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The peculiar mess of the watchdog

The peculiar mess of the watchdog

The line in the sand has been drawn clearly and irrevocably. Right now a battle is taking shape in our dear country; a veritable contest between those who are profiting from our under-development and tragic state and those whose nostalgia is giving them discomfort and who insist that the time has come for the much-abused citizens of this once glorious nation to leave the doldrums created by the yoke of our servants-turned-masters; if there is indeed going to be a rebirth.

Since attitudinal change is supposed to be about reform, it is time we ripped up the existing rulebook while taking on vested interests. In doing so, we need to examine every facet of our society and see how their contributions or otherwise impact on the drive for transformation.

It is true that when a thousand paupers form a confederacy against a wealthy benefactor, they are prone to die of starvation. Perhaps this is why, as a result of the commercial pressures put on them, the activities of the press in the discharge of its core duties as the fourth estate of the realm, have been put in chains.

Consequently, the expectations of the public have been dampened by the short-sighted attitude of sections of the media which have continued to fan the embers of division, primitive politics and the death of objectivity.

This core truth was one spectacular fallout of the ‘Timbergate’ brouhaha, aside the fundamental issue of the unwholesome practices in and around the corridors of power,

The state and role of the media in our country has therefore become a paradox that causes for mirth but for its significance and the dire implications for the development and future of the nation.

Under normal circumstances journalists and reporters serve as whistle blowers to the public.  They are supposed to hold governments accountable and put the exercise of power under public scrutiny. They are meant to be the heart monitor picking up the belch from a coma patient.

I know that it is naïve to expect vultures to defend dead animals and so these days, it is not really surprising that, as a survival instinct, most of our electronic and print channels deliberately suffer from MEDIA GLAUCOMA when it comes to national issues; while others have been turned into soapbox for delusion by those in authority.

Rather than be a beacon and vanguard for the oppressed masses, the Sierra Leone media paints disconcerting pictures as the presumptuous expectations at the inception of the present administration disappears like the vapour of an aeroplane.

It was Warren Buffett who said that the smarter the journalists are, the better-off society is. For to a degree, people read the press to inform themselves; and the better the teacher, the better the student body; in this case the citizenry.

Mass communication is a critical aspect of a society’s development because of its ability to effect cognitive change among the people and to structure their thinking. The media is therefore a significant and objective body and journalists are there to thoroughly investigate claims of abuses and other vices in society, like corruption, mismanagement and regulatory failures.

J. F. Kennedy put it succinctly when he said that the task of the press is not to fix the blame for the past but to help the nation fix the course for the future. To this end, it must continually ensure that those who seek to lead us must not just voice empty rhetoric but must produce clear, unambiguous and definable strategies to solve our numerous problems.

Sadly, some of the nation’s media cannot see a priest on a mountain of sugar; neither can they find a horse in the sack of dung that is catastrophically enveloping our country.

This failure has become one of our most nagging unscratched itches.

Simple investigative journalism, which should be the hallmark of the media, appears a strange, burdensome and alien concept to most of our journalists and media houses. Instead, this wider truth, brought home concisely by the Al-Jazeera documentary, was allowed to be manipulated by charlatans who tried to dictate the pace of discussion as well as those who saw an opportunity to become relevant at the expense of national interest.

Rather than continually ensuring that issues like the increasing rate of insecurity, rising poverty level, unemployment, corruption, the dilemma of our youths and the deplorable state of our educational system; as well as myriad of such bread and butter issues are on the front burner day by day, the media has succeeded in being sucked into the daily pantomime of our politicians and those with suspect agendas.

As a result, slants are being put on issues, to the point where independent on-lookers either get lost in the confusing conundrum or totally lose interest.

Rather than championing the cause of the oppressed, a number of media practitioners publish unethical stories and fight battles that are more personal, in a bid to create an uproar that will give them notoriety or keep them ‘relevant’ in the scheme of things.

Financially starved journalist and position-seeking practitioners also embark on publishing reckless things in the hope that it might earn them a ticket outside the country to greener pastures or compensation for hatchet jobs.

Instead of fulfilling its sacrosanct role, the media has allowed politicians, parties and indeed political jobbers and praise singers to bore us stiff with their trash.

In addition, individuals aggrieved or unhappy with the state of affairs have had to take it upon themselves to make the world sit up and realise that there are issues fundamentally wrong with our country and with governance in our nation.

If the press in Sierra Leone were alive to its responsibilities, several of the issues that have been carefully choreographed by the government, some of its agencies like the ACC and the IMC ( a government machinery that’s grown out of all proportions to its usefulness), as well as spin doctors, would not have taken the dimensions they took.

Rather than depend solely on press releases, weekly briefings, media conferences and indeed advertisement patronages, the Sierra Leone media displays a laziness that exposes its very limitations and the depth of most of its practitioners.

Take the absolute infamy displayed by the supposedly rebranded and publicly funded SLBC, to the ‘Timbergate’ issue. Not only is it scandalous, it shows the level of intelligence of the rogues that head that organisation who appear not to even know the cardinal rules of investigative journalism and allowed themselves to be railroaded into crass idiocy simply because they believe they have to dance to the piper’s tune.

It is a shame because the corporation is supposed to be the nation’s gateway to the rest of the world. Little wonder it continues to be so pathetic. Neither the government that it is licking its dark sides nor the public that it pretends to be serving has an iota of respect for it.

The press in Sierra Leone needs to take a long, hard look at itself because it is failing the people and by implication, the nation. Some of its practitioners have lowered journalistic ethics, values and integrity to the person that steals the least or gives the fattest brown envelope; or those who can help to further their ambition.

The inability of the media in Sierra Leone and the Diaspora, to set the socio-political agenda for now, 2012 and indeed the future of the country, is a worrying symptom of the low state of the fourth estate of the realm. Our media needs to arise from its slumber and go back to the glory days of the past.

As we strive to re-engineer our society, it has become very imperative for the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists to take a broom to its front room and sweep away all those who claim to operate as media gurus but end up tarnishing the very integrity of the profession.

It should also seek and support only candidates who will give public endorsement to working for the promulgation of the Freedom of Information Act. This issue is not about the journalist or the medium he is working for. It is about freedom which is part of the thread that makes up the democratic fabric. It is about setting the boundaries for our public office holders.

Likewise, even if it needs judicial intervention (don’t know how much good that will be) SLAJ must continue the fight for a repeal of the obnoxious Official Secrets Act. This drastic ancient piece of law achieves nothing good.

If a journalist is jailed, it may be the case that this journalist wanted to go to jail in the first place! To gain the name-recognition needed so that when they next apply for foreign assistance it will be easier to get it. On the other hand, jailing as punishment may have a chilling effect on those inclined to expose bad governance, with the consequence that those officials inclined to bad governance will have less to fear, knowing it is enough to threaten a journalist with legal action for the journalist to drop a potentially damaging investigation.

A free and outspoken press is essential for a democratic society to survive. So, dubious and corrupt officials as well as those with criminal reputation will be delighted to have the fourth estate muzzled and neutered.

Similarly, if attitudinal change is a heartfelt desire endorsed by the press, then the media needs to not only emit the fire of true transformation but also to compel its proponents, through constant scrutiny, to cast the first stone by being the embodiment of change in every socio-political disposition.

If the press is to hang on to a modicum of decency and be recognised as an agent of social revolution, then it needs to align itself with the desire of the people for a move in different direction; for a change in our political set-up and for accountability in governance irrespective of what personal cost it takes to achieve this.

It needs to wake up to its traditional role by sensitizing the people on their rights and giving them a voice that will help them to shed the primordial ethno-religious and political sentiments that have torn the fabric of our society apart,

If not, in the aftermath of the current political bullfight, it is the media that will suffer the most. And with all our institutions, values and ethics gone to the dogs, it is not in our own interests to allow the fourth estate of the realm to be slaughtered by professional assassins masquerading as politicians.

Journalism remains the last bastion of defence for the common man and if it is debased, we might as well kiss our future goodbye as we launch a new banana republic.

As the rays of 2012 illuminate our nation, the ball is in the court of the media to decide on what side of history it wants to be associated – a past fading into oblivion or a future already dawning in the present. Toil relentlessly to champion the cause of the people and blow the whistle to trigger the defence missile against fraud.

Let there be a new epoch. Let the media lead the fight for true freedom of our society.

by Raymond Dele Awoonor-Gordon

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