“The number one anti Government newspaper today in Sierra Leone edited by renowned APC apologist, Mohamed ‘One Drop’ Sankoh. We dae follow, bra.”
The above statement is one of the crudest, tacit media attacks against Nightwatch newspaper, one of Sierra Leone’s dailies.
The tacit media attack came from the head of Strategic Communications, in the Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC), Abu Bakarr Joe Sesay via whatsapp.
The attack was a direct response to a Nightwatch publication of May, 2020 Tiled:
ALMOST THREE YEARS FAILURE, NEW DIRECTION IN BLAME GAME.
Mr Sesay, a one-time, Nightwatch editor has nursed some reservations about the newspaper since the Sierra Leone People’s Party was ushered into governance.
No gainsaying that Mr Sesay’s statement was an outburst of a long-held grudge and frustration with a newspaper that merely dispenses the most fundamental duty of informing society and holding power to account.
Nightwatch newspaper has, over the years, successfully dispensed such a weighty, but noble task within the recognised and accepted parametres of the law.
It is incontrovertible that the role of media institutions in contemporary societies is to checkmate the excesses of government within the framework of reasonable and constructive criticism.
Sierra Leone is part of the community of sovereign and free nations and takes pride in laws that guarantee freedom of expression and of the press.
The country’s supreme law, the constitution of Sierra Leone of 1991 guarantees the right of every media institution to hold government responsible and accountable to the people of Sierra Leone.
An admirable provision contained in section 11 under the broad headline of ‘Fundamental Principles of State Policy’ is highly supportive of the media’s role in holding power to account.
The provision reads:
“The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall, at all times, be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this constitution and to highlight the responsibility and accountability of government to the people.”
Two key words in the provision: ‘Responsibility’ and ‘Accountability’ are central to the media’s all-important role of holding power to account and they deserve a particular mention.
Generally, Responsibility connotes government duty of serving the people by ensuring that the people are secure, their welfare needs are met and justice is accessible to them all without hindrance.
It is very safe to say, security and well-being of the people as well as access to justice are the three most fundamental pillars of state governance.
The second term, Accountability is for the government to answer questions in the way it is executing its responsibilities to the people.
When government fails in its responsibilities to the people, it must be subjected to the lash of media satire and critical writings, and that must be done in accordance with the directives of the law.
Worth mentioning in this article, is the subsequent provision contained in section 25(1) of the same constitution which says:
…No person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, and for the purpose of this section, the said freedom includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference…freedom to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.”
The article opposed by the communication strategist contains ideas and opinions that the author seeks to impart on other Sierra Leoneans.
It could soundly be argued that in writing such an article critical of government, the author is in no way in breach of any law whatsoever.
It is the state that has created the platform for any government, at any particular time, to be checkmated so that it does not relegate to complacency or authoritarianism.
Thus, any reasonable and constructive media criticism on issues of public interest resonates quite well with the two fundamental provisions contained in the constitution of Sierra Leone.
The criticism should not be interpreted to mean hatred against any group of persons that constitute the government of the state at any given time. Rather, it is a means of calling government to act in areas where it is failing.
The MIC Communication Strategist must also understand that Sierra Leone is now well-positioned on the path of information flow evidenced by the passage of the Right to Access Information Act, 2013 into law.
Also of great knowledge interest for the Communication Strategist is for him to realise that Sierra Leone which is a sovereign state in the community of nations, is a signatory, ratifier and domesticator of a number of declarations, treaties and conventions that recognise and uphold the right to freedom of expression and of the press.
A highlight and analysis of those international instruments within the framework of free media discourse is imperative.
The most basic of those international instruments is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948.
The historic document was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its third Session on December 10, 1948.
Article 19 of the said document recognises and upholds the right to freedom of expression and of the press. It reads:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The UDHR laid the foundation for the promulgation of what is referred today as the ‘Twin Covenants.’
They refer to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which were acceded to in 1966 and entered into force in 1976.
Article 19 of one of the Covenants, the ICCPR protects and promotes the right to free speech. It reads:
“Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers, either orally in writing or in print…”
Article 9 of African Charter on Human Peoples Right (ACHPR), 1981 also known as the Banjul Charter has not remained silent on the right to freedom of expression. It says:
“Every individual shall have the right to receive information. Every individual shall have the right to express his opinions within the law.”
Therefore, Sierra Leone’s signing, ratification and domestication of those conventions underpin the country’s readiness to create a serene media environment for lawful media criticism to flourish.
In doing so, Nightwatch has not and will not lose sight of the limitations placed on the exercise of free speech in the interest of public order, and for the protection of the reputations of other members of society.