IMC/Zain Media Awards 2010, Friday 26 February 2010
Address by Umaru Fofana, President, SLAJâ€ IMC/Zain Media Awards 2010, Friday 26 February 2010: Madam Chairman and Commissioners of the Independent Media Commission, Minister of Information and Communication representing His Excellency the President, other Ministers of Government, Chief Executive Officer and other staff of Zain, which I should add is the oldest surviving mobile phone company in Sierra Leone, Members of the Diplomatic and Consular Corps, fellow journalists especially entrants for this yearâ€™s awards, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, good evening.
In the last fourteen months that I have been President of SLAJ, questions have been asked as to whether SLAJ should not be awarding journalists annually as a way of recognising respecters in our country of the worldâ€™s greatest profession and shaming those who disrespect its caveat. I have consistently responded that as the media regulatory body, the IMC are best suited to do so. And to the best of my knowledgeÂ¸ they have acquitted themselves excellently in this regard. If anything we can only associate with the process as has been demonstrated by the membership on the Awards Committee of the Secretary-General of SLAJ. Suffice it to say that the contributions of Mr Mustapha Sesay have helped broaden the scope and interest in the awards. For example, following his suggestion, one of the sponsoring agencies this yearâ€™s awards have agreed a fellowship to accompany tonightâ€™s award. We want to see more of that in the coming years.
We are particularly grateful to the IMC for making membership of SLAJ a criterion for eligibility to enter for this yearâ€™s awards. In the near future, SLAJ should also provide an award for a category at this ceremony. The association can work out the details of that. In the same vein, we are willing to collaborate with the IMC by way of helping reduce the burden on journalists practising in the provinces who wish to enter for awards. This is such an important event that we should make it as easy as possible for entrants.
I think the IMC/Zain Awards are akin, even if at a local level, to the annual CNN/Multichoice African Journalists Awards. And we must all support it.
Talking about the CNN/Multichoice awards, I wish to express my disappointment that despite repeated calls we made to our members to enter the competition to prove that journalism in West Africa was born here, participation was at best negligible. I hope next yearâ€™s awards will engender a lot more interest. I am however heartened that I received several calls especially from journalists in the provinces, asking for detail of how to enter for the IMC/Zain awards. I hope that spirit will be translated beyond the borders of our country.
The IMC/Zain Media Awards ceremony is one of the best activities on the media calendar and for a very good reason. If these awards do not spur up journalists or media institutions, nothing else would. This is a call for us to do the best things our profession requires or even demands us to do, and to eschew the bad. I am aware of the limitations of some of our colleagues. While for some it is out of choice, letâ€™s call it personal-interest journalism, for a good number of other who err it is the lack of adequate knowhow. Let me use this occasion to inform all that as a way of addressing this, on Tuesday and Wednesday, the 2 and 3 March, SLAJ will be holding a 2-day training of research assistants who will help our experts in the Learning Needs Assessment of journalists. This will identify the training gaps that exist among journalists around the country and will give us a clearer picture of where training is needed.
Training is, without doubt, needed. But even more needed is adherence to the dictates of our profession. That said, I would like to remind Government not to expect to read or hear about only the sweet side of the roses as even this epitome of love also has a thorny side. The media cannot be expected to be a praise-singing instrument. However, journalists must also not see themselves as enemies or opponents of Government, and should not seek to bring down an elected government through unconstitutional means.
In his book The Republican Noise machine: Right-wing media and how it corrupts democracy, David Brock cites Rupert Murdock as believing that journalism is a business just like any other without responsibilities other than to make profit. But hear what the same Murdoch says, â€œI differ from the vast majority of my peers in this country in that I believe the new cult of adversarial journalism has sometimes been taken to the point of subversionâ€. While I donâ€™t wish to expatiate in this, I will want to urge us all, not to allow the media to be the cause for civil strife in our country. The way things are at present, a lot needs to be done to avert this. And it should be the responsibility of all of us.
A conservative American writer, Edith Efron, in her book The News Twisters, agitates for media activism by the Right. In an article in Washington Report in 1971 published some three months before The News Twisters, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, a conservative Democrat, wrote that the American system of free enterprise was under attack by the four institutions that shaped the countryâ€™s public opinion: the political establishment, the media, the academy and the court system. That sounds very much like present day Sierra Leone. Powell called for what he referred to as â€œGuerrilla Warâ€.
Here we donâ€™t have a rightwing or leftwing; not in our politics or in the media. Nor would I call for a guerrilla war. But we definitely need our media to be people-centred. We must not see something as good simply because it suits our individual selfish interests, or as bad just because our friends or relations are adversely affected. It will not benefit us anything if we gain personally while our country loses out.
There are a lot of business interests in our country, and more are yet to come. But how many of these business interests are genuinely in our interest as a nation? This we should seek to find out without any selfish motive. As politicians, as journalists and as ordinary citizens of this the only country we have as ours. We owe it to the current and subsequent generations to do the right things. If our generation of journalists, academics, judges, and politicians sell out, our country is doomed. Where the Government and other public officials are doing well, and there is a number of areas where they are, we should laud their efforts. And where they fluff, we flag them with a view to correcting them.Â
Talking about Government, I will remiss in my duty and do a disservice to my conscience if I do not say the following: SLAJ wishes to salute Governmentâ€™s cooperation so far in the establishment of an independent public service broadcaster. We hope the independence of the SLBC will be respected when it eventually kicks off.
We also welcome President Ernest Bai Koromaâ€™s statement of intent that his administration will review our libel laws especially the Criminal and Seditious Libel components thereof. This is a call that has been at the heart of SLAJâ€™s very existence since it was founded 38 years ago. The recent additional voices for a repeal of this obnoxious law by the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone and the Independent Media Commission are a welcome development. I wish to therefore humbly suggest that the HRCSL and the IMC should take the lead in following through on the presidentâ€™s expression of intent to make this happen. How they go about this we are open to discuss it.
Passing a Freedom of Information law is another area Government has made its intentions known. It has said so repeatedly and we need to see action. Having such a law, decriminalising libel, plus an independent public service broadcaster, can only make our leaders accountable to the people, our democracy flourish, and our country prosper.
I am however concerned that since our administration came into office in December 2008, Government has not made real on any of the promises they made to SLAJ. We visited President Koroma shortly after assuming office, and explained to him some of the needs of the association. He instructed his Minister of Information who incidentally is a former President of SLAJ and one we hold at a very high esteem, to follow the matters through. They included the need for a plot of land for SLAJ to have its own permanent structure on. We used to have one courtesy of journalist Paul Kamara of For Di People newspaper when he was Minister of Lands. We have it no more. We are grateful to the British High Commission for paying our rent and for equipping our new and befitting headquarters which will be commissioned in the next two weeks. And to the Office of ERSG for paying an additional one-year rent for the said office.
We also asked for the Government subsidy to SLAJ which has happened in the past. More than one year on, this has not happened, despite several follow-up meetings we have held since that time and despite reassurances. The Government also pledged to contribute towards the organising of our Annual General Meeting which took place in Makeni in November last year. While we are grateful to the President and the Vice President for their personal contributions which we made public in the interest of accountability, up to now Government has not made real its commitment to that pledge.
Thanks to the Chinese embassy, three of our colleagues are studying in China. But there is a limit to which the Chinese government can go in supporting them and their families back home. We wrote to the Minister of Education and copied in the Minister of Information, appealing that Abu Bakar Sesay, Henrietta Yohn Kpaka and Ophaniel Gooding be included on the Sierra Leone Government overseas studentsâ€™ allowance scheme to enable them care for their families. It is six months now and we are yet to hear from Government on this. I wish to remind Government that these interventions are needed today like they were yesterday and we will gladly welcome them.
To media institutions, I wish to renew my appeal to those of you who have fallen fowl and have been fined by the IMC, to please honour these fines. We may have had our brushes with the commission, but they remain the sole media regulatory body in the country, and we have put those brushes behind us in the interest of the media and the country. And this is why we think there is need for the IMC and NATCOM to iron our certain grey areas that exist in the two instruments that set them up. This brings me to the appeal for NATCOM to rethink their current radio-coverage-shrinking enterprise which asks some radio stations to reduce their megahertz. We shall talk more of this in the near future as we are at present in talks with the Independent Radio Network.
Finally to those who will be awarded here tonight, winning brings along pride. But it invariably brings along expectations from the public and places responsibilities on your shoulders. So pleased try to live up.Long Live the IMC/Zain Media Awards! Long Live SLAJ! Long live Press Freedom Down with reckless journalism! Down with Criminal Libel! I thank you all. SLAJ, Freetown
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