Last month, the government of Sierra Leone passed the Broadcasting Act and created the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation, a new public service broadcaster.
The Act will effectively merge the state broadcaster, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting System, with United Nations Radio, set up during the country’s brutal civil war in an effort to resolve tensions.
Many have hailed it as a step towards fostering a healthy, democratic media environment in the post-conflict West African country, free from international intervention and dependency.
But like many things in this country, the implementation of a neutral public service broadcaster free of corruption won’t be simple or easy.
According to the Broadcasting Act, the president, Ernest Koroma, will still have the power to appoint the director-general and the deputy director-general of the new broadcasting corporation, leading to doubts that leadership will have any chance at being free of political biases.
Sierra Leoneans are fiercely political and support one of two rival parties, the ruling All People’s Congress or the opposition, the Sierra Leone People’s Party.
The Problem Of Coasting
Ethical, independent and politically neutral journalism has a long way to go in Sierra Leone.
Journalism in Sierra Leone suffers from a series of complicated obstacles. The majority of journalists engage in a practice called “coasting” whereby they accept money from organizations to write favourable stories.
It’s very normal for a non-governmental organization or a government ministry to hold a press conference and then hand out brown envelopes full of cash to the journalists who attended.
The journalists then return to their offices and write positive stories about the organizations in question or boring, step-by-step accounts of what happened at a routine, government meeting. Critical or investigative journalism is virtually non-existent.
Most journalists accept the cash because they simply aren’t paid enough by their employers. Most aren’t provided with batteries, notebooks, pens or tape recorders. They don’t receive any money for transportation either.
If they want to continue practicing journalism, and feed their families at the same time, they have to take the money provided by the NGOs. It’s a frustrating cycle.
Corruption And Bribery
Some journalists abuse their power in a quest to obtain even more money. It’s not uncommon for a journalist to approach a prominent member of society and threaten to write an unfavourable story about that person. The journalist is promptly bribed not to write anything bad.
When journalists do pursue their own stories, they are often about political infighting, rather than about the concerns of individual citizens or human rights violations. Accusations against public figures are often published without any substantiation.
Editors regularly mismanage money and hog equipment, denying their staff salaries or insisting they pay a typist out of their own pocket to get their story typed on a computer.
A free media system is the key to any well-functioning democracy. Journalists must be free to ask tough questions and demand accountability from their elected officials.
But pushing boundaries in this country can have serious consequences. Libel or slander, whereby a person is defamed by an untrue statement made in the media, is a criminal offense in Sierra Leone, rather than a civil offense in Canada or the U.S. This means a team of burly police officers can show up at your door and throw you in prison, even if you have yet to be convicted.
It’s difficult to imagine a public broadcasting system that will be instantly free of these obstacles against journalists. Certainly, its creation is really only the initial step in a long process of fostering a vibrant journalism industry. The need for a public broadcaster is, in the very least, on the radar of the ruling political party.
It’s a step forward and one that should be monitored very closely.
What are your thoughts on the importance of a free media system and democracy? Share in the comments!