COMMENTARY: Presidential media cocktail: The media in politics

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by Alimamy Lahai Kamara

I was there! At the Country Lodge. A presidential media cocktail so well organized, and so well attended by media practitioners across the country – even by non-journalists who could have been attracted by the urge to interact with a President that was going to articulate his deliverables for the media, his desires for journalism, and his interest in journalists. On that platform – around the pool, the grandiose appearances of women of garnishing gazes in their sparkling and breezing garments, and of men in attires of modest elegance – they perched on tiny stools in formation indicating congeniality among minds who continuously safeguard the democracy of the state by holding accountable the very President they have come to chill with, and by holding accountable the very government they continue to ask for more support from.

To my mind, Sierra Leone has a resilient media that has overcome battles spanning over five decades for survival and for freedom to have arrived at this stage. Its relationship with the state in the last four years, the fiduciary gains accumulated, the progressive laws legislated, the freedom enjoyed by practitioners, and the annoyance it continues to heap on a good number of public officials and by extension the state are part of the prediction made by professor Ritchard M’Bayo, who believes that the degree of media freedom and responsibility in Sierra Leone will continue to improve in the years ahead, (M’Bayo, ed. 2015: 14).

Sierra Leone has come a long way in terms of freedom of the press, and arguably the path has been complicated and tortuous. Decades ago, there had been contestation between the media and political authorities; there had been unprecedented silencing of the press; many journalists had been placed behind bars; some had even lost their lives in the face of repression on a profession they were known for, of a trade they were known to, and of a job that would care for their livelihoods. The practice had been largely for the brave, and less so for the professional. Even if it was not for the fear of hurting a political authority or a socially ensconced person, the legal framework had been an effective bulwark to media practice, to the health of its practitioners, and to the economy of the trade. Part Five of the 1965 Public Order Act was repeatedly been used to cower practitioners as was the demonstration of a lack of political will by successive governments to unchain the press, until 2020 when the Bio administration repealed the law to unshackle the press and redeem journalists from a horrible fear that characterized their profession.

The foregoing narration attempts to suggest a relationship between media and democracy and by extension the state, and exposes some tension in this relationship that has emanated long before now. It is evident that the state cannot exist without the press regardless of what political system is in institution. In authoritarian or communist regimes as in liberal democracy, the press continues to take the form and coloration of the political environment it operates, (Siebert, Peterson and Schramm, 1956: 1-25).

As M’Bayo predicted changes in freedom and responsibility of the media barely seven years ago; today, media scholars, practitioners, and politicians alike continue to point to these changes that have come to define the role of the media in Sierra Leone. Isaac (in M’Bayo ed. 2015:64-66) argues that journalism is expected to perform an important political role in liberal pluralist societies, feeding and sustaining the democratic process by supplying the information they require to make rational electoral and economic choices. The media has the potency to formulate conversations around social issues in a manner that fosters negotiation around competing choices. In the last fifteen years or so, the media has been very critical in elections in Sierra Leone by way of examining political agendas vis-a-vis the aspiration of the citizenry, and providing platforms for political participation that allows the citizenry to make informed judgment.

For the performance of these set of roles the media continues to enjoy wide-ranging political patronages that tend to grant freedom of the press. This has been a central theme in the history of the press and is closely connected with democracy (McQuail, 2010: 192). The political commitment to liberate the media in Sierra Leone is astounding and the desire to rewrite the laws and formulate new acts marks a new dawn in political communication, forges a new relationship between media and the state, and enlarges the media space for newsmen.

At the presidential media cocktail held at Country Lodge on 7th December 2022, President Bio believes he has created free space for the media by expunging part five of the 1965 Public Order Act when he says this: “even though you walked through the valley of the shadow of apprehension, you feared nothing; for I was with you; my 2018 manifesto and promises comforted you.”He takes pride in the fact that no journalist is behind bars for the practice of his trade, and that no journalist is under self-restriction for fear of death or imprisonment on account of his journalism.

Sierra Leone Association of Journalists thinks so too. While delivering his address at the cocktail, President of SLAJ argues that a fundamental change that has taken place in the media is freedom, which it appears practitioners take for granted. Ahmed Sahid Nasralla notes: “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”. There continues to be a wide acknowledgment within the media of this singular effort at liberating the media by refurbishing the legal environment within which it operates.

While all of this is happening, not even a critical inspection may be required, a cursory look at the relationship between the media and the state reveals some interesting friendship – in some instances characterized by tension and conflict – perhaps attractive to both practitioners, academics and politicians.

President Bio appears satisfied with this partnership, and he is always bold to catalogue programmes delivered for the media either in collaboration with the media or singlehandedly as a government in favour of the media. At the cocktail he points to the following achievements and programmes: media viability and investment conference, proposed grant for international fund for public interest media, the annual media and civil society retreat, government acknowledgment of the Global Pledge on Media Freedom, enactment of IMC Act of 2020, favourable international press rankings, and repeal of Part Five of the Public Order Act. Minister of Information and Communications describes the cocktail as a celebration of the gains made in the information sector. For Mohamed Rahman Swaray, the media can take lead role in facilitating discourse by employing the expertise of opinion leaders with divergent views on varied subject matter to shape perception, stimulate interest and participation, and foster public acceptance and ownership of government programmes.

As I close on this subject, I am tempted to put into perspective the mission of the media in politics, and quickly draw from confabulations of scholars who continue to examine this contentious theme. Clifford, Theodore, Kaarle, Denis, and Robert have delved into this matter and delineated roles of the media in a democratic society. They argue that the media has a collaborative role that implies a relationship with the state or other centers of power … (Clifford et al. 2009, 196). Collaboration simply means the media relates with the state or participates in the democracy of the state for the delivery of public good.  When the media decided to report on the Covid-19 pandemic in Sierra Leone, it was performing a mission by collaborating with the state to collect information from state actors for the public good. Clifford et al (2009, 197) further contend that it is only the state that can interfere in the affairs of journalism in ways that fundamentally alter the nature of the everyday news. This can come in the form of legislations – instituting progressive laws that guarantee freedom of practice. Another reminding example is the collaboration between the media and the state that eventually produced a new IMC Act of 2020, and the collaboration that resulted in the provision of subvention for the media through Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ). C. Edwin Baker remarks that a state, however laissez-faire its approach to journalism might be, assumes some responsibility for ensuring a public purpose for a private press, (2002, 213). In many ways the private press in Sierra Leone performs public interest journalism as guided by the IMC Act of 2020. As I retire, I am in agreement with the view that collaboration deals as much with the needs and expectations of the state as the needs and expectations of the press (Clifford et al. 2009, 197). The Sierra Leone scenario is a productive and rewarding one where the expectations of the state are aligned with the expectations of the media.                          

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