From the Editor’s Keyboard

Let’s call a spade a spade

14 May 2008 at 03:46 | 9140 views

Commentary

By Patrick Hassan-Morlai,PV Special Correspondent, London, UK.

If you are an avid Sierra Leone news reader/follower, you would have by now read that the SLPP radio station, “Unity Radio FM 94.9”, was shut down on 08/05/2008 by orders of the Government of President Koroma through his Minister of Information and Communication, Alhaji I.B. Kargbo. The official government of Sierra Leone press release states inter alia that the SLPP Radio did not go through the right procedures in terms of registration. The Ministry of Information was not legally informed with regards the operations of the radio; that the SLPP Radio went ahead to install an antenna across other antennas at Leicester Peak using private engineers without the knowledge of the Ministry of Information; and that the installation of the said antenna caused disruptions in the transmissions of existing radio stations. These radio stations filed official complaints to the Ministry of Information, which caused Government to intervene.

In its defence, Jacob Jusu Saffa, party secretary of the SLPP opposition party, vehemently disputed the above claims and produced correspondence and copy bank cheque evidencing their compliance of the relevant requirements for the establishment and running of a radio station in Sierra Leone. By 12/05/2008, Jacob Jusu Saffa has also submitted an official complaint to Mrs Bernadette Cole, chair of Sierra Leone’s Independent Media Commission (IMC) requesting immediate intervention and amicable resolution of this matter.

The claims and counterclaims from the government and the opposition leave one to wonder who between the two is telling the truth. However, in this commentary, no attempt is made to deal with the issue of truth. Instead, the focus is on the effect this matter may have on the wider issue of the true role of the IMC as an independent media regulator.

Act No 12 of 2000 is the Independent Media Commission Act of Sierra Leone. Part IV of that Act deals with the licensing and registration of media institutions including radio stations, television (TV) stations, newspapers and magazines. This Act creates a corporate and independent media regulator in the institution of the Independent Media Commission (Section 2). The Commission has power to grant licence to radio or TV stations. At Section 21 of the Act, the Commission has powers to suspend or cancel the licence of a radio or TV station where it is satisfied that the conditions of the licence are not complied with. The Commission can only take such action following written notice to the radio or TV station concerned directing it to rectify the breach but failed to do so or has repeated a subsequent contravention of the media code of practice. Pursuant to Section 36 of the Act, any member of the public has a right to make a complaint to the Commission of non-compliance of the media code of practice or breach of licence by a radio or TV station.

Suffice to say that Act No 12 of 2000 is rich in its provisions to adequately cover the current fracas between the SLPP and APC. To be honest, the Government of President Koroma should have more serious issues to contend with that to engage in direct enforcement action of radio licence laws. Granted that any government has overall responsibility for the maintenance of law and order; yet no government can perform every powers bestowed upon it; hence, the need for delegation. Parliament in its wisdom so endorses the delegation by government of the power to regulate the print and electronic media in Sierra Leone by enacting the Independent Media Commission Act of 2000.

For a radio station to be closed on directives of a minister (assuming the claims by the SLPP are true), is in itself an unlawful act on the part of the minister. For every breach of a radio station’s licence, it is the IMC that has the legal authority to act. Such action may well follow complaint made by a member of the public or by the government. But the APC government or any other government for that matter does not have any legal authority to take direct enforcement action against the SLPP. This leaves the Koroma administration open to accusations of politicising the issue of media regulation and attempt to silence a political rival at a crucial time like this when local elections are to be contested.

Perhaps, as ours is a developing democracy, there is the urgent need for independent or public regulators to be aware of their role and start being more proactive. Gone are those days when an independent public body will have to wait for directives “from above” or “from the Pa” or “from State House” before they can perform their statutory duties. This brings to mind the sad reality that may be in fact some of these independent public bodies are merely created to give a semblance of institutional democratic decision making process when in reality these bodies have no real powers. A case in point is the Anti-Corruption Commission.

If the IMC is worth its salt, it has to act now to resolve this issue. Perhaps it may choose to do so by making easily available to any member of the public its register of radio/TV licences, cancellations and suspension to ascertain whether the SLPP Unity Radio was legally registered. The IMC should not fear or favour the SLPP or APC. In developed democracies, independent regulators or the court systems are respected for their stance to uphold the law and justice. Remember the US case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka where the Supreme Court declared that separate educational facilities for black and white students are inherently unequal and violated the Constitution of the US. So a government cannot always be right.

If the Koroma administration is determined to match its words with its actions, they should stop engaging with Jacob Jusu Saffa or the SLPP in club-like politics and instead concentrate on serious issues of national concern. The SLPP on the other should know that it is only by offering the people of Sierra Leone real and not distractive policy alternatives that they will appear in the eyes of well-meaning Sierra Leoneans as a credible opposition capable once more to take over the reigns of power.

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