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Sierra Leone's Media and Elections 2012

I began my address to the recent Commonwealth-Sierra Leone conference on media and post-war reconstruction by agreeing with Professor Francis Nyamnjoh, that journalists in Africa – and I should add Sierra Leone in particular – have not clearly defined their journalism. Defining our journalism, I explained, meant that we must quickly grapple with issues like what journalism in Africa, especially in Sierra Leone, is all about. What its mission is and therefore how we should go about it. I have to say that this was a great conference with people from more than half a dozen countries all talking about how to get the media to serve African peoples better.
The discussions were frank and devoid of sideline snipping so common in attempts to have a media conversation in Sierra Leone.
The question should be asked whether it should take a Commonwealth or even a Sierra Leone government initiative for media people in this country to come together to discuss issues that are very crucial to the qualitative professional development of their industry.
In a recent speech, the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Umaru Fofana made a statement to the effect that journalists should take care not to be catalysts for the next conflict in Sierra Leone. It may sound a little alarmist but, I think he was addressing an issue that many are quietly thinking about. I asked one of my classes, what Umaru meant in practice. The responses were amazing.
On Monday, Radio Democracy hosted a lively discussion on role the media is expected to play in the coming elections. With Julius Spencer and Tornya Musa, the topic was in good hands. There was a fair bit of media literacy done also. This is really important because part of the reason media people are continuing this race to the bottom practice is because of the appallingly low level of media literacy in Sierra Leone. People just don’t know how the media food they consume everyday is cooked. I am talking about the person who provides the cash and hence decides whether it is cassava leaves or stew and of course, the ingredients, and the person who does the cooking and for whom.
Ensuring adequate media literacy is a key plank of our work in Free Media Group and people will hear us loud and clear soon on this.
I am not advocating a media landscape in which every journalist tries hard not to rock the boat; in which journalists, in the name of “encouraging investors” held back stories of corruption and insecurity; a landscape in which the media pretended everything was fine. No! In fact that will be too deceptive. Imagine a democracy in which everybody agreed with everyone else. It would be like the delusion of one hundred years of Apartheid.
The point is politicians will argue and quarrel everyday about every little thing. Their aim is to reach State House from where they can control the people and their resources. That’s it. Foday Sankoh gathered together some of our brothers and sisters and kept them in the bush under arms for 10 years and killed at least ten thousand others and destroyed property just to get to take State House. What is it about political power? Let nobody tell me about altruism – Kasho Macray was never a politician. He gave remarkable facelift to the PCMH and reconstructed the Old Road. It’s about controlling the people and their resources.
While we are on this, in the neighbouring country of Senegal, an 85-year old man is doing everything humanly possible to stay in power. And not only that - he wants to determine who succeeds him. He has so far failed to get the Senegalese to accept his son Karim to succeed him.
This was the man who flew to the rebel city of Benghazi at the height of the Libyan war, to denounce Ghadaffi’s political longevity and endorse the NATO-enforced UN position that he should leave office and be arrested for crimes against humanity. I hope some of our friends now understand why we find it difficult to listen to these new/old breed of African leaders.
In the middle of this struggle is the media. From very humble beginnings in Coffee Houses in England, look at what we call the media today. Even by Sierra Leone standards, the media phenomenon is unrecognizable in terms of its size, the intensity of its operations and its impact on governance and society as a whole. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech at the end of his political life at the Reuters Institute on the media’s impact on democratic governance.
I have picked out this telling line to illustrate the point I am making about how the media have come since the Coffee Houses. “...a vast aspect of our jobs today - outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else - is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms... Talk to senior people in virtually any walk of life today - business, military, public services, sport, even charities and voluntary organisations and they will tell you the same. People don't speak about it because, in the main, they are afraid to.” Here is a man who despite the unpopularity of the Tory government under John Major, relied heavily on the media to reach Downing Street and stay there to win three general elections, telling the world the media operations “...literally overwhelms...”
Mr. Blair’s last days in office were characterized by bad headline after bad headline, principally on account of his unflinching support for George Bush’s war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. At that time he was more popular in the US Congress than in Westminster.
There is a clear choice facing the Sierra Leone media going forward – practice according to accepted standards or concentrate on unbridled voyeurism and push the country over the edge again as Umaru suggested could happen when we concentrate on using the media to amass wealth or get at people we don’t like.
The Commonwealth media seminar was good but why can’t we organise such events on a monthly basis to do peer review and sharpen our focus. I think SLAJ can organise it but I guess turn out will be low because journalists will be suspicious of each other’s intentions and all sorts of conspiracy theories will emerge about which political party or individual is funding the event and for which purpose. It’s that bad! A good part of my study experience abroad was taken up by seminars.
World class journalists with several years of practice came along with perspectives on many issues from war reporting to the myth about journalistic objectivity. Young journalists had good time to interact with illustrious colleagues, learning from others' cultural background and so on. No classroom work can be that productive.
Julius Spencer’s point on Monday about us having the courage of our conviction to step forward and endorse political parties if we wish to, instead of putting up the façade of being independent and professional when in fact we are merely busy pushing a parochial and monolithic political agenda was well put. Major newspapers in the UK do that all the time. In fact Professor Hugh Stevenson and Michael Bromley, in their book sex, lies and democracy, describe them as “unashamedly partisan.”
So why should we, children of that great democracy, fool ourselves. I am not saying that is a good thing. But I can argue that those media institutions live in the real world. When media literacy takes hold soon in Sierra Leone, people will understand J. Herbert Altschull’s argument that “The notion that news has a kind of independent character or that or that stories tell themselves is simply wrong, just as it is incorrect to think that reporters and editors somehow stand apart from the political, economic, social and cultural system that has shaped imagine that journalists are a breed apart, somehow able to be 'objective' about the world around them in ways that others cannot is to believe in a logical absurdity.”
This explains why Codes of Practice are in force to moderate our excesses in attacking and destroying perceived opponents – a good many of them truly defenceless and never deserving to be caught in the headlamps of national publicity.
Umaru Fofana’s fears that journalists might be responsible for any future political instability if things continue this way, is, on the face of it, alarming. But, it should help us stop and think and take stock.
From Rwanda to Kenya and Ivory Coast journalists are either in prison or have been indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Here, I quote the trial judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, in sentencing journalist Ferdinand Nahimana “... 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...”
In the case of the other journalist Hassan Ngeze, the judges said “ 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 did not respect the responsibility that comes with freedom. You abused the trust of the public by using your newspaper to instigate genocide...”
I would urge that we re-define our journalism to meet the peculiar realities job. Let’s think about how Journalists themselves would be consumed by the fire they helped create if they allowed their pens to roam too freely.