Malicious Propaganda Diminishes Media Self-Regulation

10 March 2014 at 22:08 | 4134 views

By Titus Boye-Thompson, Strategic Media & Development Communications Unit, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Several newspaper columns have been written about the conduct of journalism in Sierra Leone but alas, the picture remains unaltered. In a society that is grappling with building strong state institutions, the fourth estate can legitimately play the role as watchdogs or the conscience of the masses, the under-served and the voiceless. This opportunity is jeopardized anytime a newspaper, radio or TV station condones malicious baseless and untrue reports to be propagated through their channels.

Journalism is undoubtedly a much maligned profession but its tenets as moral
custodians of truth, justice and the rule of law is undeterred by the profanity of
vile and malicious reporting, designed to cause public outcry and insidious of any
ramifications rightly or wrongly that may be imposed on the person and reputation of good honest people.

There have been some notable instances in recent weeks that tend to indicate that some journalists on radio and newspapers have not been learning from the other more fractious consequences of breaching the privacy of others, specifically people in authority or high public office. The incidences of journalists arrested would never go down well in the minds of the public but when it is now becoming a matter of indiscriminate offence against people in office, the public sympathy wanes and is becoming increasingly diverted away from the journalist to the official whose privacy is invaded.

In Western countries, news media journalists are always under the threat of very
heavy fines and sanctions if they breach media codes of practice. The Sun and the News of the World, two high profile news brands from the Rupert Murdoch empire had to be shut down by their owners because journalists and management of those papers were involved in nefarious practices of breaching the privacy of people in the public domain. The actions of News International to shut down two of its leading brands came about as a pre-emptive action to minimize the expected sanctions upon them as a consequence of the invasion of privacy and the economic consequences anticipated as a result of the acts of breaching the civil liberties of others. News International also offered very large financial settlements to the aggrieved parties as a means of staving off astronomical sums awarded against them in open court.

In all of this, the economic sanctions they face were of such gravity that it became expedient for them to take drastic action and seek to manage their contraventions sufficiently and satisfactorily to those most aggrieved by their actions.

When Sylvia Blyden, a noted publisher, now Special Executive Assistant to
HE the President, Dr Ernest Bai Koroma recently opined that she favored the
current criminal libel laws, it must be seen as tacit approval of their efficacy in
establishing some semblance of normality or otherwise accord some retribution
when the persona and reputation of a public official comes under threat from false accusations and vile journalism.

It is the threat of legal action and its consequences that are of more fundamental impact in the act to seek redress from such wrongs that tend to destroy lives and character when such attacks are meted out to people of integrity and good repute.

Such an action will be difficult to fathom in Sierra Leone because of the relatively
low economic consequences attached to malpractices by the news media. However, the criminal nature attached to our libel laws have proven to be a more effective remedy. Having said that, it is not a practical solution for every public official wronged by the press should seek to have his attacker jailed surreptitiously. The rush to criminal libel is unhealthy for our democracy because at times it tends to become counter-productive. Journalists and other watchers of human rights would point to such an eventuality as evidence of repression, a stifling of creativity and a constraint imposed on freedom of speech. Sierra Leone suffers economically from such external assessments and our ratings as a modern society is much diminished.

The Mayor of Freetown has now become the easy target for malicious propaganda. His is a person of quiet demeanor, a meek and sober minded politician who would go the extra mile to ensure that the concerns of those for whom he exercises authority are not unduly disadvantaged. when the mayor moved to swiftly secure temporary accommodation for traders who would otherwise have been swiftly moved off the streets as illegal hawkers by the hastily arranged Operation WID, he was of the opinion that it would be better to act in a manner more appreciative of the economic circumstances of those to have been most affected by the intended move to clear the congested streets of Freetown of street traders. Strictly speaking, the Freetown City Council is not under a statutory duty to build markets every year as much as it is under a moral duty to ensure that market traders are adequately provided with trading spaces across the city. This the City Council can easily contend they have done if you consider the spread of markets across the city, from Dan Street to Lumley.

The issue, as the City Council has stressed all along, is the consequences and implications of a rapid growth in population compounded by dwindling resources and low investment in city infrastructure. The reality of how the Freetown City Council came to the construction of temporary stalls at Sewa
Grounds must be viewed against a background of impending need weighed against low resources to provide more physically attractive solution in terms of engineering and logistics. In short, the decision was not wrong, nor could any accusation be levied against the Council that it acted out of its mandate but rather, the acceptable position that the end result was inimical to an efficient and sustainable engineering solution for relocating market traders was in a manner diminished by the poor condition of the stalls. That was the observation made by President Ernest Bai Koroma and to his credit, he immediately followed his observations by a recommendation that adequate resources should be provided to the City Council so that a more amenable market trading area can be secured for the traders who would have to be moved from the streets to that site. President Koroma, in one fell swoop proved beyond doubt why his philosophy of Four for Four was good for this City. The new market trading area and stalls that would emerge at Sewa Grounds should be a lasting punctuation to the efficacy of four for four. They should demonstrate that the President has put himself in line with the Mayor and Councilors of the city. Together, they have achieved what would have been cumbersome had the APC not had the landslide that it secured from Freetown.

For that reason, the new stalls should be the lasting reasons why Freetown will for a long time to come be completely RED on any election map.