Vanguard with 

The Expo Times experience in Sierra Leone

 - Thursday 7 February 2008.

By Our Correspondent

“As a journalist it is very tricky to strike a balance between the binary notions of objective and honest journalism; we always try to negotiate our path between these two. But I think in my opinion to be a good journalist-a global journalist-you have to be able to strike a balance between the two; you have to be able to make use of both depending on the kind of situation you are confronted with.”

The above was part of the concluding remarks of Sierra Leonean exiled journalist and academic Dr Ibrahim Seaga Shaw in his contribution at a one-day conference on ‘New Threats To Media Freedom-how we fight back’ held on Saturday January 26 at the National Union of Journalists Headquarters in London.

Dr Shaw, a specialist in media-agenda setting, reporting conflicts and humanitarian intervention with a growing list of academic publications in these areas, stressed the need for journalists to observe objectivity particularly where this leads them to empowering marginalised voices; he however warned that this objectivity must not prevent them from commenting in support of, or campaigning for, something they really believe in as long as it is in the public interest.

A post-doctoral research fellow at the University of West of England and trustee of the Exiled Journalists’ Network in Bristol, Dr Shaw earlier contextualised his argument by recounting his experience as publisher and Editor of Sierra Leone’s largest circulation and best-selling newspaper in the mid 90s, Expo Times, where he was forced to contend with untold threats and harassments, including a number of spells in prison, until he was forced into exile in February 1998. And all this while he was negotiating his path between these two complex, and yet important, binary notions of objective and honest journalism.

He recalled how the pacifist ideological positioning of his newspaper calling for a peaceful resolution of the civil war was unfortunately misunderstood by the Sierra Leone authorities under the then SLPP government to mean a declaration of support for the RUF rebels, and all other international organisations like the UK-based International Alert that were involved in the peace process initiated following the signing of the Abidjan Peace Accord in November 1996.

He recounted how in addition to taking a kind of honest position for a pacifist solution to the conflict which was popular among the people, his newspaper’s exclusive reports and commentaries that reflected the positions of both the government and rebel movement were largely interpreted by the former as a clear-cut indication of support for the latter. “This was indeed a very complicated situation because you are trying as best as possible to be both objective and honest depending on the situation and yet you face the risk of being targeted or branded as the supporter/opponent of one faction of the conflict or the other”, he said.

The former Expo Times editor recalled how he and his two assistant editors, Gibril Gbanabome Koroma (now editor of the popular Canada-based online Sierra Leone newspaper portal Patriotic Vanguard) and Charles Abayomi Roberts (now also in Canada), were arrested and detained for over three weeks at the notorious Pademba Road prison in Freetown and charged with subversion and spying for the enemy.

This, he said, was for an opinion article titled "Abacha’s Wild West Gangsterism" that attacked the wisdom of arresting rebel leader Foday Sankoh and orchestrating a coup against him by then Nigerian military dictator General Sanni Abacha and former President Tejan Kabbah, respectively, arguing that this was going to spell doom for the on-going Abidjan peace process.

Although the author of the article, Gibril Gbanabome Koroma made it quite clear in the article that his intention was never to make a case for the rebel leader who he in fact accused of attacking his home town of Yonibana(causing loss of lives and property) during the fierce fighting in the northern part of the country, but to question the morality of what he termed an act of ‘gangsterism’ similar to what bush fighters are capable of doing.

Shaw added that he and his colleagues were incarcerated and charged as enemies of the state for simply telling the hard and honest truth.

“We were only released on bail while the court proceedings continued after we had gone on hunger strike for three days, and pressure was exerted by international human rights organisations such as Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders”, he said.

He also recalled how this same pacifist stance of his newspaper for a peaceful resolution of the political impasse created following the AFRC coup in 1997, barely two months after their charge and arbitrary imprisonment for spying, made him and his other colleagues, including those working for other media that took a similar position, to be branded junta collaborators marked for death. He added that even colleagues who were working for the state broadcasting media who stayed and continued their work under AFRC junta rule were not spared the gauntlet.

Dr Shaw referred to the 1965 Public Order Act which criminalises libel, to which he fell victim many times, as one of the most repressive laws in Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa. He said it is mostly used by authorities in crisis situations while it is often loosely invoked even in matters involving state, and sometimes corporate, corruption. He said this problem is very common in other parts of Africa. He added that he was last year involved in the co-ordination of a press freedom forum on the situation of threats against the media in Ethiopia on the topic ‘press freedom, public order and state security’ where the criminal libel law remains very much in place.

Contributing from the floor, Mike Jempson, Director of the Bristol-based Media Ethics charity and Treasurer of the Exiled Journalists’ Network (EJN), referred to how the Internet now serves as the conduit of hate speech pointing specifically to attacks by some online media outlets against EJN for organising a forum last year on the disturbing trend of threats against the media in Sri Lanka. Dr Shaw agreed but lamented how the situation was not helped by the failure of the mainstream media to follow this up despite efforts by their organisation to spread out the word.

He was speaking on the topic “bias and censorship in war reporting” with three other renown panellists Alan Johnston, former BBC correspondent in the Palestinian city of Gaza who was kidnapped early last year for over two months by Islamic extremists; David Crouch of the Media Workers Against the War and Prof Chris Frost of the NUJ Ethics Council and Head of Journalism, Liverpool John Moores University. Other conference topics included “political and legal pressures on Journalists”, “commercial pressures” and “Countering the threats” with speakers such as Martin Bright, political editor, New Statesman; Jo Granville, editor, Index on Censorship; Heather Brooke, freelance journalist and author, and Mark Stephens, specialist in media and the law; Peter Wilby, Media Guardian columnist; Victoria Brittain, freelance journalist and author etc. The conference, which attracted many journalists, academics, media policy makers, campaigners and students, was jointly organised by the NUJ London Freelance Branch and Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear wrapped up the event by recapping the main issues raised and calling on all to go back and reflect on them in their efforts to defend media freedom and democracy in the UK and internationally.

Photos: Ibrahim Shaw(top) and Allan Johnston.