Today is world press freedom day (3rd May 2021). It’s a day celebrated across the world to highlight the struggles and achievements in the fight to achieve press freedom. The theme for this year is “Information as a public good”
I’ve been a journalist for over a decade and have practised journalism in difficult times and difficult places and don’t intend to let go off journalism anytime soon. Journalism is a calling and I don’t think everyone is cut out for this.
So today, let’s celebrate journalists who have continued to use their platforms amidst difficult challenges to bring life-saving information to their audience. This is such an important role in society that we can’t underestimate. Many journalists continue to do this work at greater risks.
Sierra Leone has made strides in media development including the recent repeal of Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act, a law that criminalised libel. As a post-conflict nation, we’ve also seen a proliferation of radios and newspapers following the end of the war in 2002 which has promoted plurality in the media space bringing on board a diversity of voices and the setting up of an Independent Media Commission to regulate the media and other self-regulation systems like the Guild of Editors. Sierra Leone ratings under the global press freedom index have also gotten better.
But even as we celebrate these milestones, there remain a plethora of challenges in our quest for free, independent and vibrant media. I’ll categories these challenges under the following themes: legal, political and economical challenges.
Legal challenge – cybercrime bill criminalises and promise to use punitive actions against free speech.
Financial challenges – remuneration of journalists
Political challenges – co-operation of the media by the political class and their business allies leading to a situation of state capture of the press and the civic space.
Colleagues as we celebrate please let’s review our commitment to serving the public judiciously. Please take a moment to reflect on the state of the media in Sierra Leone by reflecting on the role of the press in Salone.
Is the press playing its primary role in holding public authorities to account?
Is the media setting the agenda for public discourse on issues affecting peoples’ lives or following the agenda, repeating the narrative from the corridors of power?
Has the media become too elitist whereas we’ve seen journalists and the legacy media providing a platform for the political class and their business allies to the detriment of the public good?
Has the media amplified the voices of the ordinary Sierra Leoneans to get the attention of their leaders?
Now, some inside welfare issues within the media industry that need to be addressed: Are media owners paying journalists fairly? Is this not the bedrock for unprofessional practice?
Doesn’t this lead journalists to refrain from their duties to holding people in authority to account?
Colleagues, we’re in a very critical era in our democracy as the Bio led government is poised to introduce a new law “The CyberCrime Bill which some of us are worried would be used against journalists in the future. This wouldn’t only affect journalists but everyone’s freedom of speech/expression generally. This won’t just affect the media but everyone. That law intends to crackdown on dissent. I’m worried about this Bill because despite some bad clauses it entails which criminalise speech, we’ve witnessed the President of Sierra Leone publicly promoting and defending the CyberCrime Bill. This tells me that the President was properly consulted and briefed on the Bill and he’s given it his blessings even before assenting to it formally.
We’ve seen how similar laws are being used elsewhere in Africa to arrest and detain bloggers and journalists on flimsy excuses. This law will impact social media use. It’s no surprise that social media is fast becoming a new space for censorship like the Cybercrime Bill this is because social media and citizen journalism have empowered citizens to hold their leaders to account.
I know there’s always a delicate balance in talking about social media – it can also be used as a platform for misinformation and disinformation which can also be costly especially in health emergencies. But that should not be an excuse to give excessive power to the political class to close that space of critical minds and voices.
We must resist such bad laws. It would come after all of us. We need solidarity to fight bad laws and bad governance.