Standard Times, Bishop Biguzzi and Gutter Journalism

20 October 2006 at 12:53 | 597 views

"In summary, a press divided and acrimonious, fighting against itself, is surely bound to lose its moral authority as the conscience of society and the Fourth Estate charged with the onerous responsibility of defending human rights, democracy and the rule of law."

By Abdulai Bayraytay, Toronto, Canada

A lot of media hype, castigation and name-calling have been directed at Standard Times newspaper over an article the paper ran a fortnight ago that was critical of the Lord Bishop George Biguzzi of the Catholic Diocese of Makeni for his alleged complicity in a coup d’etat that tacitly saw the overthrow of the incumbent principal of my alma mater, St. Francis Secondary School in Makeni northern Sierra Leone.

The article generated criticisms against the newspaper outlet from both within the country and the Diaspora damning it of being unprofessionally biased with the charge of blaspheming the bishop. Tempers particularly flared up in Makeni as residents, frustrated, if not disappointed, with particularly Philip Neville, the proprietor and publisher of Standard Times.

They bashed the paper and accused it of gutter journalism, maintaining that the bishop had nothing to do with the coup that was unfolding at St. Francis. Of course, Makenians have every right to express such despair since the Catholic Mission is seen through the lens of many northerners as the messiah through the provision of affordable education and the running of primary health care in the wider spectrum of not only Makeni as the provincial headquarter town of the north, but the region as a whole.

This space is created by successive national governments that have neglected the region leading to decay and frustration of its people. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Bishop is not only untouchable, but anyone trying to besmirch his personality will be condemned in no uncertain times.

What seems quite tormenting was the fact that in trying to correct the “unprofessionalism” of Standard Times and its publisher Philip Neville for that matter, Radio Maria has also paradoxically served as the medium through which was propagated venom at persons practicing a profession in which, being human, they are bound to err. Understandably, although one cannot bite the finger that feeds him, yet ethical and professional considerations should have been the norm rather than the exception.

In this emotional journey cart driven by Radio Maria, human rights activists and other well-respected opinion leaders in the town were also caught in the frenzy by expressing outrage at Standard Times for attacking his Lordship the Bishop. This trend is particularly worrying with the infamous role and complicity of the media in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that left scores of innocent and unsuspecting civilians lynched to death still fresh within the realms of human rights activism.

It is here that Radio Maria 90.7, like Standard Times are both wanting in the case where the latter is proved to have published irresponsibly. Without holding any brief for Philip Neville, he is one journalist Sierra Leoneans should be proud of because of his prolific writing and the immeasurable role he played in the defence and respect of human rights in the country during the course of the ten-year old- conflict that raged from 1991 until 2002. On the contrary, if Sierra Leoneans should forget too easily and too soon, a reminder will be to recall that Neville was along with Paul Kamara of the “For Di People” newspaper and David Tam-Baryoh recognized and awarded the International Editor of the Year Award in 2000 by World Press Review for risking their lives to uphold press freedom and human rights during the years of the conflict in the country.

World Press Review editor Alice Chasan paid tribute to the professionalism of all three men this way: "Under the most horrific conditions, Paul Kamara, Philip Neville and David Tam Baryoh have persisted against the odds to uphold the highest standards of the profession. They have fully embraced the journalist’s role in creating the conditions for democracy and rule of law in their land, and have braved mortal danger in pursuit of these goals. They are real heroes," she said. This, to say the least, should be an eye opener for my colleague journalist-friends at Radio Maria since they too may err in the future and may not want to be crucified by the apparent agitated public before being given the opportunity to set the records straight.

Responsible journalism dictates that where an issue of libel is warranted, a corrigendum should be sought and where possible the rule of law should take precedence by suing the paper for damages. This, to say the least, will not only present contenders in the conflict as civilized, but also as law abiding. Or, if one may ask rhetorically, does this mean there is no longer faith in the government and that people should be seen to take the law into their own hands reminiscent of the day of the civil conflict wherein alleged rebel collaborators, including, of course journalists were lynched with impunity after the restotration of the Kabbah government to power in 1998 after the puerile military takeover by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) in May, 1997?

In summary, a press divided and acrimonious, fighting against itself, is surely bound to lose its moral authority as the conscience of society and the Fourth Estate charged with the onerous responsibility of defending human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

* Abdulai Bayraytay(photo) is the Deputy Editor of the Patriotic Vanguard.