On Press Freedom

20 June 2012 at 03:31 | 3121 views

By Ian Hughes, British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone.

A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.
Albert Camus (1913-1960) French novelist, essayist and dramatist.

As Sierra Leone prepares for November’s election I’ve blogged about the wide variety of the organisations that will help to deliver effective democracy here. Democratic institutions like the National Electoral Commission (NEC), the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) and the Independent Media Commission (IMC) will hold the ring while political parties engage with voters. As the electorate mulls over its options, the role of the media comes to the fore. In the UK the evolving relationship between governments, politicians, political parties and the media is a topical issue. Is that the same here?

The media are accused and blamed or praised and hailed, sometimes in almost the same breath, for their influence on the outcome of the democratic process. Everyone remembers the famous 1992 Sun headline “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT”. Was this the mark of press arrogance or simple statement of fact? After all, who now remembers that it was in fact John Major who won that election?
Voters depend on the media to describe and interpret what politicians and political parties stand for. Newspapers, radio and TV tell us how well candidates debate, what they pledge for our vote and what their policies are. Fair, objective and accurate coverage underpins the relationship between candidates and voters. And as electoral razzmatazz fades, good investigative journalism can hold government to their promises. Without the media, effective democracy becomes impossible.

However, experience shows that when the media becomes a mouthpiece for one particular political party or personality, stories tend to be poorly researched or not factual, opinion can be twisted to suit party-political paymasters: then this force for good distorts rather than reports, hides rather than reveals. Editors can and should have personal and professional opinions but factual reporting and political opinion must be clearly distinct.

The Independent Media Commission, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and the Guild of Editors are there to guard the integrity of professional journalism, but like many institutions they lack finance and capacity.

In these circumstances journalists individually and collectively should shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the reputation of their profession. But journalists are not the only ones who comment on politics: Sierra Leoneans everywhere increasingly using social media: Facebook, Twitter and Blogs like this one. These give everyone a voice to comment on the issue du jour and allow interactions that are impossible to moderate. And that puts the responsibility for accuracy, for moderation, for maturity on us too: you and me. Are we fair? Are we thoughtful? Do we care about the effects of what we write?
As the election approaches and the political atmosphere becomes more charged, I hope that we will see the best of the newspapers, radio, TV, websites and the blogosphere remaining free and fair for the good of Mama Salone. I hope you’ll pitch in!

How do you think the diverse aspects of the media in Sierra Leone can best support the democratic process as we approach November’s election?