September 9, 2016 By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)
SLAJ’s [Sierra Leone Association of Journalists] courtesy meeting with the Ministry of Information and Communications (MOIC) was a meeting long overdue but when it finally happened on Friday, 2nd September, 2016 almost three months after the media body was elected into office, there were no regrets.
SLAJ’s re-elected President, Kelvin Lewis, formally introduced and presented his Executive to officials of MOIC, thanked the minister for finally finding the time to meet with the media body, and promptly made three main requests on behalf of the SLAJ family.
Firstly, Lewis reiterated SLAJ’s call for the immediate repeal of the criminal libel laws as contained in the infamous Public Order Act of 1965 (and any other law inhibiting freedom of expression and of the press), describing it aptly as ‘a bad law’.
He noted that although the law does not clearly state it is specifically for journalists, its history from 1965 was clear that the government wanted to clamp down on journalists.
“The criminal libel law is a bad law,” said Lewis. “It is driving away genuine investment in the media; it is preventing women practitioners to assume top positions in the media industry for fear of being sent to jail for the slightest mistake; and it hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles.”
However, Lewis acknowledged the renewed commitment shown by the Government of Sierra Leone through the MOIC, evident in the many processes already underway, involving other stakeholders such as civil society, towards a repeal of the said law.
Secondly, the SLAJ President appealed to government through the minister to resume the annual subvention to SLAJ, describing it as a legitimate entitlement, being the Fourth arm of government. The annual subvention was stopped about nine years ago.
Thirdly, Lewis said SLAJ has come of age and it’s about time the association owns its own headquarters and stops paying rent. In that regard, he requested for a piece of land within the city to help SLAJ start constructing its own edifice.
The SLAJ President took the opportunity to remind the minister and his deputy that they were journalists before they became ministers of state, and urged them not to forget their roots.
“Once more I thank you for making the time to meet with us and I look forward to a good working relationship with the ministry,” Lewis rounded up.
In response, Minister Mohamed Bangura said that as a ministry they were honoured to have SLAJ pay a courtesy call on them, and congratulated and welcomed the new SLAJ Executive, especially Lewis on his re-election.
Bangura described SLAJ’s requests as reasonable.
“Your requests are not new and they are not unreasonable,” Bangura said. “We’ll look into them as a government. In fact, we’ve been in extensive discussion with your President to address these issues,” he said.
Bangura reasoned that the requests are for the journalism family, not just for Lewis and his Executive.
“We now want you help us to achieve this. You make a formal request to the ministry so we’ll have it on record to pursue it,” he advised.
Meanwhile, Bangura assured SLAJ “we’ll never forget our roots. We know we’ll not be ministers forever, but we will always have our profession to fall back on,” he said.
He continued: “No matter how rocky our relationship, we’ll always find a middle ground where we can meet.”
Furthermore, Bangura urged the SLAJ President to continue to do a good job. He said as an individual Lewis has worked his way diligently to where he is today.
“What you have done individually as a businessman in journalism, I believe it’s that same thinking you have injected into SLAJ. We want to commend you for that,” Bangura said.
He called on SLAJ to work with the ministry as partners, and “let’s make the ordinary journalist benefit from this relationship”.
The Information Minister advised the new SLAJ Executive to work as a team so that the history of the past executive is not repeated.
“Where there’s division you will always have intrusion from outsiders. Your effort to progress will be stifled. If SLAJ succeeds today you should be the designers of that success. Don’t undermine your leadership. Solve your problems and differences in house. You should be proud that no executive has done what you have done so far. They actually tried but their try was not as good enough,” Bangura admonished.
In addition, Deputy Minister Cornelius Deveaux thanked the SLAJ Executive and reiterated assurances of cooperation.
“This is a big opportunity for all of us, to ensure sanity in the profession and take journalism to a higher height. We are not veteran journalists yet; we are still active journalists,” he said.