30 years ago a group of journalists, including our own Paul Kamara from Sierra Leone, met in Namibia to adopt the Windhoek Declaration for the development of a free, independent and pluralistic press. SLAJ therefore joins the rest of the world and UNESCO to celebrate 30yrs of the Windhoek Declaration as it gives us an opportunity to reflect where we have come from, where we are now and where we want to go with regards freedom of speech and of the press. It further reminds us of our responsibilities as journalists, and the obligations of governments to guarantee these fundamental rights that are crucial to the development of our democracies.
Repeal of Criminal Libel LawFor us in Sierra Leone, and for SLAJ specifically, for the first time in 50 years we are commemorating World Press Freedom Day without having to call on the Government to scrap the infamous Criminal and Seditious Libel Law contained in Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965.Last year, 2020, our nation took the very bold but necessary action of repealing the 55yr-old law, ushering a new dawn for not only journalists and the media, but also for all Sierra Leoneans and even politicians and giving a new meaning to our fledgling democracy.
Freedom of expression is the fundamental human right upon which all other freedoms (association, assembly and peaceful protest) depend, and so we want to thank His Excellency the President of Sierra Leone Julius Maada Bio, his Government and the Parliament of Sierra Leone for this brave accomplishment. We also want to recognize the role played by the International Community in Sierra Leone, CSOs and other stakeholders in that regard.
And to start the celebration of this landmark victory, we are today opening a Book of Reflection on the demise of the Criminal and Seditious Libel Law, where victims will share their experiences with the anti-free speech legislation. Later on in the course of the year, we will premiere a documentary showing our long walk to freedom; and we are also working to install a commemorative structure to Free Speech and Free Media.
World Press Freedom Index With the repeal of the anti-free speech law, it should not surprise you that Sierra Leone moved 10 places up in the latest World Press Freedom Index from 85th to 75th.While this is very encouraging, we need to continue to do more to not only jealously guard that freedom and civic space that we have achieved, but to do all we can to continue to expand it. We must particularly note that the repeal only takes away criminal and seditious libel law; there are still other common laws that remind us to be more responsible and professional in our work as media practitioners. There is, for example, the civil defamation law. And journalists reporting the courts and parliament should be reminded that there is the law of contempt.
Let me reiterate what I said following the repeal of the criminal libel law that whilst we have been given more freedom to do our work we must know that such freedom goes with immense responsibility. So we must not give any reason to those who were opposed to the repeal to say we told you not to repeal. This is not to say, however, that as journalists, we must not investigate and expose corruption in high places; or we must not hold public officials and our government to account. What we are saying is for us to do all of this but in a responsible manner and strictly following the codes that define our profession.
Cybercrime Bill SLAJ has made its position clear on the Cybercrime Bill 2020 that it is not against a legislation that seeks to protect and promote responsible use of the cyber space which is becoming increasingly a dangerous threat to our individual and collective security, peace and stability, but that in its current draft form it is not a good law for our country. In our position statement, which is on behalf of the entire media fraternity in the country including the IMC, RAIC and MRCG, and which we have submitted to the Ministry of Information and Communications and the leadership of Parliament, we raised serious concerns relating to provisions and sections in the bill that have the potential to undermine the gains we have made as a country in the area of freedom of expression and of the press, and people’s privacy rights.
SLAJ therefore takes this opportunity, in observing World Press Freedom Day, to urge and appeal to our elected representatives in the Parliament of Sierra Leone to scrutinize this bill and take onboard our concerns (and those from expert groups) in the same spirit and manner we collectively pursued and achieved the repeal of Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965 and the passing of the IMC Act 2020.Safety and security of journalists A recent study on the State of Safety of Journalists Policies and Practices Among Media Houses in Sierra Leone conducted by the MFWA and MRCG with support from the Dutch Foreign Ministry (through the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Ghana) show that majority of the media houses studied lacked safety and security, and gender policies. Journalists in the line of duty expose themselves to dangers when covering riots or demonstrations, and most popular perpetrators of violations against journalists are police officers, military personnel, politicians, civil servants, and community stakeholders/people.
So while the criminal libel law is gone, harassment and intimidation of journalists are now taking different forms. SLAJ is concerned about this and we will discuss these issues, including the recommendations of the study, at our coming AGM to brainstorm on workable approaches to ensure the safety and security of all journalists, and to promote gender mainstreaming in the media.
As part of events for our 50th anniversary celebration, in November 2nd marking the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, SLAJ will be partnering with the national security sector for a roundtable frank talk to address our differences, understand our roles, respect our responsibilities and how we can work together towards a common national goal. Having said that let me hasten to say that SLAJ has also been receiving complaints from people of intimidation and harassment by journalists. We call on those journalists who thrive on intimidation, harassment, blackmail, character assassination and attack-collect-and defend journalism to desist from such unprofessional and unethical practice. You have no place in our noble profession.
Community radio stations Community radio stations play a very important role in ensuring information filters down to remote communities, but they face enormous challenges to be on air regularly and for which we have been appealing for the support of the Government of Sierra Leone and the international community. Nevertheless, these challenges will remain if these community radio stations do not serve the interest of the communities they operate. If you are a community radio station and yet you are serving the interest of a politician or political party other than the concerns of your community, then you are doing a disservice to your people and the nation.
SLAJ therefore urges the communities, the Boards, to take ownership of these community radio stations and make them meaningful to their cause. Promoting professionalism Beyond the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law, our focus now is to strengthen professionalism in the media. That is why the theme for our 50th Anniversary is “Towards a free and professional media”. To achieve this, we need the support of every media stakeholder including the IMC, RAIC, MRCG, and international partners and CSOs.
So as part of our moves to bring more professionalism into our practice, SLAJ is pleased to announce that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has approved a project to promote professionalism in the Sierra Leonean media.In addition, in the last three months, SLAJ had the opportunity to work with crisis communication experts at Bournemouth University in the UK, and we together undertake a rapid response national survey to assess the impact COVID-19 has had on our journalism industry.
The findings of that national survey will be released on 5th of May 2021, but allow me to share one or two key thoughts that emerged from what our good friends at Bournemouth University have found: i) Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on every of aspect of the news industry in Sierra Leone. ii) A majority of journalists — more than 80% — were affected financially. iii) It has also affected the mental wellbeing of high percentage of journalists, and disrupted news publishing significantly — at a time when journalists should be even more vigilant and active.
This situation must change. We know that a healthy, thriving news industry is at the heart of every good crisis response. Over the next months, SLAJ will work with our friends at Bournemouth University to address this situation, and we call upon the government, NGOs and other likeminded organisations in joining us in our efforts. Information as a public good Mean while, the international theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day is ‘Information as a public good’. Indeed, information is an essential commodity for the sustenance of our livelihoods and our functioning as democratic states. People need the correct information to be able to make informed decisions about their health, education, security, livelihoods and in choosing their leaders through periodic elections. When this is possible, the public good- peace and stability is maintained.
Conclusion In conclusion, we want to look at the future role of the media and verified information. In 10 years’ time, the role of the media in providing accurate information, exposing corruption, holding public officials and governments to account, educating and raising awareness, etc. will not change much. What will change is the demand for greater responsibility of the media in combating fake news, hate speech, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, all of which have culminated into a raging media virus called infodemic.
Finally, let me urge our government and politicians to make a bold commitment to never again pass any law that will criminalise free speech, and I urge every journalist to aspire to be a true and patriotic professional.
Long Live SLAJ!
Long live Freedom of Expression and of the Press!
Long live the Government and People of Sierra Leone! God bless us all!
Thank you all!