Statement by SLAJ President, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, at the Presidential Media Cocktail 2022

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THE MEDIA

Mr. President….

On Monday I proudly officially launched the State of the Media Report 2018-2021 put together by the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG).

Delivering the first remark as Chairman of the Advisory Board of the MRCG during the launch, Dr. Victor Massaquoi, who is also the Chairman of the Independent Media Commission (IMC), said without mincing his words that: ‘the State of the Media in Sierra Leone has drastically improved between 2018 and 2021’. Myself and the MRCG National Coordinator Dr. Francis Sowa also expressed similar claim.

But at the end of the launching, one of our exemplary journalists working for Mano Reporters, Kemo Cham, asked the question: “What has actually changed for the media in Sierra Leone? What specific areas can you point to?”

In response to Cham, Victor and Sowa mentioned media pluralism- the fact that we have registered more newspapers, radio stations and other media during the period; a general improvement in content, and increase in the number of professionals coming into the media- now the media can boast of professionals with PhDs, Masters, first degrees, diplomas and some level of academic qualification; and now some of these professionals are contributing to the body of knowledge on the media ecosystem in the country. They are doing analysis of the landscape. They are doing research. And they are publishing.

But then I added that the most fundamental change that has happened in the media, and which we seem to be taking for granted because we now have it: is FREEDOM! The freedom to practice our profession, which we did not have pre-2020. I have even forgotten when last, I and my Executive visited the CID or the Police to secure the release of journalists detained under the obnoxious criminal libel law for doing their work. That is the freedom I am talking about.

The freedom that allows us to publish front page headlines such as Adebayor Is Popular Than President Bio’ in the build-up to the infamous August 10 protests, and .President Bio Displeases God To Please Satan. That is the freedom I am talking about.

I am not aware of any journalist who is in jail in Sierra Leone for what they publish or broadcast or tweet. That is the freedom I am talking about.

And I went on to highlight some other achievements in the media:

-the annual government subvention, which was increased in 2021.

  • Freedom of information which the recent MCC scorecard puts at 98%.
  • We have made the biggest leaps in the World Press Freedom Index two years in row (in 2020 and 2021) since the repeal of the criminal libel law.

-Safety and security of journalists. According to UNESCO, one in every 5 journalists in the world is killed every year in the line of duty. While we should be concerned, we thank God we are not contributing to such scary statistics. We have developed a national framework, and a policy on safety of journalists in Sierra Leone. We have established a National Coordination Committee on the safety and security of journalists in Sierra Leone.

-Sierra Leone has joined the Global Media Freedom Coalition- a high level platform where governments engage and peer review their commitments to enhancing freedom of expression and free media.

-And, most importantly, the historic media viability and investment conference held in June of this year. Sierra Leone has for the first time being listed as one of 17 countries in the world to benefit from the International Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM). In preparation for that intervention, we have worked with the support of all the stakeholders, including GoSL, under the platform of the MRCG with support from BBC Media Action, to begin to put the structures in place.

-We have established our own National Fund for Public Interest Media (NFPIM).

We have established a Multi Stakeholders Board (MSB) and a Technical Working Group (TSG) to administer the fund.

-A project proposal has been submitted which, when approved, will see Sierra Leone benefit from an initial 100 thousand United States Dollars from the international fund. 50 percent of that will go towards setting up of the structures, which we have already started putting in place, and the other half will be a grant to NFPIM. We also expect Government to soon announce their counterpart allocation to the basket fund as one of its commitments during the conference.

-This will be the first time in the history of the media in Sierra Leone that a locally-owned-and-managed Fund will be giving out small grants to media houses, or groups of journalists, that are committed to doing public interest media- embarking on in-depth and investigative reporting on governance issues of accountability, transparency, and service delivery at the local and national level.

With that fund we hope the government would invest significantly in the growth of the media.

GENDER
In the area of Gender. Part of the recommendations from the conference urged the GoSL to address gender imbalance in the media industry in Sierra Leone. What better body to facilitate that than SLAJ? We have set up a Gender Advisory Panel in that regard to help us research the status of gender representation in the media.

A draft of the Gender policy is being developed. That will be presented to SLAJ in January of next year for nationwide validation. This document is important because it paves the way for a Gender sensitive media in Sierra Leone.

At the international level, SLAJ participated at the recent IFJ Regional Workshop on Gender in Togo, Senegal.

SLAJ was assigned two sessions.

  1. Designing gender-sensitive programmes to attract more women journalists into the unions, especially women journalists working online.
  2. Promoting gender equality in the media: Fighting together as a union to end sexual harassment and all forms of gender-based violence in the media industry.

Reporting back to me from Togo, our SLAJ representative Dr. Williette James, said from the discussions during experience sharing sessions, the media in Sierra Leone was recognised as solidly anchored on better ideals of Freedom of Expression. The legal and other institutional framework for media operations in the country, the relationship between the Media and the MIC and IMC and other operatives, are all well-designed and can best serve as a point of reference for most countries in Africa.

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, I think it should be noted that we are achieving these remarkable results because there is a political will to ensure the media makes progress.

We are achieving these results also because of our approach: collaboration, engagement and consultation. The first thing I made clear when I came in as President of SLAJ is that Government has a fundamental responsibility to ensure the independence and growth of the media as a bedrock of our democracy and governance; hence we have to collaborate with the government at the level of the Ministry of Information and Communications where we have a fantastic minister and a dedicated and committed team of professionals.

And so, Your Excellency, on behalf of the media fraternity in Sierra Leone, I say thank you again for taking the very bold action of repealing the criminal and seditious libel law which has laid a very strong foundation for the growth and development of the media in Sierra Leone.

We further call on Your Excellency to continue to make commitments to media freedom and media viability across the country.

CHALLENGES
Your Excellency, colleagues, distinguished guests, in spite of all these efforts we are making we have very serious concerns and challenges.

Less than a month we will be into an Elections year, and the unfortunate incidents of August 10th are clear indications that the media (traditional and social) will be the battlefield for the elections.

All the more reason that Government should invest in communication infrastructure. It doesn’t matter what accomplishments you have made if you don’t take it to the public or communicate it to the public in a way they understand, it means nothing. There should be some level of independence in the transmission of government information.

The MIC and its sub agencies (IMC, RAIC, SLBC, etc.) should be well-resourced to be able to perform efficiently and effectively.

Information is very powerful, so Government should treat communication with all seriousness.

Number 1: The cyber security bill.
SLAJ, and a lot of people, have some concerns around this bill, and what that will mean for free expression and media freedom during the elections. We vehemently condemn, in advance, any use of that law by the security and justice sectors to clamp down on critical and dissenting views or political opponents in the guise of allegation of ‘incitement’.

Number 2: The Media is in deep shit (to use the colloquial expression of the Americans).

Your Excellency, the media is struggling and this is very serious. The media has been hit by real hard times, and it is excruciatingly difficult.

Ironically you will not see this on the front pages of our newspapers or hear it on radio and tv. Instead, what you will see is us fighting the course of the MNOs: Hard Times Hit MNOs! That is because we are so selfless that we put the interests of other people above our own interest. We care so much about the many Sierra Leoneans that will lose their jobs if the MNOs scale down their operations and so we didn’t even bother to fact-check or cross-check some of the claims they were making. We just ran with their narrative.

But sincerely, we also care about the fact that the media is on life support and the MNOs and Mercury International are our only physicians for now.

Sadly, Government, which is also posing as a physician, is our biggest debtor.

The print media, especially, is literally dying. Even newspapers supporting the government are on the brink of collapse. Even the party newspaper, Unity, is on the brink for lack of support; not to talk of the opposition paper We Yone.

One pro-government media owner tells me he is planning to lay off 5 staff because he definitely cannot cope. That is how serious the situation is. The Government needs to step in and help, directly or indirectly.

The government has to device a method of supporting the media. Other sectors are getting indirect support. Duty free concessions on printing materials, for example, will encourage business men to invest in the printing business. But we also want to get involved in our own business of importing newsprints, foils, inks, etc. and we have been talking to NASSIT about this for several years now. The Government donating one or two modern printing presses to SLAJ for use on a cost-recovery basis will help greatly.

The truth is some form of help must come from the government. If that is not forthcoming, a good many of the newspapers will close down.

One of the recommendations from the investment conference calls for the introduction of a national policy on advertising. The government was also urged to introduce regulations for fair and transparent allocation of public sector advertisement and prompt payment for adverts.

Your Excellency, we are like the proverbial duck swimming across the river- unruffled on the surface but underneath we are paddling like hell.

CONCLUSION
In conclusion, Your Excellency, whenever I have the opportunity to have your ears as I have right now, as SLAJ President I need to raise one or two issues bordering on national development. But I will only talk about one, the other one I will save for another opportunity.

So please permit me to conclude by giving my brief perspectives on one important issue affecting the development of our nation.

  1. Our Political System
    We all know that our country is polarised along tribe and region rather than on ideologies. And we need to fix that.

When you have a SLPP Party that draws 90 to 95% of its supporters from the South and the South East regions you expect that when they are in power it’s people from those regions who will enjoy that power.

When you have an APC Party that draws 90 to 95% of its supporters from the North and North West then you expect that when they come to power, they come with the North and North West.

This is a recipe for tribalism and regionalism; and it promotes exclusion and marginalisation.

You see that there is something fundamentally wrong with our political system. Even the way we elect our leaders within our political party systems. So, if you get it wrong within the political party you eventually will get it wrong when you take up government as a political party.

And so, the reforms should start at the political party level.

The time is now to start honest, frank, sincere and patriotic conversations for a new political system that will address these deficiencies in our body politic.

Mind you, I am not talking about the PR System. In fact, as media we know nothing about the proposed PR system. That is why when Parliament organised a workshop to have perspectives on the PR system they invited almost all other groups to make presentations except the media. Of course, they just invited the media to witness and report.

I am actually talking about a system that will suit our diversity, tradition and culture as a people and country. Dr. Omodele Jones started this type of conversation around 2012/2013 or there about. As a nation we need to revisit that conversation in earnest.

And if anybody tells you we don’t have tribalism because we have inter-marriages for example, I beg to differ. We are getting there in high speed; the mindset is building among young politicians; it is being induced; I can see it, I can sense it, I can feel it; and it will be the biggest mistake we will make as a nation.

Your Excellency, I brought this up purposefully because I know you are in government and you bear the greatest responsibility.

And I also know that during your tenure you have made possible some of the most progressive legislations in the history of this country.

Let me now take this opportunity to wish you Mr President and your beautiful wife, the Vice President and members of Government, colleagues and guests here this evening, the opposition parties Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2023 in advance.

I thank you all for listening

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