines.
Kamara says one way government can demonstrate that it’s genuine about ensuring media plurality is by providing a conducive environment for genuine investors to explore the sector.
The Government Printing Department, which currently prints for the recently resurrected government owned Daily Mail, can also accommodate other papers at reasonable cost, he says.
But there is one major obstacle for private investment into the media - the notorious criminal libel law, which provides for the prosecution of everyone involved in the production and distribution of a publication considered libelous – from the printers, to the vendors.
(C) Politico 2016