By Samuel Ben Turay
Deputy Minister of Information and Communication, Theo Nicole, yesterday launched the 2013 Media Report by Society for Democratic Initiative (SDI), titled: ‘Crack Down on Free Expression’.
Speaking at the launching ceremony at SDI offices in Freetown, Mr. Nicole expressed disagreement with the theme of the report, due to the fact that “Government has never arrested and detained any journalist since President Koroma came to power in 2007,” adding that arrest of journalists was as a result of individual complaints against the media practitioners, not by the government as any arrest made without the authority of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice was not government sanctioned.
However, both Jonathan Leigh and Bai Bai Sesay, managing editor and editor respectively of the Independent Observer newspaper had to spend days in police detention and remand this year for an article that was deemed libelous against the president. They were prosecuted by senior prosecutors at the Law Officers Department, headed by the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, although the charges have been dropped after the men apologized to the president.
Mr. Nicole said though that government was happy to work with SDI and other institutions that promote democracy in the country, and admonished media practitioners to be professional and responsible as “self-comportment is very important for journalists”, while it was imperative that some criteria be set up for those who wish to start practicing journalism, as a lot of people who come into the profession and not well trained and qualified.
SDI’s Executive Director, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, said the organization is committed to monitoring and assessing the media in the country, just as the previous report last year.
He said the 2013 report captured several detailed incidents of public harassments and beating of journalists, which in no little way suffocated the media environment.
He attributed police brutality against media practitioners to lack of capacity of the police force and the breakdown in the chain of command. He said there were lots of cases of physical harassment and attacks on journalists in the country, a development the SDI boss said could frighten journalists into abandoning their profession.
Chairman of the occasion, Charles Keif-Kobai said the report catalogues SDI’s monitoring of the media landscape and activities in the country which deserve assessment and reporting on.
Meanwhile, Public Relations Officer of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Abubakarr Bah thanked SDI for the theme of the report, and the deputy minister for availing himself at the launch, but debunked the minister’s claim that no journalist has been arrested under the current administration.
“I disagree with the deputy minister, is the police not part of the government?” Bah rhetorically asked, apparently alluding to numerous police arrests and detention of journalists in recent months, prompting several calls for their release, plus an unprecedented media blackout in protest against the detention of journalists and for sections of the draconian Public Order Act of 1965, which criminalises freedom of express, to be expunged.