Editors of various newspapers in Sierra Leone, under the umbrella body of the Guild of Newspaper Editors in Sierra Leone, in series of objections raised on the 12th June 2020, expressed its utmost regret and disapproval over, what they described as the draconian provisions embedded in the proposed Independent Media Commission (IMC) Bill 2020 gazetted in the Supplement to the Sierra Leone Extraordinary Gazette Vol. CXLXI No. 35 dated 12th June 2020.
According to what majority of them said, the Bill contains onerous provisions that could have far-reaching consequences on development journalism in Sierra Leone and if enacted would have far-reaching implications for press freedom and significantly narrow the space for media pluralism in Sierra Leone.
“We note with consternation that no consultation or validation was ever done before the Bill was drafted and gazetted,” they lamented adding that after a thorough examination of the Bill, they pinpointed the draconian clauses and the objections raised against them.
They pointed out Section 29 (2 a&b) which makes a provision that newspapers, magazines, newsletters can only be registered as a body corporate under the Companies Act 2009 or as a partnership under the Partnership Act of 1980.
The objection that they raised is that the provision does not only infringe on the Right to Freedom of the Press guaranteed under Section 25 of the 1991 Constitution but also obliterate the fundamental human right of individuals to establish and conduct business under Sole Proprietorship.
They mentioned Section 25 (1) of the 1991 Constitution – Act No.6 of 1991 which states: “Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression and for the purpose of this Section the said freedom includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, freedom from interference with his correspondence, freedom to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information.”
The Editors unanimously stated that they want to take the opportunity to remind the drafters of the Bill and Parliamentarians that the 1991 Constitution is sacrosanct and therefore any law that is found to be in contravention of same is null and void.
With regards Section 31 (3 a iii) of the Bill which mandates the IMC to carry out Statutory Audit on newspapers registered under the Bill, the Editors objected that they construe the aforementioned too draconian as there is no provision in law or legal precedence in Sierra Leone or any part of the world thereof that supports it.
The Newspaper Editors stated emphatically clear that independently owned newspapers do not collect money to implement projects for and on behalf of the Government and people of Sierra Leone nor are their businesses finance charged on the Consolidated Revenue Fund.
They furthered that the core function of Media Commissions the world over is to regulate the media and provide mediation between the latter and aggrieved members of the public; not to meddle or interfere with its independence, be it editorial or otherwise.
“We therefore see the above Section as a direct interference into the privacy rights of privately owned business that will seriously undermine commercial/business interests,” they maintained.
They also highlighted Section 14 (1 – a ii & b) of the Bill which gives the IMC sweeping powers to suspend or cancel license where it is satisfied that (a-ii) “within 6 months period contravened the media code of practice more than once,” and (b) “it is in the public interest to do so”.
In their objection, the Editors frowned on the cancellation or suspension of license noting that the existing penalties contained in the IMC Media Code of Practice are adequate and sufficient to deal with any media practitioner who commits a breach.
They stated how they are fully aware that the IMC does not have jurisdiction to determine “the public interest” and therefore cannot confer such judicial powers upon itself to determine same believing that the exercise of such powers by the IMC will spell doom for the Press.
Section 40 (1b) of the proposed Act provides that ONLY persons who have obtained a degree or diploma in journalism, mass communications or media studies should be employed as Editors/Station Managers.
Objecting to that they expressed belief that journalism is a right-based profession and no form of academic requirement should be made on discriminatory terms to disadvantage or disfavor professionals and scholars from other disciplines.
“We also believe that this provision is at variance with Section 25 (1) of the 1991 Constitution since the latter does not place any academic burden on individuals to own and operate any medium for the dissemination of information,” they affirmed.
Section 27 (3) and 34 (3) of the Bill prescribed that the procedure for renewal of both license and registration shall be the same as an application for a license or registration to which the Editors strongly objected to those provisions because of their cumbersomeness.
“We note that best practice demands certificates/license renewal processes and procedures must be flexible and convenient for the applicant,” they affirmed.
(C) The Calabash Newspaper