Journalism in Sierra Leone: Yesterday and Today

11 February 2009 at 03:06 | 853 views

By Patrick Sogie-Thomas, Freetown.

Since Sierra Leone gained independence in April, 1961, the practice of Journalism seems to have nose dived.

The British colonial administrative network: The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (radio),The Sierra Leone Daily Mail (newspaper),The Government Information Services (audio and visual), and the Government Printing Department.

All these areas were under the management of professionally trained and experienced Sierra Leoneans. They also had brand new machines and spare parts to ensure smooth, prompt and clean production.

Candidly, Sierra Leoneans, nor the British expected the swift wind of change that ushered in independence, It could be said that the British, out of past experience in other former colonial territories that had gained independence such as India and Ghana, was prepared for it and nothing to lost In fact they had set the stage for the second stage of exploitation of the virgin nation. It was the dawn of imperialism in Sierra Leone. Mining contracts, Agriculture, marine resources even import and export trades were carefully tailored made to suit the needs of British investors and firms and also to benefit their other Western multi-national partners.

Only a few educated Sierra Leoneans knew the true meaning of independence; the masses in the Urban and Rural areas especially teachers, tribal heads were not sensitized as to the meaning of independence. Many did not even know such an event was taking place.

The Prime Minister Sir Milton Margai had his own focus on how to administer the country. His ambition was to work relentlessly to improve the lot of his people but educating them, providing good roads, sanitation and health care, clean water, electricity, shelter, safety and a strong economy.

The British had nothing to fear from him. He was not a radical but a moderate who could be manipulated anytime. Journalist then had their work schedule to themselves. There was no political interference. So it could be termed the age of Journalistic bliss. Broadcasters who had just returned home from training and attachment showed their skills by introducing new programmes. The Sierra Leone Daily Mail also carried proper news items with professional headlines. It was an era in which Journalists performed their sacred role to educate, inform and entertain.

By the close of the late 60s, Sir Milton’s successor, the late Sir Albert Margai and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) suddenly came under the spotlight when Journalists started exposing tribalism, nepotism and corruption in its administration.

A prolific writer, the late Dr. Sarif Easmon wrote articles on the need for unity, democracy and good governance .Ibrahim Taqi, a columnist wrote investigative news items in the We Yone newspaper about the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and top government officials even exposing their dubious activities when they were out of the country and called for a change of political party and leadership. Siaka Stevens was the blue eyed boy of the media and the nation looked upon him as the only man fit to lead the nation. Journalists had succeeded in winning over the minds of the masses.

Sir Albert Margai, a trained lawyer and his Minister of Information who was a trained Journalist did not pay much attention to the media, they were very liberal and democratic minded people who allowed political debates on the radio, newspaper columns and in schools and higher institutions of learning.

It was the cold war era so Ghana, the Communist bloc mainly, the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China, Romania. Czechoslovakia and North Korea were giving covert support to Siaka Stevens and the APC Party.

The Prime Minister Sir Albert Margai and the SLPP Party lost the disputed 1967 General Elections to the Opposition APC Party led by Siaka Stevens. It was the first time that an opposition party defeated a ruling party in the Sub-region and Africa. The Army led by Brigadier David Lansana, also a Mende, placed the Governor -General Sir Lightfoot-Boston under house arrest and declared Martial Law.

A number of revolutionary minded journalists went underground and started printing and circulating propaganda materials .In 1968, the military was overthrown and Siaka Stevens became head of State of a civilian government.

It is not true that standards in Journalism dropped during the Siaka Stevens era. He contributed a lot to the practice of Journalism and often described himself as a Journalist although he did not give any tangible proof of that. He paid great attention to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and made sure Radio and Television, the Sierra Leone Daily Mail and the Government Printing Department lacked nothing to perform their duties .Training facilities local and international were available and journalists had the opportunity to be sent to Sierra Leone Missions abroad as Press Attache.

The SLPP Party also started publication of its party organ The Unity newspaper while several other opposition newspapers also mushroomed .Most of them were being run by unqualified , and often unemployed graduates and school leavers who were being used by politicians .The most vibrant paper ,which was a thorn in Siaka Stevens’ flesh was The Tablet which was being managed by professionally trained Journalists and artists, and graduates who wrote investigative materials exposing the ills of the APC.
Most of the staff of The Tablet Newspaper had mastered the works of Karl Max, Lenin, Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Franz Fanon and Gaddafi’s Green Books.

Freelance columnists for the BBC, VOA, RFI etc. sent articles which Siaka Stevens did not like but had no way to silence them. He used his skills as an elder statesman and won their hearts with fabulous sums of money, gifts and top positions in government ministries, NGOs and parastatals.

In 1980, the government passed the Newspaper Act which stipulated the terms and conditions to be an editor and to set up a newspaper office. It required that someone wishing to become an editor must have a Diploma in Journalism plus five years experience as a Journalist or a Graduate with 10 years experience as a journalist. This writer was among the first batch of editors to be approved by Cabinet.

By this time Siaka Stevens was losing his grip on power.
Politics became a struggle between the ethnic groups-Mendes, Temnes and Limbas and the affluent amongst started them employed individuals who could meet the conditions and started their own newspaper mainly to attack their rivals. Journalism was thrown into the garbage heap as the journalists who emerged were merely amplifying their master’s thoughts.

Political; instability arising from bad governance became a major impediment to the development of the country. Journalists who are supposed to be the watch dogs of the nation have compromised their profession and are now often engaged in killing good investigative journalism with big pay-offs and even often resort to blackmail. The country now has over b 40 newspapers and over 30 radio stations but it is difficult to find any investigative journalism in any of them.

The salary structure is very miserable as most newspaper proprietors are not willing to pay a reporter US$1. Those being trained as Journalists at the Department of Mass Communications at Fourah Bay College and paying huge sums of monies as fees under the present setup one wonders what the future holds for them.

At the peak of the rebel war in Sierra Leone, some Journalists because of tribal considerations wrote articles on behalf of the rebels and even skillfully wrote articles revealing movement of government troops, change of uniforms and other logistics. One sure of improving the performance of Journalists is to get them to merge to attract local and external investors.

Journalists in Sierra Leone however have a tight bond of comradeship that was evidenced by the inauguration of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists on 5th June, 1971. One of its objects is to defend the freedom of the media, free expression and safeguard the freedom of the fourth estate.

Journalists believe Criminal and Seditious libel laws do not violate International Law. Successive governments have used the I965 Public Order Act to punish journalists.

International Law holds that statements critical of the government should be immune against legal action altogether as they are the fodder for democratic political discourse and in most cases the only means that people have to keep their government in check..
Sierra Leonean Journalists are calling for the Criminal defamation and seditious libel provisions of Sierra Leone’s Public Order Act to be discarded altogether.

Mr. Patrick Sogie-Thomas has been a professional journalist from 1969 to date. This writer was among the first batch of editors to be approved by Cabinet. Apart from studying for a diploma in Journalism He has attended several seminars and workshops for practicing journalists on reporting and monitoring elections, the role of journalists in conflict situations gender issues, the Press and the Judiciary etc.