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Media Situation in Sierra Leone

By Alpha Rashid Jalloh – Media Analyst and Research Consultant

The destiny of most African nations  now hinges on their media which have  great roles to play in  lifting  their countries  out of  the doldrums ,  enhance  accelerated development, good governance  and  the protection of fundamental human rights , but  in  many situations  like in Sierra Leone,  the media have become so hawkish and mischievous  that they  aid  bad governance and also by their subjectivity create acrimony within the society which is responsible for the fragmentation of the cohesive foundations of the nation-states.

In Sierra Leone, there are nearly fifty newspapers  but many are not regular and the playing field in the market is not level, which makes it difficult for newly established newspapers or papers that do not thrive on sensationalism to survive. In a society where sensationalism is what determines a journalist’s or a newspaper’s popularity, the layman would perceive the sensational or popular journalists as “good journalists”. Hence many journalists become friends of subjectivism and enjoy cheap popularity even at the cost of undermining the integrity of the profession, but the few good ones who decide to walk on the straight path uphold the ethics of the profession even though they fail to win accolades and popularity.  On the other hand, politics greatly influences the editorial policies of newspapers and radio stations. Even though some claim to be “independent” yet their articles and reportage reflect a leaning towards a particular party. However,  there  are some that  lean towards a particular party yet make it clear that they are not independent and are most times fair  than the so-called “independent” newspapers.

The market situation on the other hand is also an impediment to the growth of not only the big papers but even the small ones. There are no market structures for the distribution of newspapers and hence newspaper editors and managers have to rely on the vendors who have to hawk the newspapers and sometimes cannot reach remote areas or far distances. The cost of production on the other hand is higher than what the newspapers are sold thus transforming newspaper owners into magicians to sustain their newspapers. In such a situation they have to depend on advertisement from corporate institutions and private enterprises who most times have a preference for the big papers, but even when journalists get the adverts, it takes ages for payment to come and sometimes they get it in tranches within which they would have accumulated huge debts in running the papers or radio stations.

After almost eleven years of civil strife which ushered a cataclysmic scenario that subjected Sierra Leoneans to horrendous experiences, the nation in post-war era has to sustain a fragile peace which may be achieved or destroyed through the media.  In the midst of this fair- is -foul and foul-is-fair situation in the media, many journalists frantically try to  exhibit professionalism and responsible dispositions, but there are others  who  manifest waywardness either because of lack of adequate knowledge or they are influenced by the mad  rush to join the get-rich- quick train. In such a situation the utilisation of newspapers for malevolent objectives by individuals in the society becomes a common phenomenon. This does not augur well for the cohesiveness of the nation-state because journalists end up becoming mercenaries to carry out evil machinations of people and also to fulfill vengeful missions.

The radio stations are also multiplying by the day. Almost every community can now boast of a radio stations, but it becomes difficult for the Independent Media Commission, the country’s media regulatory body to monitor them.  In the case of community radio stations they have to make use of volunteers because of lack of financial resources. In some stations disc jockeys, who merely rely on commonsense to manage their own music programmes because they never had opportunities to be trained, even take the risk of becoming news programme producers and incidentally slaughter people’s reputations in awful ignorance. Also, one of the biggest threats in the electronic media is paid programmes which have been misused by many members of the public to vent anger, revenge or carry out personal vendettas. Those affected are usually expected to also pay to make responses. When that happens, the other party who originated the allegations may also come back to the same radio station and undo the person who replies by distorting facts and twisting contexts of what the person has stated in his reply.

Even though it is unethical and illegal for any person or group of persons to make specific allegations against others on air, yet still news programme managers take the risk as long as the persons are willing to pay, thus transforming radio stations into reputation- slaughter- houses. This accounts for the prevailing press wars which are characteristic of the Sierra Leonean media. Journalists would even be willing to slaughter their colleagues’ reputation to satisfy customers who pay money to fulfill a personal vendetta or stage manage an event against a particular person or fulfill a mischievous objective. This phenomenon has made many mischievous and discontent elements in public and learning institutions, associations, you name it, to perceive the media as a battle field that gives them the opportunity to kill enemies.

There have been calls for IMC to come up with new codes to curb this phenomenon which is undermining public order and harmony. The IMC Code of Practice contains the regulations for the print and electronic media. It however has its own weaknesses. For instance, even though the code of practice requires all radio and television stations hosting phone–in-programmes to have the capacity for screening in-coming calls before putting the caller on air, the stations do not have the capacity to delay calls before broadcasts, which makes the social media to be an instrument of mischief. It thus enables a caller to make libellous statement on air before being cut off. But even when the person is in the studio, he could not be prevented from doing the same when he has paid for such programs. What journalists have failed to take into consideration is the fact that there are two essentials that must be reconciled in law and in professional practice; the right to communicate (free speech) and the right to reputation.  Since there is usually a conflict of judgement between the victim and the libeller as to what is right, the IMC has taken the onus of serving as an ombudsman.

But even though some journalists have transformed themselves into instruments of mischief in their pursuit of economic objectives, yet still all of them, the good the bad and ugly journalists are faced with a dreadful octopus called seditions libel which can land any journalist in jail not just because it is a law but because the political atmosphere may change and create a murky atmosphere in which the journalists end up falling into the trenches. There have been several clamours for the law which is in the Public Order Act of 1965  to be amended, but the debate between  irresponsibility of journalists, right to free speech and the reputation and safety of individuals and the state at large, has always over swayed any argument in favour of the journalists. But the truth is, when the bad journalists reduce in the field, the good ones will have their own way and freedom of speech would triumph over the political hammer. The Rwandan situation has always served as a food for thought for many nations in the Third World on the mischief of the media.