Sierra Leonean Journalists, could we all get along?

25 April 2008 at 11:34 | 1981 views

By Roland Bankole Marke, USA.

Journalism that is characterized by the reporter’s subjective interpretations and often features fictional dramatized elements to emphasize personal involvement, is symptomatic of crude, unethical journalism.

As a budding writer that nurses an appetite for a global perspective, I cannot play spectator watching the Sierra Leone media, plummet into a dangerous, selfish theater, that’s suitable for chameleons. Monkey tricks are precarious to journalism, as Sierra Leone celebrates its 47th independence anniversary on April 27th. Is it a plausible image perceiving the quicksand of retrogression erode the existing foundation, terrorizing the fragile progress and enlightenment thus made? Only time like conscience will tell.

Living in Sierra Leone in the 60s to 80s, compatriots had got along with their contemporaries, neighbors or school mates. Even after heated exchanges in school or during competitions, we would reconcile to remain respectful of each other. Journalists were respected, because they honoured the tenets of business in conducting their trade; while carrying out their craft with passion and admirable professionalism. Newspapers were learning tools for readers that wanted self education. But today, there is an ongoing vicious war being waged on objective journalism by an intrusive breed of journalists. Is it because kitchen sink politics seasoned with venom now prevails in Sierra Leone, with the ulterior motive of destroying one’s opponent?

Shouldn’t we all be our brother’s keeper? As a family, if a member strays the whole family strategizes to restore the lost one back into the fold. The disrepute of one member casts a stigma on the entire membership. This enigma should be treated quickly before it ruins good, investigative and dependable news reporting. Hopefully, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) is not asleep at the switch. Discipline and sanity must be restored in SLAJ or the organization would lose its savor to perform with credibility. But anti press laws, including the 1965 Public Order Act continue to tie the organization’s hands behind its back. How can discipline be implemented when there are a few outlaws who think they are above the jurisdiction of the organization? It is time for SLAJ to show some teeth that bite to regain its reputation. The world awaits a rebirth into a functional and reformed institution that reflects the ideals and voice of Sierra Leone.

Journalists, inclusive of reporters, editors and publishers, play a pivotal role in both developing and developed nations. They are necessary barometers to measure and communicate the health status of society, who are expected to be impartial, credible and very professional, if they should enjoy the full trust of the community they promise to serve. Journalism is a sacred vocation that’s not ideal for everyone. Rendering the best possible professional services should be a reporter’s ultimate criteria. It’s not a privileged platform to exploit humanity or a marketplace to fleece a gullible readership.

Becoming a reputable journalist cannot fly overnight. Like all professions, appropriate training is necessary to acquire accreditation and practical training should be a necessary, ongoing process. Proficiency in the craft cannot be achieved by mere instruction in the classroom alone. The journalist, like the doctor, lawyer or dentist hones his skills through experience. Writing is a process, not a fast food industry. Potential stories need the painstaking scrutiny of a trained, seasoned editor, before going to press. It is increasingly becoming popular to merge the functions of an editor with that of a publisher. A high standard of responsibility and accountability is expected of editors cum publishers, from readers and the global community.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in the United States is a trail blazer that has crafted a binding document for all its members titled “Code of Ethics.” Its preamble reads:

“Members of SPJ believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties must strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.” Its members are dedicated to ethical behavior, referred to as the standard practice that can be divided into four components:

1. Seek truth and report it - journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

2. Minimize harm - Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving respect.

3. Act independently - journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

4. Accountable - journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

Journalists, while conducting their daily activities, invariably may trample on the rights of members of society or each other’s rights. The law protects the rights of the “Reasonable man” and punishes the unreasonable man. A suit of negligence can be settled in a court of law. But who needs to expend lengthy time and money in court to resolve a dispute that could have been easily avoided in the first place, through basic legal education? It is necessary to include basic legal education in the training of journalists. This should include civil and criminal law. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Attorneys receive inquiries of defamation suits from their clients, who have conflicts with their neighbors, members of the community, or colleagues, who have become the subjects of vicious lies. The area of law applicable to this conduct is "defamation of character"; a cause of action is generally defined to include libel and slander.

“Defamation is the issuance of a false statement about another person, which causes that person to suffer harm. Slander involves the making of defamatory statements by a transitory (non-fixed) representation, usually an oral (spoken) representation. Libel involves the making of defamatory statements in a printed or fixed medium, such as a magazine or newspaper.” The components that necessitate a cause of action for defamation include:

A false and defamatory statement concerning a person;
The unprivileged publication of statement to a third party (that is, anyone other than the person defamed by the statement);

If the defamatory matter is of public concern, fault amounting to negligence on the part of the publisher; and
Damage to the plaintiff (complainant).
Contextually, in defamation law, a statement is "published" when it is made to the third party. The term does not mean that such statement has to be in print.

Damages are awarded for the plaintiff’s reputation, but depending upon the laws of the jurisdiction, it may be enough to establish mental anguish.

Most jurisdictions also recognize "per se" defamation, where the allegations are presumed to cause damage to the plaintiff. The following may constitute defamation per se:

Attacks on a person’s professional character or standing;
Allegations that an unmarried person is unchaste;
Allegations that a person is infected with a sexually transmitted disease;
Allegations that the person has committed a crime of moral magnitude;

In the recent past, Sierra Leonean journalists have been imprisoned by our repressive and despotic governments. A journalist died in detention for publishing a story that a previous government considered very distasteful, or seemingly subversive. Imprisonment in Sierra Leone is like a death trap. Thanks to those human rights organizations, who have worked assiduously, to make prison cells in the land humane and livable. But there are a few reckless journalists, who take pride to reinvent journalism into a credit card for their own survival.

The journey of a journalist is as perilous as it is full of pleasures---married to uncertainty, or done on a narrow and rugged financial terrain. Sleepless nights and ingratitude are part of the challenges. But a courageous and conscientious journalist often captures the hearts of his readers, and invariably he could receive an award. Any fragmented nation cannot survive. With commitment and honesty, we could all work amicably to restore our nation’s lost glory. Inherently, we share the capacity and capability to ascend to unimaginable heights. Certainly, the salvation onto our destinies lies in our own hands.

Roland Bankole Marke
phone: 904-645-5738