World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2016

My fellow colleagues, it is that time of the year again when we come together to reflect on the dangers and opportunities in practicing our noble profession.

25 years ago today 3rd May in 1991, African journalists gathered in Windhoek Namibia and developed a landmark declaration on an Independent and Pluralistic African Press.

The United Nations went on to recognize the day as World Press Freedom Day, and UNESCO has set aside this day to serve “as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom.”

It is “also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.”

Whilst we stand in solidarity with colleagues the world over who are in jail and those facing prosecution, threats and harassment in doing their work: we in Sierra Leone continue to reflect on the conditions under which we practice.

In Sierra Leone the continued presence and use of the Criminal Libel laws is a constant threat of the right to media freedom, which is a fundamental human right.

Today two journalists will not be with us because they are due in court to answer charges under the Criminal Libel Laws.

From 2007 to now (2016) over 25 journalist have been arrested interrogated, detained and/or jailed and two have been convicted of Criminal Libel.

While it may be in the interest of governments to regulate the press to suit their purpose, using the Criminal Libel Laws, the French Philosopher and Journalist Albert Camus sounds a note of warning and I quote “A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”

Today SLAJ again reiterates its call to President Koroma, to make do his 8-year-old election promise, to repeal the Criminal Libel Laws. We continue to maintain that there are enough provisions in the Civil Laws to address any redress sought from those aggrieved by our work.If medical doctors are not charged with murder, and executed, for making mistakes on their theatre tables where lives are lost while practicing their profession, why should journalists be jailed for practicing their profession?

My Fellow colleagues, the theme this year is “Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms: This is your Right.”

Incidentally today is the 250ieth anniversary of the World’s first Freedom of Information Law. In Sierra Leone, it has been two years and five months since the Right To Access Information Act was passed into Law. Despite several tries journalists in Sierra Leone are yet to benefit from this legislation.

Only one of such request– by journalist Fonti of the Fontricia Foundation for the release of seized results by the West African Examination Council has been entertained by the Right to Access Commission, and the seven days deadline imposed by them has now turned to 14 days with no action.

We believe that governments have the right to keep some information secret or confidential, in line with protecting state security. But we also believe that information dealing with laws and public expenditure for example must be open and freely accessible so as to enable journalists to hold governments to account on behalf of the citizens. This is all what journalism is about.

We must commend the Right To Access Commission for a bold attempt in their recent open data festival.It is said that Open data “offers new opportunities for citizens to participate in decision making processes. It can allow citizens to better analyse the quality of local services and flag areas of waste.”The benefits for accountability are therefore enormous since information on government agencies has not been forthcoming.

We cannot end without making mention of the ongoing Constitutional Review Process. Whilst we note with some appreciation the proposed changes to the Independent Media Commission, we however reject any attempt to populate the Commission with other people more than journalists. If the Judicial Service Commission and the Medical and Dental Council, which regulates those professions, are dominated by the respective professionals we do not see any reason why the CRC must discriminate against journalists in the proposed changes for the Independent Media Commission?

As we mark this day let me urge my colleagues to practice responsibly and within the limits of our ethics. Let us not give the opportunity to our detractors to continue to use our practice to justify the continued use of the Criminal Libel Laws.

They are bad laws and they must be removed from our law books.

May God Bless SLAJ and God Bless Sierra Leone.