NOVEMBER 4, 2014 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff
The Independent Media Commission (IMC) was established by an Act of Parliament in 2000 as “an autonomous body to regulate mass media institutions”. It is not a court, as the Information Minister would want members of the public to believe, but a regulatory body to ensure adherence to the tenets of fair, just and ethical reporting by members of the press. No doubt, the framers of the Act did not intend the Commission to act as a court, which in our system is adversarial, but as a body of respected ‘experts’ who among their many duties will preside over complaints from members of the public against media practitioners, with a view to reprimanding, reconciling and in some instances imposing fines.
Part of the core functions of the IMC is to promote a “free and pluralistic media” and to ensure the media attains the “highest level of efficiency” in the way and manner in which it dispenses its sacred constitutional role of upholding the fundamental objectives of the constitution.
In view of this backdrop, it behooves every Sierra Leonean, not least the President, who is “Fountain of Honour and Justice and the symbol of national unity” to be seen to act both within the ‘spirit’ of the constitution and ancillary Acts of Parliament and with moral goodwill, when nominating individuals to democratic institutions.
At least that is what obtains in respected democracies, such as Ghana, where their media regulatory body is headed by a former High Commissioner, media guru and lecturer, in the person of Ambassador Kabral Blay-Amihere. Other commissioners of the National Media Commission of Ghana are “appointed” by their respective institutions, such as the Bar Association, Women’s group, Journalists Association, etc., including two presidential nominees and three parliamentary appointees. It is significant to note that the chairman is chosen by the commissioners, not by the president.
But this is Sierra Leone where democratic institutions established to promote good governance and the rule of law undermine the very object of their existential mandate. We have not had a remedy because our lawmakers most often than not think of what is politically correct than what is democratically expedient. Thus mistakes are made from the outset: in the wordings of the Acts which create these institutions, effectively rendering them ineffective and inefficient, with the IMC being no exception.
Consequently, debates as to the right interpretation of Acts establishing these institutions have tended to undermine their efficacy. In the current imbroglio between the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and the presidency, the debate has been whether the president should listen to the ‘advise’ of SLAJ or go as he may be pleased.
In his letter to the president titled “IMC Nominations and attack on media personnel for Ebola reporting (Kono-Koinadugu)”, SLAJ president Kevin Lewis requested “an understanding of the ‘spirit’ of this provision and a common ground agreement, for better working relations.” What the soft-spoken and urbane SLAJ president may not have asked bluntly is: “where is the goodwill Mr. President?”
However, at the concluding paragraph of his letter, he reminded the president that when he needed trusted allies during a crisis moment in the current Ebola scourge, he called on SLAJ, even co-opting two of its respected members into his Presidential Task Force.
Again, during his 2014 New Year’s speech to the nation, the president enjoined all us to show goodwill towards our compatriots for the utilitarian good of one and all. It is one thing to ask your countrymen to act with goodwill, and quite another to act contrary, not least in nominating members of a Commission as strategic as the IMC.
The new IMC nominations may have generated a lot of bad-blood within SLAJ than it intended to heal. Already, the members nominated by the president are determined to be approved by parliament, which started the ratification process yesterday. SLAJ on the other hand will be justified to protect the integrity of its nomination process by standing behind those endorsed by the entire membership, some of whose names were controversially substituted with names preferred by the current Minister of Information and Communications.
Most, if not all, SLAJ members’ gripe against some of the names presented by the Information Ministry is for the simple fact that those are the names vetted and endorsed by the members. The Alpha Kanu nominees had the opportunity to declare their intention to serve the IMC, but failed to make their intentions known, at least to their colleagues. They in fact participated in the process which produced the list of nominees. So how come their names have now been forwarded to the exclusion of those the rest of the membership voted for?
Again, it is a question of goodwill and good conscience. Yes, they will argue they were nominated by the president. But that is not enough because they had failed to express any interest in the job when their peers were deciding. Call it idealistic, but it is only when our countrymen and women begin to look at things not from self interest but group interest that we can consolidate and strength our democratic institutions.
The powers that be may have the constitutional fiat to reject the “advice” of SLAJ even when the IMC Act of 2000 says so, but where is the goodwill in rejecting the names of Mustapha Sesay, Battiloi Warritay, and Babatunde Rowland-May, the trio having amassed abundant knowledge and ability in their combined 50 odd years working for national and international media organisitions?
Mustapha Sesay has risen through the ranks from a reporter to a respected editor, both at Standard Times and News Watch, and also served as National Secretary-General for SLAJ, not to mention stints at the Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International, to name a few. Battiloi Warritay’s knowledge and ability have been put to test at the UNDP and UNICEF, where he served as deputy representative and head in Sao Tome and Principe and Nigeria, and as head of media and communications in Angola and the Southern Regional office respectively. Mr. Rowland-May is a respected media doyen of no mean repute with expertise in radio and television, having served the defunct Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service with sophisticated elegance and eloquence.
The above are the names rejected by the government and replaced with Dauda Musa Bangura – a Peace and Conflict Studies graduate with just over five years experience in the media; Ms. Patricia Ganda, a broadcaster at Star Radio; and Mrs. Williette James, a mass communication lecturer.
Either by omission or deliberate lack of clarity, the nomination letters failed to indicate in which capacity Mr. Bangura and Ms. Ganda would serve – whether as expert in radio and television or in print media. The SLAJ president’s letter politely reminded the presidency for a clarification, because the Act requires “experts” to serve as commissioners. It will be interesting what Parliament’s take on this will be, as they are expected to ratify men and women regarded as “experts” in either the print or electronic media.
That said, I think SLAJ got it wrong in not including a female name on their list of nominees, although they have argued the process was fair and competitive. But be that as it may, in future, SLAJ should endeavour to at least have a female IMC Commissioner.
Yet, that does not absolve the government of a clear lack of goodwill in its relationship with SLAJ. And it cannot hide behind the cloak of constitutionality in the midst of the brouhaha the controversial nominations have caused. Instigated by the equally controversial Informational Minister, Alpha Kanu, the 1991 Constitution has been cited as source of the politically inspired decision.
Agreed that Section 53(3) of the 1991 Constitution – “Where by this Constitution or under any other law the President is required to act in accordance with the advice of any person or authority, the question whether he has in any case received or acted in accordance with such advice shall not be inquired into in any court” –preventsanyone orindeed an institution from contesting the decision of the president in court, but that does not make the decision itself less controversial and bad, and having gone against the “spirit” of an Act of Parliament. Like many provisions in the 1991 Constitution, it is one of the vestiges of the 1978 One-Party constitution which we should expunge. Hope the constitutional review process will take note.
Thus, in the interest of goodwill, especially as we are all poised to defeat Ebola, it is in everyone’s benefit in this constitutionality versus goodwill debate, to dialogue and find a common ground. Already, SLAJ has requested that route, it’s now up to the president to return that goodwill by dialoguing with the statutory body mandated to “advise” him, in a bid to have a consensus list that will reflect a good balance between expert knowledge and ability on the one hand, and gender considerations on the other hand.