Presentation by AHMED SAHID NASRALLA, President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) at the UNESCO-NUJ Regional Webinar marking World Press Freedom Day 2020 held on 5th April, 2020.

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Good morning everyone.

Thank you UNESCO, NUJ and Channels Academy for putting this webinar together.

Our sincere sympathy goes to family, relatives and friends of our colleagues in the sub-region who have already succumbed to the cold hands of COVID-19.

Those in treatment and quarantine centers, we wish them speedy recovery.

To our colleagues behind bars during this period, we urge the authorities for your unconditional release and safety.

I am delighted to share this platform with my colleague presidents of Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria.

Yesterday, we marked WPFD locally with a virtual Conference on the theme: ‘The Media and the COVID-19 Pandemic’.

One of our colleagues in the panel, Edward Kargbo, attempted to situate the media during this pandemic as a key victim and as an actor in the national response program; and dealt briefly with a parallel virus now termed ‘infodemic’.

Another colleague, Dr.Tonya Musa, espoused on the good and bad uses of social media during the pandemic.

A final colleague, who now works in Government, Mamadi Gobeh Kamara, explained government’s strategies in combating the virus and highlights the relationship, or rather partnership, it has forged with the media to support this national fight.

My presentation will be very practical, and I am looking at 3 aspects:

1. Safety of journalists in the line of duty
2. Press freedom
3. Covering the Pandemic

1. SAFETY OF JOURNALISTS IN THE LINE OF DUTY

Let me establish at this onset that all professions have their dangers or risks. Journalism is no exception.

During this pandemic, and in fact always, health workers come in contact with sick people on a daily basis and they risk also getting infected.
The same with the Police in the line of duty. They come in contact with criminals and they risk getting harmed. With the pandemic, they (and the Military) provide security for quarantine venues and enforce restrictive measures announced by governments. So they also stand the risk of contracting the virus.

Equally so with journalists. We engage all the other actors involved in combating this pandemic and face similar risk.

Besides, our safety concerns do not change with the pandemic. In fact, it makes it worse. The challenges with repressive laws against free speech; clashes with security forces; threats and intimidation from politicians and public officials who don’t want to be held accountable, etc, continue during the pandemic.

And even worse for us here, we are under a State of Emergency; during which period it is difficult to enjoy certain freedoms.

Just a week ago, there was an alleged attempted prison break at our main correctional center in Freetown. While Correctional and Police officers were running away and changing their uniforms to civilian clothes, journalists were running to the scene to find out what was happening and why, so they could report to the public.

So for many journalists the drive is towards the professional excitement and adventure, and the desire to be where history is being made in a hurry.

And constantly in this profession, we are exposed to danger. In war times (our civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone) and the Ebola outbreak.

During the civil war (1991-2002), we lost more than a dozen of our colleagues reporting from the frontlines.

During the Ebola outbreak, a journalist wanting to get the story first hand went to witness a burial ceremony of an Ebola victim and he got infected and eventually died.

You see that journalism is a dangerous profession, because when you go after corruption in governance, the corrupt officials fight back; they intimidate you or go in search of you to harm you.

Many times when dealing with politicians and corrupt people, the issues of fear and favour become pronounced. I have never seen a politician who will accept a bad story to be published against him/her. Because politicians don’t want bad publicity.

So they do one of two things- either to bribe you with money or favours to turn the story in their favour or they threaten you; and if you insist, you risk getting harmed.

In our case, with the use of the criminal libel law, not many of our colleagues can bear these aspects. For example, our female colleagues avoid doing controversial stories because of the fear of going to jail.

And I must say this: journalists in this part of the world are highly partisan, and most have their political masters who they out-rightly favour with complimentary stories.

So the issues of safety, fear and favour are deeply rooted in our profession.

Through these 3 issues, we can quickly pick out our unprofessional colleagues.

Yet it’s all not all doom and gloom. There are times when it is a wonderful job. When as a journalist you get the front seat when history is unfolding in front of your eyes.

Therefore, it takes a journalist with moral conviction and proper ideological training to be able to withstand the threats of fear and the influence of favour.

Economic safety:

There’s also the aspect of the socio-economic safety of journalists.
Working and welfare conditions for journalists in this part are appalling.

How many of us have health and welfare insurances or social security?

We have seen many of our senior colleagues grow old in poverty and eventually die poor.

This is mainly attributed to the challenging economics of the media even before the pandemic. The pandemic has only made it worse.

The media depends on advertisements and subscriptions to make money. Advertising is not forthcoming and we probably have the lowest rates in the sub-region.

In our case also, we don’t have a national policy on advertising so businesses have no obligation to advertise.

Government is the biggest advertiser, and ironically the biggest bad debtor.

So when the media doesn’t make money or even breakeven, there’s a ripple effect on the conditions of service and welfare of reporters, technical staff and support staff; it stifles the growth of the media and the quality output of the media.

2. PRESS FREEDOM

Press freedom in West Africa is relative depending on which country you are practicing as a journalist.

Basically the positives are few and unique from country to country but the challenges cut across.

The media enjoys relative freedom. There’s media pluralism and there’s democracy in most of West Africa.

There’s also a certain degree of rule of law, human rights, and a seemingly general determination for progress and development.

But the challenges are enormous. Access to information is still a challenge for most of West Africa even with countries with FOI laws, like us and Nigeria.

Violence and intimidation against journalists is also a concern. (See MFWA report of April 24th 2020: ‘COVID-19 Sparks Wave of Massive Repression in West Africa’).

Poverty of the media is another. Advertising is not forthcoming and the rates are low. Development agencies pour money to strengthen governments but ignore the independent media which is crucial to the strengthening of democracy, good governance, rule of law, transparency and accountability.

The tension between politicians and journalists is a huge factor and will never go away, it seems. While the media is pushing for progress in our democracies, rule of law, human rights, good governance, transparency and accountability, the politicians are reluctant to give themselves up to public scrutiny.

They hate criticism, even if it’s for their own good. The ‘yes men’; are still in vogue. The Politicians just like to hear the tunes of the praise singers and their own egos.

Look at what is happening in Guinea for example. In the midst of COVID-19 the president wants to go for a third term in office. What you failed to do in two terms, you definitely cannot do in one more term. ‘

Look at Liberia also, another of our immediate neighbours; with all the great expectations of the people in electing President Weah, nothing has changed since he came to power a couple of years ago or so. Things are getting worse.

You see that true leadership is in very short supply in West Africa, and this also affects press freedom. Because true leadership comes with respect and strengthening of democratic good governance and fundamental human rights.

Let’s take a look at the 2020 RSF (Reporters Without
Borders) index. It says ‘the future of African journalism
is under threat from all sides’.

I totally agree. In fact, I think we have a huge question mark over identity.

What we have been doing all this while is basically acting out the scripts of Western and European media models which only help to reinforce their biases and stereotypes representation of the African continent in their media. It is showing clearly during this pandemic. We take the cue from them. We have been very good followers.

African journalism can only survive and have an imposing identity when we develop our own standards and models in tune with our context (culture, tradition, politics, and sociology). Such standards should guide and inspire us in the way we tell our own stories (during this pandemic) and showcase the positives about our continent.

For every story on Africa told by a foreign media we must ensure we have an African version, as told by us, to counter misrepresentation.

Nevertheless, the COVID19 pandemic might just be that long awaited opportunity for African journalism to redefine itself, be proactive and take the lead in projecting the continent in a positive way to the rest of the world.

The continental and regional bodies, like FAJ and WAJA for example, must re-invent themselves to be fit for purpose in this endeavor.

Sierra Leone:
For us in Sierra Leone the story is the same but there has been some progress and reason for hope with the new Government which took office about 2 years ago.

In the 2020 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom index, Sierra Leone moved from 86 to 85 out of 180 countries.

I think it is progress, no matter if it is only one step forward.

I also believe we deserve even more places up, because of the progress we have made in the fight for the repeal of the Criminal and Seditious Libel laws of the Public Order Act of 1965, which criminalises free speech.

For the first time in about 50 YEARS of this fight we have reached the stage of tabling the repeal bill in Parliament. This is a milestone achievement for us because we know how far we have come and how difficult it has been getting to this stage. We have no reason to be pessimistic.

Having said this, the downside of press freedom in Sierra Leone is the continuous assault of journalists by security forces. It calls for serious engagement with the leadership of the security sector so that we fully understand and respect each other’s role in our democracy.

I look at the Ugandan experience in dealing with this and I think it’s a model we should all adapt.

The Ugandan National Mechanism on Safety of Journalists, an umbrella body of 30 multi-stakeholder organisations, including the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary, led by the Ugandan Journalists Union engage and dialogue on the safety of journalists.

Another downside is the economy of the media or rather poverty of the media which has been made even worse by COVID-19.

Businesses have closed down. Advertisement is not forthcoming.

The rates are laughably low compared to other countries in the sub-region. Prices of printing materials for newspapers, for example, have not only gone up but they are in short supply because of the border restrictions and the fact that flights have been grounded.

Newspapers are not publishing during the lockdowns. Many newspapers have closed down. Radio stations are struggling with the overhead costs and scaling down broadcast time.

So it’s a huge blow to the media right now.

3. COVERING THE PANDEMIC

In spite of all these challenges, the media has been at the fore front in fighting the disease.

There’s some kind of genuine cooperation between the media and the national COVID19 response apparatus put in place by our governments.

But that is not to say the media has sacrificed its fundamental watchdog role of following the money, interrogating the measures put in place by the authorities, fact-checking and cross-checking information coming from our governments and demanding transparency and accountability during the crisis.

What we (SLAJ) have been doing:

1. Before even we have our index case, we established the SLAJ Coronavirus Response Committee (SLAJ-CRC) to coordinate the media’s response to COVID-19 and to interface with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the Ministry of Information and Communications to support Government of Sierra Leone’s response.

2. Through the Sierra Leone Reporters Union (SLRU) we put together Safety tips and Ethical Guidelines for our journalists covering the pandemic.

3. The SLAJ-CRC conducts a weekly radio and tv simulcast program, with over 65 radio stations and four tv stations across the country to bring correct and up-to-date information on COVID-19 and the national response efforts to the public.

This weekly simulcast platform is also serving as a clearing house for mis-information, fake news and conspiracy theories mainly emanating from social media.

4. The SLAJ-CRC also launched the ‘Wear a Mask’ campaign to encourage people to wear face masks whenever they go out of their homes.

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