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That new arrangement at the weekly government press briefing

August 3, 2016 By Alusine Sesay

One of the issues that impede good governance in Sierra Leone is the absolute lack of respect for professionalism and competence. Some people are placed in certain positions of trust specifically because they proved be to loyal to certain political parties  in governance, even though they may be absolutely incompetent to handle menial let alone critical issues.

When Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo was appointed Minister of Information and Communications in 2007, he initiated the weekly government press briefing. The briefing was and still is being used as a platform to inform the public about government activities undertaken by Ministries, Departments and Agencies.

Being a veteran journalist, and one who understands the power of the media and information, IB Kargbo made judicious use of the platform to sell the image of the All Peoples Congress-led government of President Ernest Bai Koroma.

His achievement then rested on his craftiness to make use of the ministry’s officials in the likes of Dan Parkinson, among others, to manage the briefing. During his tenure, IB Kargbo allowed officials within the ministry to professionally handle the press briefing. From reminding journalists via text messages about invited officials, to the internal organisation of the conference, officials were allowed to have their way. Everything was going on smoothly and all government activities were eloquently communicated.

The spinning was handled by the likes of Abdulai Bayraytay, who was the then National Publicity and Outreach Coordinator in the Office of Government Spokesman, and Sheka Tarawally, erstwhile Deputy Minister of Information and Communications. The press briefings were extremely interesting as the sort of people in charge were undoubtedly perfect spin doctors representing the government.

Similar trend was followed by Theo Nicol. Although he faltered along the way, due to his vulgar utterances against journalists, but he definitely maintained the ministry’s officials.

The argument here is, however, not about questioning the competence of the current political leadership at the ministry. Of course they are in no doubt competent to spin on behalf of government. Ajibu Jalloh is a good, eloquent and credible speaker.

The problem is that the ministry’s senior information officials who are suppose to be undertaking the administrative aspect of the briefing, have totally been left in the cold and replaced by a new breed of people who are to put it mildly incompetent and mediocre. The press briefing is the face and mouthpiece of the government, and for it to be polluted with incompetence, sends a bad signal not only to the Sierra Leonean public but to diplomats as well. It is no crime putting party loyalists in certain positions of trust, but competence should be the watchword, so that the credibility of the government and the party in power would be maintained.

When the administration of the press briefing was left in the hands of professional officials in the ministry, journalists were informed before hand and head of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) were asked hard questions.But all that tradition has faded away, and journalists now attend the press briefing blindly without prepared questions. That could not be unconnected to the fact the right officials are not fully involved or utilised.

Public officials, especially in this part of the world, are not always willing to talk to journalists, and the government press briefing serves as a unique opportunity for the press to ask relevant questions and put government officials on their toes. Failing to inform them before hand about officials that would attend the press briefing leaves them with no option but to ask unrelated and irrelevant questions because they were not well briefed before attending the briefing.

It could be recalled that the Deputy Minister of Information and Communications, Cornelius Deveaux, wrote to all media houses asking them to be sending senior reporters to the press briefing so that the latter would be asking relevant questions. That could be part of the solution, but the issue is that most journalists are not well informed before they attend the briefing.

Unlike a few among the rest, journalists are not attending the press briefing to embed for government, but to put public officials on their toes. Although it is not a crime to embed for the government, it would be a disservice to the public who strongly believe that they are being represented by the press.

The National Publicity and Outreach Coordinator in the Office of the Government Spokesman, Ajibu Jalloh, I believe, is now solely in charge of the briefing and my little piece of advice to him is that, if he could not raise the bar beyond where his predecessors left it, he should maintain the level. There is no way he can afford to reduce the press briefing to the level of mediocrity. He should make judicious use of experienced and competent officials at the ministry and stop putting forward people of low caliber that cannot even confidently welcome babies to a birthday party. That is too bad for the country.