From the Editor’s Keyboard

African Governments, Press Freedom and the International Community

By  | 4 May 2016 at 00:05 | 3067 views

Editor’s Note: This article was first published June 15, 2013. We re-publish to mark World Press Freedom Day (Tuesday May 3).

The issue of press freedom in a country like Sierra Leone which is not only under-developed economically but also under-developed in many other ways is a very complex one.

I worked as a correspondent of the world famous Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) for many years in Sierra Leone and I know some of the problems I faced trying to help get some usually unprofessional journalists out of police cells and jail.

Now, press freedom is a fundamental right on a personal level for the journalist but what is often forgotten (and this is very important and crucial) is that it is also important for the people in a country who need to know what their government is doing so that they could make right decisions in their day to day lives and to know how to vote when another election comes around.

Press freedom is also important and crucial for democracy to thrive in any country; in fact it is one of the ways the international community can judge or assess the level of democracy in a country. One of the reasons President Obama of the United States invited our President, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma to the White House together with other African leaders not too long ago is because the American government feels democracy is thriving in Sierra Leone. And the opposition does not like to hear about that even though it is true.

From my experience working with international press organizations in Europe and North America and in Sierra Leone and Ghana where I lived for about three years, press freedom in African countries has always been a fight between the governments and journalists because a lot of journalists are being used by politicians and African governments know this and they tend to crack down on such journalists.

This is not to say any journalist persecuted in Africa is a politician or is being used by politicians, but a good number of them are. Another category of journalist are the hustlers looking for money but those being used by politicians are the most vicious and dangerous. So what sometimes happens is that the good journalists suffer for the misdeeds of the bad journalists in terms of public image.

I know some very good journalists in Sierra Leone and I also know some of the bad and extremely bad ones. It is also pertinent to note that in the eyes of the international community and international press organizations, no journalist should be persecuted for what they write or broadcast. They can be taken to court for libel or slander but this can be easily misinterpreted as harassment, so the best thing to do is to just come out with a statement neutralizing the libel or slander.

Despite everything, international press organizations firmly believe press freedom is a fundamental right and pillar of democracy and that journalists should be left alone to do their work. Well and good and I for one agree ( I have had my own share of persecution from despotic African governments and military juntas). But there should be limits; some of the things some journalists write and say in Africa are beyond the imagination of most journalists in the West.

Another thing I also learned is that the international press organizations will try to protect in whatever way they can ALL journalists because trying to be selective on who to help and who not to help goes against their principles and the principles of press freedom. If they notice some particularly bad journalism coming from a country they would often organize short training programs in such a country or invite journalists from such a country abroad for short courses. In some cases they would provide equipment like printing presses and computers because they know financial difficulties often to lead to bad journalism.

They NEVER, EVER, publicly condemn journalists for bad journalism (they prefer to do it privately if the situation is really bad) because doing so will again negate their principles and the principles of democracy and in a continent like Africa where there are some extremely good journalists facing hell, it’s simply not the correct thing to do (condemning bad journalists) because doing so will encourage the authorities to clamp down on miscreants. It will also discourage some of the good journalists, make them jittery and think of doing something else if they feel insecure. Journalism in some African countries is a life and death issue, a very dangerous profession. African journalists often rely on foreign press organizations and governments for protection.

Good journalists in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world continue to do what they do because they know the international community is there to help and protect them. The same thing can be said of human rights activists and civil society in general.

So what should the government do in a place like Sierra Leone where there are so many unprofessional journalists? Here are some suggestions:

1. Set up a solid and vibrant team of communication experts and researchers, not party loyalists who know little or nothing about journalism and communication, to always be ready to defend the government. All governments in the West have this kind of unit. Think of the current White House Press Secretary and his team many of whom are working behind the scenes. Those are very professional and talented people, working very hard, 24-7, always ready to defend President Obama, like a military squadron. It has always pained me to see President Ernest Koroma and his government so defenceless when you have capable people at home and abroad to do the job. Financial reward aside, this is the kind of thing some people would like to do to save the country from nation-wreckers and demagogues.

2. Never arrest or publicly condemn a journalist for what they write or broadcast. Have an official of the Ministry of Information (or your trouble-shooter unit) or the Minister himself set the record straight, giving government’s side of the story with solid facts. It is advisable for the trouble-shooter unit do the job themselves, because some Ministers might make serious verbal mistakes. Publicly condemning, arresting or jailing journalists will only make the government look bad at home and abroad. Sierra Leone’s economy is still donor-driven and you can’t afford to damage your image. The opposition will also score points and use that against you. When a bad journalist writes or broadcasts lies, come out with the facts quickly. That’s the best way to deal with him. Most journalists are afraid of being exposed as liars.

3. Always keep in touch with the Independent Media Commission and see how you can work with them in the interest of the country. Try to know their problems and see how you can help resolve them. Usually it’s just a matter of trust and confidence. Try to get politically neutral people in the Commission. Never neglect or condemn them (IMC) publicly for their weaknesses or failures because this may be viewed wrongly at home and abroad. Remember, they are the eyes and ears of the international community on matters regarding press freedom.