Whilst wishing you a Happy New Year 2019 from all of us in the Executive, let me kindly take this opportunity to highlight key activities for the year just ended and crucial issues for the year just beginning.
Our highlight for 2018 is the General Elections in March, for which independent reviews have hailed the conduct of the media generally as satisfactory, if not excellent. Considering the very challenging conditions under which we covered the elections, we must be proud of ourselves and be inspired to continue to diligently perform our sacred role of monitoring our democracy, governance systems and processes and provide reliable, fair and balanced news and information to the public.
We are entering the year 2019 with renewed and realistic hope for the repeal of the infamous Criminal Libel Law. The current Government of Sierra Leone made about eight commitments, written down in black and white in their manifesto, toward the development of the country’s struggling media and so far they have shown convincing indications that they would fulfill their promises. A Cabinet paper on the repeal of the criminal libel law is now ready for Executive approval; from there it should make its way to the Sierra Leone Parliament as soon as possible. As it promised, the Government has also approved a subvention for SLAJ.
However, this goodwill from the current Government should not in any way be misconstrued as incentive to compromise the independence of SLAJ, but we should regard it as a legitimate obligation of the State to enhance the capacity of the media to be able to provide the checks and balances needed for our democracy to grow healthily.
On the other hand, may I hasten to caution that achieving the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law does not mean we are now above the law as media practitioners. There’s also in our law books the Civil Defamation Act of 1961, which we have been referencing in response to the call for a replacement of the criminal libel law. The civil defamation law does not criminalize our work, but will require us to pay damages/compensation when we are found guilty of acts relating to defamation/libel. Through the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG), with funds from UNDP and NED, we have been going around the country sensitizing our colleagues for a better understanding of this particular law.
In this vein, we continue to emphasize the need for self-regulation. Self-regulation does not mean self-censorship; it simply means adhering to the tenets that guide our profession. Self-regulation starts with you the individual journalist – the values you bring to your work and the way you conduct yourself on every platform, including social media; the media house you work for – their editorial policy; the Code of Ethics governing your membership in SLAJ and the IMC Code of Practice regulating your work as a professional journalist.
One reality check we must all come to terms with is the fact that in the last decade or so politicians have invaded our profession to the extent that colleagues now blindly support political parties in the hope of getting rewards with lucrative appointments when their party assumes power. The negative effect this has on independent journalism is there for all to see.
Truth and objectivity have been sacrificed on the altar of political interests. Our unity and strength as an Association is largely threatened. Instead of siding with the people, we are in conspiracy with the politicians. Whilst its everyone’s right (including journalists themselves) to support a political party of their choice, as professional media practitioners our loyalty should be to the people, whose collective interests and well-being we must promote and protect at all times.
We can help political parties, especially the governing party, to make the right decisions by proffering alternatives but we must not allow our media to be used as public address systems to promote hate, disunity, tribalism, regionalism and in effect instability. We must hold strong to our gate-keeping and agenda-setting functions in the interest of the general good.
Meanwhile, our next AGM in July 2019 (venue and exact date will be announced later) is an elective congress, bringing to an end six years of the Kelvin Lewis-led Executive and ushering in a new leadership. I absolutely have confidence and trust in our membership to elect the right team to build on the achievements of previous administrations.
As we look forward to an exciting year in 2019, let us kindly remember our departed colleagues and their bereaved families in 2018 and pray that God spare us all from sickness and death for a long, long time.
Finally, our hope is that 2019 will be a year of even greater achievements for SLAJ.