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The Crucibles of Media Freedom in Eastern Sierra Leone

By Mustapha Sheriff

For many if not all journalists, freedom of expression and by extension media freedom are bloods needed in the media realm like the very human blood is needed in the human body. They may not be far from correct just where a closer look is placed on the significance of media freedom in this 21st century that has authenticated Marshall’s Global Village philosophy. Recommendation 75 of Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report says ‘freedom of expression is the lifeblood of a democracy. A culture of public debate and tolerance for dissenting ideas is the sign of a vibrant and healthy democracy.

Restrictions on the freedom of expression represent a fearful State; it reflects a State that has no confidence in its ability to promote and disseminate its doctrines in the marketplace of ideas.’ 76 says ‘a free press ranks alongside an independent judiciary as one of the most important counter forces to the excesses of both the public and private sectors.

The media should be free of political patronage. The degree to which the media is independent is the degree to which it can perform an effective public watchdog function on the conduct of public officials and powerful individuals in society. Laws establishing "freedom of expression" require support and enforcement from the courts. Without an independent judiciary, press freedom cannot be maintained.”

The media is a mirror of society, and the state of media freedom is a benchmark, actually the real image of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in any country. It is not without reason that freedom of expression which also guarantees freedom of the media is one of the oldest human rights protected by several international declarations and resolutions.

After the Civil War of 1991-2001, tremendous efforts are made internationally, especially by the Economic Community of West African States, Africa Union, UNDP and European Union, to thwart the re-emergence of totalitarian regimes and dictatorships. Such action has resulted in numerous declarations, resolutions, pacts as well as an extremely complicated and complex system of human rights protection.

Theoretically, human rights have been put on the pedestal of the priorities of Europe and the world, including the Eastern Region, Sierra Leone West Africa, whose constitution has incorporated 16 international documents guaranteeing human rights, which makes them supreme over all laws in the country.

James Jamil Fatorma, the Regional Monitor of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists’ Disciplinary Committee-East, said that there is an obvious and seemingly insurmountable gap between the normative and the proclaimed on the one hand and practice in the sense of applying the adopted norms, on the other hand. The experienced media practitioner emphasized that the fight for human rights is actually a fight not for our being better off, but for better off future generations.

He stressed that the degree of respect for human rights is rightly regarded by many as a measure of civilizing processes in a society, although full implementation of human rights is considered as a utopia in far more socially and economically developed countries than ours. ‘’The suppression of human rights, through the suppression of media freedom, stifles every other progress," he reaffirmed. Mr. Fatorma added that the Eastern Region is still witnessing a series of examples that prove that the suppression of media freedom gives a chance to undemocratic autocratic systems dominated by closed centers of power with little or no citizens’ influence. "Such systems go with nepotism, corruption, and cover themselves with propaganda through controlled media. The strongest safeguard against the dark side of power is accountability and scrutiny and few institutions fulfill that role more effectively than a free media,” he noted.

Victoria Vandy Barnard, Chairperson of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists Eastern Region, said that professional media are natural allies, on the same mission and task of promoting human rights, affirming the principles and values of equality, tolerance and non-discrimination, educating citizens, encouraging change, noting that freedom of expression is a catalyst for all other human rights and the professional media.

She pointed out that attacks, violence and intimidations on journalists are not adequately addressed and that perpetrators remain unpunished. She recommended measures for the protection of journalists.

Madam Victoria however commended the Government of President Julius Maada Bio, Ministry of Information and Communications and the Sierra Leone Parliament for the unanimous agreement on the repeal of Part five of the 1965 Public Order Act on July 23rd, 2020.

She said that the repeal should inform the need of creating more effective mechanisms for a safer environment for journalists’ work, adding that it requires for mor journalistic unity and solidarity to improving the quality of journalism and the respect of professional standards and codes of ethics of SLAJ and the Independent Media Commission.

Madam Barnard pointed out that media editorial decisions reflect ethnic divisions and hate speech. Journalists, she maintained, are exposed to attacks and poor working conditions with generally low salaries “while lawsuits for defamation or insult on honor and dignity have become tools of politicians who want to intimidate journalists and deter them from researching some topics.”

She cited an example related to the beating of local journalists, Faya Amara Faya, Karmal M. Barrie, etc as clearer indications that press freedom is still dead in the Eastern Region.

"The internet brings a “nightmare of immorality” and that internet communication enables everyone to become a media worker, which calls into question the “mechanisms of legal and moral oversight of content that exist in classic media," she maintained.

Recommendation 80 of the TRC calls on ‘’the members of the media in Sierra Leone to carry out thorough investigations before publishing stories. Newspapers should be offering informed comment on matters of national and international concern. Some newspapers are in danger of becoming little more than scandal sheets, relying on provocative and, at times, dishonest headlines to promote sales.

Reports that are inaccurate or even untrue seriously undermine the cause of freedom of expression. Journalists who take bribes and allow their newspapers to be used for party political ends or for the settling of personal scores abuse the freedom of the press. Such journalists are not fit to be members of the independent press.” In recommendation 81, ‘the Commission calls on the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and the Media Commission to be more proactive in monitoring standards of journalism practiced in Sierra Leone and to establish mechanisms for effective self-regulation. These organizations can do much to advance a culture of human rights in Sierra Leone.”

Maybe it is affirmative to suppose that media freedom is not absolute and that rights go with responsibilities. So, the urge for a free, but responsible media must be the way forward.

This article is produced with support from MRCG through the ATJLF project on: "Engaging the Media to Change the Narrative on Transitional Justice (TJ) Issues in Sierra Leone".

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