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World Press Freedom Day 2012 – Address to Journalists by SLAJ President

World Press Freedom Day 2012 – Address to Journalists by SLAJ President

Fellow journalists, fellow Sierra Leoneans, I am here again for this my fourth and final address to you as president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists marking World Press Freedom Day. At this time next year, SLAJ will have a new president. However between now and then, there are monumental challenges facing us chief among which are the General Elections in November. 

The fragility of our country’s politics is worrisome. The reckless practice by some of journalists is dreadful. While our politicians have become increasingly desperate to either retain power or get to power, a good number of our journalists have aligned themselves with one side or the other. 

As far as these compromised colleagues are concerned, there is nothing bad about the candidate they support or good about the one they do not. This is not journalism. This is not honesty. This is a betrayal of the fundamental principles of what should be the best profession in the world. It takes our country nowhere but backwards. Where is fairness? Where has accuracy been thrown? Where has balance been tilted? 

Fellow journalists, fellow Sierra Leoneans, consistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are marking this day today to call for a guarantee of that freedom to express ourselves. As citizens of the world, 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? Any government that is worth its salt will guarantee free press – both in words and in deeds. But do journalists use that freedom selfishly to satisfy paymasters, tribal/regional considerations, business interests, or to cuss each other foolishly? Or do we use it to help the poor Sierra Leoneans whose suffering is stark and stares at us in the face? 

Our extractive sector is becoming even more and more attractive. Iron ore and offshore oil have added to diamonds, which have proved more of a curse than a blessing to our nation. It is an irony, we know, that some of the poorest people in the world live in some of its wealthiest, such as Sierra Leone. But a truly independent media, which has not sold out to politicians or mining companies, can change this. What does it pay us as journalists if we sell out at the expense of our poor and hapless compatriots? This is not just criminal it is sinful. 

One of the themes to mark this day this year is Media freedom with the power to transform society. The media is never free with repressive laws such as our criminal and seditious libel law and without a progressive law like a Freedom of Information Law. The media is never free when journalists are either not paid or are paid a take-home pay that can barely take them home. Journalists are never free for as long as they can be killed and no serious efforts made by the police to bring their killers to justice; or when presidential guards can beat up journalists with apparent impunity. 

The killing of Ibrahim Foday in October last year and the failure by the police to apprehend his killers leaves us all dead. The refusal of the police to give us the full names of the two presidential bodyguards who beat up our colleagues at the National Stadium, so we can sue them, must leave the leadership of our police in shame. We urge the SLP to help bring to justice those involved in both incidents. 

Freedom of expression is one of our most precious rights, says UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. It underpins every other freedom and provides a foundation for human dignity. Free, pluralistic and independent media is essential for the existence of that freedom of expression. 

Fellow journalists, as resolved at our Annual General Meeting in Bo just last week, I wish to encourage all of us to imbibe more honesty and impartiality in the practice of our trade. Some institutions can afford to get it wrong and not adversely affect the peace and serenity of our country. But like the security forces, the media cannot afford to fluff, or else the country will blow off.

We urge the public to not leave us alone in this struggle for a free press. We have championed your causes and we continue do so. If I need to remind you of the famous German protestant Martin Niemöller, here is what he said:  Quand ils sont venus chercher les communistes, Je n’ai rien dit, Je n’étais pas communiste. Quand ils sont venus chercher les syndicalistes, Je n’ai rien dit, Je n’étais pas syndicaliste. Puis ils sont venus me chercher, Et il ne restait personne pour protester. First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. 

Please help us in this fight. It is a fight for all of us. 

May the Sierra Leonean media be free and honest!  

I thank you very much.

Umaru Fofana, President, SLAJ

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