SLAJ Annual General Meeting, Bo, 27 – 28 April 2012
State of the Association Address – Mr Chairman, distinguished delegates, Good afternoon, and a Happy 51st Independence Anniversary to our country and congratulations to all of us on this day. Often we take this date for granted. But is a date on which we must remind ourselves of how far we have come as a nation and where we are headed. With our conscience, we must all look back on this day and be faithful to ourselves as it relates to our profession and country. Do we compromise our profession as journalists for individual and often paltry benefits from those we report on while our country bleeds, or must we sacrifice all like our forefathers did in the run-up to this day and stand up for what will turn our nation into the best on the face of the earth?
While we ponder for this – I doubt we need pondering on this – let me start from the very start as far as this occasion is concerned. I wish to salute my colleagues in both the National and Regional Executives for their stewardship in the last year. It has been a tough one year since we were elected – or re-elected – at the Biennial Conference in Kenema. Somehow it has been a year that has passed off very fast. But measured by the trials and vicissitudes that have sometimes beset us, it has been like five years. But, hearteningly, there have also been smiling moments, which I wish to start with.
I stand to be corrected that in the last one year more journalists – about a dozen or so – have got married than at any other time in the history of our Association. They include the National Secretary General who got married to another SLAJ Member; And the Assistant National Secretary General who has been blessed with a bouncing baby girl, thanks to another SLAJ member.
Sadly, we are still being plagued by the relatively frequent deaths of our colleagues. Among those that died in the period under review include three former SLAJ Presidents – Ibrahim El-Tayyib Bah, Sam Metzger and Issa Alisson-Konteh. We also lost probably the most vibrant Secretary-General in the history of our Association, Olu Richie Gordon. We salute their service to our country and our association even as we mourn their passing.
As our association grows in stature, our profession becomes ever more relevant and vibrant but also dangerous. The challenges and threats have become increasingly monumental and stark. In the period under review one journalist has been killed and many others attacked, sometimes violently. But I am heartened that there have also been smiling moments. Unfortunately, and somewhat incomprehensibly, some of these attacks have come from within. It is shocking and galling the level of vicious things written and said about journalists by their fellow journalists. These attacks have reached an intolerable level. The enormity of a struggle reaches a near-unbearable level when it is against both outside forces and within.
Political party bigots have become increasingly bellicose against journalists – and may become even more so as we approach November’s general elections. Their paymasters must be told that Charles Taylor was convicted yesterday specifically because he aided and abetted crimes committed in Sierra Leone and not because he fired the guns or wielded the machetes. Criminal liability fell upon him nevertheless. We wish to appeal to especially those at leadership positions in all political parties not least the two main ones – the APC and SLPP – and their surrogates, to be careful with journalists, as they can be held responsible for crimes committed against us by their party militants.
Mr Chairman, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen, the past year has been most challenging for journalists and journalism because of the sheer involvement of some members of the Sierra Leone Police force in the brutality against journalists. Most prominent among them are the alleged involvement of a serving OSD personnel in the murder of journalist Ibrahim Foday at Grafton, the beating-up of four journalists at the National Stadium by two presidential guard police officers and the seizure in Kabala of copies of Global Times newspaper by a senior police officer. Sad to say, however, that despite the heinous nature of these crimes, the culprits have not been brought to justice.
In the case of the slain journalist, despite their initial apparent interest in the matter, the police have allowed the prime suspect to still remain in “hiding”. I use HIDING in inverted commas because I am not even sure whether the police are making any efforts at all to look out for Tunde. Nor am I sure why the OSD officer believed to have held Foday to be stabbed was released without explanation by the police. We demand that the killers of Ibrahim Foday be brought to justice IMMEDIATELY. The police can do it if they want to do it. So far we have a sense of some conspiracy theory beclouding probe of the matter.
In the case of the journalists beaten by the presidential guards at the National stadium, we had to boycott cooperating with the Police Complaint Disciplinary Internal Investigation Department because of a very compromising statement made by the Inspector General of Police on state television on the matter. We decided to pursue the matter in court in stead. Up to today, the CDIID has refused to give us the full names of the police officers which we need to file a law suit.
Criminal Libel Law
The Criminal and Seditious Libel Law remains an albatross around our neck as a nation but especially as journalists. Freedom – and that includes PRESS FREEDOM – is a given. Not granted by anyone or any government. The question is what do you do with that freedom. Keep it, use it selfishly, or do you use it to help others? Freedom of Expression and of the press – is a sine qua non. As journalists we do NOT need any government to grant us that freedom. It is our entitlement. Any government worth its salt will guarantee just that – both in words and in deeds. The question is this: should Sierra Leonean journalists use that inalienable freedom selfishly to satisfy paymasters, tribal/regional considerations or business interests? Or do we use it to help the poor Sierra Leoneans whose suffering stares at us in the face? I hope – and unfortunately this may only be a hope – that the elections of 2012 must be a turning point. Ours is a responsibility no-one else can perform.
The struggle against the obnoxious Criminal Libel Law remains daunting. Despite repeated assurances by President Ernest Bai Koroma and our dear immediate past president of SLAJ and Information Minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo that the law will be reviewed – if not repealed – it remains in bold and italicised characters in our law books. We will not relent in the fight against the repression that this law portends and presents. It is a struggle we will take to all the corners of the world. In fact I have been invited to Tunis by UNESCO to present the state of the Criminal Libel Law in our region. I will tell them what SLAJ has been doing and what we intend to do, and how the Government has let us down on this law. We are heartened that the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, the Bar Association and the Independent Media Commission have all called for a repeal of this law without delay.
Mentioning the Independent Media Commission there brings me to this body set up to regulate the media fairly and honestly and impartially – in the interest of the public. The standing of the IMC stands to be compromised in the eyes of the public if it does not do just that. I cannot remember at any point in our country’s recent history when certain sections of the media have been as reckless and thriving on falsehood as now. Members of the public seem to be at the mercy of some of the worst kind of journalism by some journalists. This must either stopped or must be stopped. And the IMC – not the court system – is our preference to achieve this.
As we approach November’s elections, every institution can afford to be reckless and not bring down the country as adversely as three institutions – namely the police, the electoral commission and the media. We must play our part. I have received telephone calls three times from researchers for the International Criminal Court investigating the conduct of the Sierra Leone media. I am not sure what their intentions are but I would urge all of us to be measured and play within the scope and diktat of the profession. I hereby repeat an earlier warning I made at the IMC Media Awards a few years ago that if we are not careful, the media could be the catalyst for civil political unrest owing to our reporting. This we must all guard against.
Kelvin Lewis Commission
Talking about political unrest brings me to the role SLAJ – through Mr Kelvin Lewis and Mr Sayoh Kamara – played in investigating the political violence in Bo in October last year. We are proud to have been a part of the investigation and to have even led it. I cannot remember any time in the recent past when a committee set up by Government has performed its tasks so honestly, conscientiously and speedily. We are proud of Mr Lewis and Mr Kamara.
Mr Chairman, fellow delegates, the commitment that has been exhibited by the Regional and National Executives has sometimes been sterling. Sometimes it has left a lot to be desired. I wish to urge especially the Regional Executives of the South and East to put more time and commitment into their tasks. I know they are not paid, nor are we, but one must do the tasks assigned to the position one expressly said they would live up to – or they leave. It has been very disheartening apart from the Northern Regional Office, SLAJ offices in the provinces have been a waste of money. There is hardly anyone there. I have sent people many times on recce to these offices and they have always found them closed. It does not create the impact and stature we anticipate for our Noble Association. Many times journalists have been in threatening situations and the regional executives have not even listened to them.
Conversely, SLAJ members must not think about the association only when they are in difficulty. This is why the AGM Committee decided, and I wholeheartedly support them, that delegates here today will be required to produce their receipt of payment of dues. We noticed that in the past many delegates from the provinces attended AGMs and Biennials under false pretence in cahoots with some members of their executive. We therefore prefer to have ten delegates if they are the only paid-up members than have a thousand through the back door.
Payment of dues
I wish to encourage all to pay their dues on time – not just when AGM approaches. The National Executive has been leading by example. We had to break with tradition that exempted executive members from paying their dues. And the dues we must discuss here with a view to reviewing them. Our present commitment internationally – to the IFJ, FAJ and WAJA – and the running cost of the headquarters cannot allow us to continue paying the Le 60,000 (less than $ 15) we pay at present.
A press release issued recently by the Secretariat reminded those in arrears that the SLAJ Constitution clearly states that anyone who does not pay their membership dues for three consecutive years stands to forfeit their membership. By that press release, and the adoption of this Address, all SLAJ members who do not pay against 31 May 2012 will be deemed to have forfeited their membership, which will be struck off the register. Unless, of course, as stipulated in the SLAJ Constitution, they are founding members who are exempted from such payment.
What would have been a huge embarrassment was averted because of our proactivity early this year. The International Federation of Journalists – of which we only recently became a full member, threatened to suspend us if we did not meet our financial commitment. Simply, we did not have the money from your dues, so e had to resort to other funds we had raised for something else, to be able to settle some of that. I personally took the money to IFJ Africa office in Dakar during my recent BBC assignment there.
We are pleased to have assisted one of our members, who was up to date with her payment. Alinah Kallon-Bockarie secured scholarship to study in Europe but the bursary required that she should buy her one-way ticket and take care of her initial one-month stay. With help from NATCOM we were able to raise the money needed for that. And she sends her appreciation to all of you SLAJ members for our intervention. We also provided return ticket and a small per diem for Edward Kargbo for training and workshop in Israel.
Several journalists were also sent abroad for various training programmes with five scheduled to leave on Monday to Monrovia for media activities planned by the Press Union of Liberia sponsored by UNESCO.
We also held training programmes in-country including a training on child rights reporting held throughout the country funded by UNICEF and training in blogging funded by the United States embassy in Freetown.
While we do not wish to praise ourselves before someone says too much, I would like to concentrate on what we plan to do in the coming months. Our biggest priority is to continue fighting against the retention of Criminal Libel Law, for the promulgation of the Freedom of Information Law and training on election reporting for journalists and their safety and security.
Safety of Journalists/Political journalists
On the issue of safety and security, we are discussing with partners for flat jackets for journalists covering elections. We plan to have these jackets at a heavily discounted price so as many journalists as possible can secure one. The plan is to sell this strictly to SLAJ members ONLY.
While that will help clearly identify – and hopefully protect – us, the way we carry ourselves will assist greatly. We have noticed that good number of journalists have political intentions and plan to contest for public office positions in the coming months. Where they continue to both practise and pursue this intention, they are compromising journalism. A journalist who pursues his political career while in active journalism is as bad as a soldier who pursues a political ambition while holding onto his gun – a coup plotter.
Kabala and Pujehun
We intervened in resolving a series of challenging issues involving especially community radio stations. We made a trip to Pujehun and Kabala, for example, to resolve attacks on them by the local councils. In the case of Kabala, in collaboration with the IMC, we were able to reconstitute a new Board.
World Press Freedom Day 2012
In the coming days and weeks and months, we will continue with the hard work of the last few weeks as we organise weeklong events to mark World Press Freedom Day – on Thursday 3 May supported by UNESCO. This will include a 2-day workshop to look at the bad media laws and how to secure their repeal, panel discussions on the state of the media and processions throughout the country. I would encourage especially the regional executives to please be more involved this week by holding their own.
We are also planning the Presidential debate ahead of the General Elections in November. While we are still working out the detail, we plan it to be a three-part series with one looking at governance issues and the economy, another looking at the extractives and the third looking at social services. We plan to do this in collaboration with Campaign for Good Governance and some other partners.
I wish to urge all of us to see each other as members of one family. To agree to settle our differences in-house. We do not see lawyers or doctors deriding each other publicly as much as we do to each other. Personally I have suffered this repeatedly, but the fact that they are from the same usual suspects makes me not feel bothered by it. I wish as we approach the elections we will agree to disagree with each other in and with respect for each other.
I hope and pray that we will forever work as one body. And believe in and stand for those things that our profession and our association uphold.
I wish us all fruitful deliberation in the interest of our association and our country.Long live SLAJ Long live Press Freedom And on this our independence day, long live Sierra Leone I thank you.
By Umaru Fofana, President, SLAJ
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