By Joseph Dumbuy
The last time I attended a general meeting – biennial conference to be precise – of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) was in 2011 in Kenema. Yes, ‘excitement’ is the word to describe the feeling I had at the time. This had to do with a combination of reasons. Curiosity was one of them. Secondly, I wanted to have a feel of how the Association has metamorphosed since some of us left in January 2001. Expectedly, I also wanted to reminisce with the old guards – Ahmed Kanneh comes to mind – especially those I had not had a proper chat with since my return to the country in January 2010. I had been out of the country for nearly five years.
Ah, regarding centre of power, I was interested in finding out those who wield power within the Association. During my time – from 1995 to 2001 – it was the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (now SLBC) and the Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA). We were told even messengers from the two were members of SLAJ. The two government institutions make up the largest voting bloc comprising more than half of the membership of the Association. You have to have both in the bag to stand any chance of winning an election.
Did you say to become president you have to have the blessing of the government or at the very least the Minister of Information? Am I accusing government of meddling? Yes. I do!
Other print media journalists should be the least of any candidate’s worry because they do not have the numbers. Many were not registered but not for lack of best efforts, it must be told. I would resist the temptation of calling it a deliberate ‘policy’ of exclusion but would not disagree with anyone describing it as such.
I still recall the election of Mohamed Tayib Bah as President in 2000. The presidency was keenly contested by Lansana Fofana and Mohamed Tayib Bah. It turned out that many supporters of the former including my humble self were not registered with the Association despite years of practice. Among this group you had Christian Keilie – may his soul rest in perfect peace – my then Editor in Chief at the Salone Times, even though he had served as Secretary General of the Association in the Southern Region for a couple of years under Richard Margao. This may sound unbelievable but it points to how disorganized the Association was at the time.
Anyway, we went into the election, Lansana saw the writing on the wall and pulled out of the race and led a mass walkout of mostly unregistered supporters. SLBC and SLENA were left to elect the president even though a sizeable number, including of course the unregistered members, was excluded from the process.
I must say a lot has changed in recent years in terms of registering with the Association. Back then the process was shrouded in secrecy. The process is a lot more open and transparent these days. But there is a downside to this; many have been registered only because they read journalism or mass communication. So the only thing these people have to show for being journalist is the ID card.
Now you appreciate why I was excited about attending the meeting in Kenema. But my first impression upon arrival at the conference venue at the Trinity Center on Blama Road left much to be desired. The atmosphere could be mistaken for a carnival. I think mild chaos is a better description. You could forgive me for thinking the conference was having a break upon my arrival at the venue. You could see journalists in a nearby shop on the other side of the road having a laugh and a drink. Others stood by the road side for a chat with passers-by including those on commercial motorbikes. Inside the compound was a picture in itself. It was littered with pockets of journalists who – having removed the chairs from the hall – were having a chat loud enough to distract the few in the hall.
When I entered the hall I was surprised to find out it was virtually empty even though a paper was being presented. The situation was the same even when Dr. Julius Spenser was presenting a paper on the IMC highlighting some of the challenges facing the institution. I sat throughout the presentation and felt bad that most of those who needed it most chose not to attend.
Another depressing side to the meeting was that I realized members will agree too easily on issues, which is very uncharacteristic of the profession. The profession is a market place of ideas. It therefore prides itself for wearing the thinking cap of society wherein thorough intellectual debate is the established norm. The decisions of politicians are many a time driven by votes rather than what is good for society. Journalists therefore have a sacred duty to proffer different sides of the argument including those politicians would not like to talk about for fear of losing votes.
But when journalists cannot discuss issues affecting themselves, how can they effectively engage national issues. The point I am making is this, you discuss issues thoroughly when counter ideas are weighted against them. Ideas should be pitted against competing ones to decide whether they are worth pursuing. This did not happen at the meeting in Kenema.
I was also struck at the manner in which resolutions were adopted. Under normal circumstances, you would expect persons proposing resolutions to be given time to present them to the house. This should then be followed by a discussion in which all sides of the argument are heard whether for or against. But this was never followed. A journalist will rise up and propose a resolution or an amendment to previous resolution and then it will be put to a vote without any discussion. What is more, the votes were taken with majority outside of the hall having a chat.
As SLAJ prepares for another general meeting these issues should be taken on board with a view to addressing them. Of course, members can always find time to relax after conference sessions. We would like to see one that is better organized where members will attend and participate in the various sessions. Those who refuse to do so should not be allowed to hang out in or around the conference venue. No compromise! Also, SLAJ should be opened to experts and professionals from other fields with creative writing skills. SLAJ should go for them and bring them into the fold.
For far too long, the media in Sierra Leone has been hijacked by people who read the arts. Because of this when you open newspapers there is hardly any expert view or analysis on the economy, the environment, medicine, law, science and technology, climate change etc. This makes our newspapers very boring. We should play catch-up and have these experts onboard. I am not talking here of journalists covering these issues and reporting what the experts say. I’m talking of the experts themselves analyzing these issues and pitting their wits against other experts to inform our view on these issues. Tanu Jalloh used to do a superb job at analyzing economic issues but it is a shame he has now disappeared into thin air.
SLAJ has to lead efforts to recruit experts into the profession even on a part time basis. A number of experts would be prepared to do it for free if given the opportunity. The likes of Andrew Keilie are many out there. I must say, I would have loved to see him focus on issues of science and technology.
SLAJ should also discuss when and how to response to serious national issues. I do not think SLAJ should entertain fear when responding to important national issues or first look up to others before making their position known. SLAJ should take pride in being the first to take a position on serious national issues. And the issue of neutrality should NOT be countenanced.
Take the issue of Third Term debate. SLAJ never put out any statement. This is a shame. Even the President of the Association was timid to state his position for fear of being construed as the position of SLAJ. But what is wrong with this? If I may ask.
We seem to be behind times here. I have never heard a British politician make such an excuse when confronted with a sensitive national issue. People have a right to state their opinion on issues and leave it to the groupings they belong to, to distance themselves from it. What you cannot do is to refuse to state your opinion or position on issues because someone will exploit it against your group. The group will always be happy to take credit for your opinion on issues if it illicit a positive reception from society. At the same, it is free to distance itself if such views are deemed detrimental.
Now, see how SLAJ and other institutions were put to a shame. When the question of a third term was put to the Chair of the NEC, she did not mince words. She never thought of the sensitivity of her position. I think SLAJ has a lot to learn from this, especially with Kelvin Lewis at the helm. Kelvin has a history of steering clear of sensitive and difficult national issues. This is not good for Sierra Leone and it is not good for the profession. Journalists should always stand by the people and if means being nasty and ruthless with elected and public officials, so be it. SLAJ should discuss and pass a resolution on when to issue statements on national issues. I would suggest this should be within twenty-four hours of the issue being in the public domain.
I think SLAJ should also put a stop to ‘journalists’ pasting press tags permanent on the windscreen of their cars. Having tags smack of cheap popularity. What is more, it could be counter-productive in news gathering and investigations. Keeping the identity of journalists secret is key to their work. The tag could be necessary for ease of movement to, say, attend important events say the visits of heads of state or some important personality from the UN, ECOWAS etc.
I know SLAJ does not like having a taste of its own medicine but having a vibrant Association which this piece is intended to serve is more important than any inconvenience it may cause.