September 28, 2022

By Allieu S. Tunkara

Defamation, Sedition and publication of false news are no longer criminal of fences after Part Five of the Public Order Act was repealed in 2020.

A great number of journalists have been jailed for the commission of one or more of those offences. By virtue of the repeal, media practitioners will no longer be kept behind bars for such media infractions but will be handled by the country’s media regulator, the Independent Media Commission.

Questions about how the media would look like after the repeal bother a cross section of society. The question of whether journalists will see the repeal as a licence to defame or to publish false news or an opportunity to do what is right remains a fundamental one.

In an effort to answer those questions, former United States Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Maria Brewer organized a roundtable discussions in which proprietors, managing editors, editors and managers of print and electronic media took part. During the discussions, diverse opinions came from the participants.

The discussions point towards one thing-professionalism. The professionalism factor leads to the question how can the media be professional when journalists are no longer locked up for unprofessional acts?

In answering this question, the participants agreed that media capacity should be enhanced. The enhancement calls for training of journalists either locally or internationally. The participants believe that acquisition of the right knowledge, skills and attitude would make professional journalists.

It was argued that quality reporting will be the product  of improved capacity. Another school of thought shows that the media would be professional if terms and conditions of service are made better. Sierra Leone is a country known for endemic media poverty.

The environment in which media institutions operate does not create the ideal platform for media growth and development. The market is too small as many media institutions chase few advertisers. Competing for few advertisers comes with a cost.

to get adverts, some media owners have to go extra mile to build relationship at their own detriment. Media owners suffer greatly from delayed or non-payment for adverts. Government agencies remain the most notorious for lack of payment.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation quite recently came under the spotlight for failing to pay for an ad amounting to Le5, 000, 000 (Five Million Leones) to a certain newspaper. Scathing publication made against the ministry made less impact.

The debt remain unpaid to date. In most cases, advertisers think they merely lend a helping hand to media institutions by giving them ads. Low sales and weak ads system makes for low profitability.

These income deficiencies affecting media institutions weigh down hard on the reporters who have no assured salary and other allowances which come when they come. Weak and unpredictable salaries is one of many factors compelling reporters and sometimes , senior reporters to go into the ‘Yellow Press,’ the technical name for unprofessional journalism.

It is also known as the ‘Attack Collect and Defence Collect.’ The ‘Yellow Press’ syndrome still render important members  of society vulnerable to the media. Poverty in the media badly hinges on quality reporting. Very fine graduates in mass communication do not take pride in being a journalist.

Many choose to go into public relations world serving corporate entities where a future is assured. Those who are proud of being called journalists have little or no capacity.

Academic arguments always hold that it is difficult to get quality reporters in the media with beggarly salaries. Professor Richard M’bayo (late) was a media academic and consultant hired by  UNDP (United Nations Development Program me) to enhance media capacity of lecturers and practitioners.

Professor M’bayo who has lectured for years in one of the prestigious colleges in the United States eft behind sound literature on media poverty in Sierra Leone. The late professor came and saw what obtained on the ground and made effort towards the country ‘s media  reform project.

He also established the State of the Media Series , a space where media academics have published articles bordering on media management, professionalism, sustainability and profitability. Prof M’bayo’s argument on media poverty was taken a bit further by Dr Francis Sowa, a media lecturer and Chairman off Media Reform Coordinating Group.

Dr Sowa pointed out non-accountability of media owners to their staff as a cardinal factor that worsens an already polarised media environment.

Media professionalism in the face of repealed criminal libel law also has to do with putting in place the right management structures. Media institutions still suffer from  constrained media management structures and operations making it difficult to consolidate media professionalism.

Sierra Leone media institutions present a situation in which one person performs a plethora of managerial functions making for a slow work. Office work is made better when duties are delegated to several experts to operationalize the old concept of Division of Labour and Specialization.

In some newspapers, the publisher is the managing editor, editor-in-chief,  editor, advertising manager among others. The fusion other than separation of managerial roles in the media went a long way to explain how poor the media are. Several experts could not be hired owing to salary considerations.

Sierra Leone takes pride in such fine media laws as the Independent Media Commission  (IMC) Act  2020, the IMC Code of Practice, 2007, SLAJ (Sierra Association of Journalists) Code of Ethics among others. These media laws frown at media unprofessionalism.

The thread running through these laws is accurate reporting. Rule one of the Media Code of Practice, for instance, directs media practitioners to exercise some degree of patience and verification so that an inaccurate or distorted news stories could go into print. Journalists, under this law, are obliged to cross-check the accuracy of stories prior to publication.

It is argued that  journalists will have little  or no problem through accurate reporting. Many media institutions have been held accountable for infraction of the media laws, and fines have been levied. Options of retractions and apologies  have been issued and media institutions have complied.

However, these media laws are still at risk of being violated owing to low capacity of media practitioners compounded by media poverty. The question is: how can media stakeholders rise to these challenges in the face of civil  libel laws.

The argument goes that safeguards are needed especially proper management structures, capacity and finances if the media is to be professionalized.