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Page added on May 3, 2011
Fellow journalists and members of the public, as we mark World Press Freedom Day today the 3rd of May 2011, let us spare a thought for two of our colleagues whose remains still await burial while those of a third were laid to rest yesterday. May the souls of Mohamed Daudis Koroma who doubled as Minister of State for Health, Olu Richie Gordon and Christian Williams, rest in perfect peace. The journalism family and the public at large will sorely and surely miss them.
That said, on this day, I greet you all in the name of press freedom and hope that the practice of journalism in our country, where it all started in West Africa, will become less and less dangerous and more and more free. I salute the brave and honest journalists throughout the country who have reported the story as and when it has happened without bias, malice, or deliberate falsehood, even if sometimes at their own risk. I stoop and even bow in apology before those who have been falsely maligned by a few of our ranks who have reasons other than journalism to be in our profession. We hope and pray that these journalists make a deep introspection and change their ways so that those who feel hard-done-by will trust in all of us once again and strengthen their belief in the Independent Media Commission and not the court system.
The last one year has been very eventful for the media in Sierra Leone. While we have enjoyed a generally peaceful atmosphere in the discharge of our duty, some ministers of government have deliberately sought to abuse their authority by instructing senior police officers in Freetown and in Bo, who should know better, to arrest or detain journalists on very flimsy grounds. With presidential, legislative and local government elections scheduled for next year, such abuses and arrogance by some government officials and the buffoonery with which some senior police officers have responded to such illicit orders, undermine the safety and security of journalists in particular and civil society in general. And the fact that the Police Council and the Government did not bother to comment on, let alone condemn such blatant abuses, makes nonsense of the relative freedom journalists enjoy here.
Fellow journalists, members of the public, when I addressed you on this occasion exactly one year ago, I, like many of you, had the strong hope that Parliament would by now have enacted the Freedom of Information Law. Sadly it has not and it is still bogged down in an inexplicably complex delay in the House despite the apparent efforts of all else to see it through. We urge the legislators to rise up to the occasion and promulgate the Rights to Access to Information Bill.
Whereas journalists believe this is a law for everyone and not just us, we are strongly convinced that it will be incomplete for journalists for as long as Criminal and Seditious Libel Law remains in our law books. I know some of you have had unpleasant experiences with some journalists, which makes you feel all journalists belong in jail. I know that some public officials have been acting against the interest of the state and the journalists have only just been carrying out their trade in the interest of the public, by exposing such public officials. But I also know, rather ironically, and this happens almost daily, that some of you in the public who derided journalists in the past have come running to us when you have felt all others have failed to give you redress. Redress journalists have given you by championing your rightful causes. We will find it difficult to do this and many other public interest causes with the Criminal and Seditious Libel law still in force. Not for the first time, we urge the President, Ernest Bai Koroma to make real his expressed commitment for a review of this obnoxious law which he expressed so much disdain for when he was in the opposition.
My executive decided in a meeting, which was endorsed by the SLAJ membership, that we should pursue other options including going to the ECOWAS Court, should we not get a repeal of this law which we believe is very inconsistent with Chapter Three of our country’s constitution which guarantees free speech. We are however disappointed by the international community who have failed to influence a repeal of this obnoxious law under the guise they don’t want to interfere with our laws. Otherwise why are they involved in other aspects of the country’s legal reform? But we are assuaged by the fact that more and more civil society organisations and other bodies are associating with our position; among them the Bar Association and the Human Rights Commission who have called for a repeal of criminal libel law.
With the state broadcaster now an independent public service broadcaster, its programming has improved a great deal. But there are still teething problems confronting the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation. We are concerned about the apparent interference by the Board of Trustees into the editorial and other running of the corporation in ways outside their remit. We are worried about the apparent financial waste at the corporation which is adversely affecting payment of salaries to workers. And we are apprehensive about the ongoing recruitment and we urge outside bodies to be brought into the process lest SLBC should fail to live up to its aspirations. Of concern also is the continued payment for airtime by religious organisations. Not only is this in complete breach of the SLBC Act, it also threatens to undermine the religious cohesion this country is so famous for.
Let me end by reminding media owners about their obligations to their employees. The non-existence of any clearly defined conditions of service for a good number of journalists in the country by some of these media owners is unacceptable. We hail those who respect the rules. We salute the Sierra Leone Reporters’ Union for their courage in securing a bargaining certificate to be able to agitate for their labour rights. We congratulate Women in the Media (WIMSAL) for their continued and more robust advocacy for their colleagues for which we hope to have a female newspaper editor by this time next year. As for the editors of newspapers, one of the most laudable efforts they have made in recent times is the resuscitation of the Guild of Newspaper Editors. For this I thank the United Nations who worked closely and funded this enterprise. May their aspirations be achieved.
On this the 40th anniversary of SLAJ which is on 5 June, and the 50th independence anniversary of our beloved country, may we continue with the spirit and letter of journalism for the development and cohesion of our country. May the Government and the public learn to do the right thing. And whenever we fluff may they seek redress through the right means. And may employee journalists be treated fairly by their employers. Long live journalism! Long Live SLAJ! And may the press be free. I thank you very much for reading/listening.
Umaru Fofana, President, SLAJ
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