Bias, extortion and jail time: Journalism growing pains in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone Journalists Association

Kelvin Lewis stood next to me on a particularly hot topical day as I tried to catch a breeze on the porch of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists’ office.

“The challenges we face, they seem insurmountable,” the association president quietly said. “Don’t you think?”

I paused with my answer for a moment, letting the question carry its full weight into my conscience. I had no positive reply.

“I have to admit, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” I said. “I knew some of the situation before I came here, but it’s worse than that. Where do you start?”

“Exactly,” he replied.

There has to be a starting point if things hope to get better for the media in Sierra Leone. Some would say that the press is well on its way past a starting point, that it has gained momentum and respect in its battle for press rights. But don’t tell that to Kelvin, who manages one of the nation’s papers and is revered here as a stalwart for the press. At times it’s hard for him not to feel defeated.

The U.S. Embassy, which brought me here this week for a series of talks with dozens of journalists, wants the SLAJ to make some headway toward solidifying its position as a primary carrier for the free-press banner. That makes sense. After all, who better to fight for free press than the press itself?

But after six hours in a sun-baked oven of a room with SLAJ members, it was hard to be positive. Every plausible idea designed to make progress seems hopelessly doomed for one overpowering reason: The government of this nation doesn’t want the press to have real rights. Not like the ones we enjoy in the U.S. Not even close. When you can jail a journalist for referring to the president as a rat and face criminal libel charges, you are at a threshold that defies anything attributable to a democracy.

That’s just the start. The government’s argument is that with freedom must come responsibility. It wants journalists to be more ethical. Understood. With 63 papers and many of them gaining birth from political parties or large business interests, it’s easy to see why the government would want to admonish bad, biased, irresponsible reporting.

Except that people in government own some of those same newspapers. Two former ministers of information own papers. So does a current one. A special assistant to the president owns a paper. Just about anyone who is in a position of power or who wants to control political parties has a newspaper. These publications contain what you expect: the very same bad, biased and irresponsible reporting the central government wants regulated by stronger ethical standards.

No one leans on these newspapers. Rather, they lean on the papers that are independent and challenge the government and its corruption.

The problems wind and intersect, but the hub clearly seems to be the government. Kelvin shares a conversation he had recently with Minister of Information Alpha Kanu, who lamented the fact that five years previous, the media environment was much better and there was much more respect and love for the government. The minister wondered what had changed.

Maybe it’s that the press has matured and felt compelled to report on a nation rife with political corruption, from the police officer on the street corner to the highest levels of the central government. In short, journalists have started acting like a press corps. The honeymoon is over.

Today, SLAJ is creating an ethics code to deliver to the Independent Media Commission, a sort of news council that has to power to punish journalists for unethical behavior.

In this nation, if you don’t like what a journalist has written about you, you can file a criminal complaint and the police will investigate. Libel is a criminal offense, meaning fines and jail time. SLAJ is trying to get that law repealed. Motions have been moved through Parliament and there are promises to repeal the law after a three-year wait. First, SLAJ must show the IMC that it will rein in its members with a code of conduct. Once that happens, the IMC will forward its comments to Parliament (which appoints the panelists) and ask lawmakers to consider lifting the criminal libel law.

However, guess which papers routinely run afoul of the IMC policies and standards, but refuse to acknowledge its authority and thereby continue the pattern of irresponsible journalism: The same ones making money for the politicians.

Those aren’t the only problems. Papers here are being held hostage by a cartel of vendors who demand unreasonable profits from the sale of newspapers. Imagine an American publisher giving 50 percent of the sale of a newspaper to its street vendors. The powerful vendor union extorts these high prices and won’t allow non-compliant papers on the streets. Cut the union out and it could get violent. One frightened publisher turns over all of her Friday profits to her newspaper carriers.

I knew the task wouldn’t be easy and maybe that’s why the challenge appealed to me. I know this much, within 48 hours we will have a first step, or maybe a next step. And, just maybe I can remove some of that burden that Kelvin and his colleagues carry.

The greatest joy will come in conquering the insurmountable problem. Trust me, Kelvin.

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