Observing World Press Freedom Day…. SLAJ President Underscores Press Freedom is Freedom of Expression for all Not Just Journalists

Sierra Leone joined the rest of the world on the 3rd of May 2022 to observe World Press Freedom Day. President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, in marking the day stated how since the historic repeal of the Criminal and Seditious Libel Law in 2020, Sierra Leone has made commendable progress in the area of freedom of the press.

He highlighted that no journalist has been put in jail in relation to the practice of journalism furthering that no media house has been closed down for what they print or broadcast, except Justice FM which, according to him, was days ago banned by the IMC for 10 hours for alleged “un-radio-like language’ and ‘threatening remarks…”.

“The incidents of arrest and detention of journalists by the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) on orders from above or on orders from influential people have reduced considerably since 2020,” he added also arguing that in the World Press Freedom Index 2022, Sierra Leone moved 29 places higher from 75th position to 46th out of 180 countries due largely to the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law, the passing of the IMC Act 2020 as one big step towards addressing minimum conditions of service of journalists and other media workers and media pluralism in the country.

The SLAJ President pointed out how for the first time in the 22 years’ history of the Independent Media Commission (IMC -the statutory body that regulates the media and which was established to support the media’s move toward self-regulation), His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio approved all 7 persons nominated by SLAJ, including the Chairman, to serve in the new IMC Board of 12 professional members.

He revealed how SLAJ is working with the Security Sector and trying to realize the MoU it signed last November saying such is of foundational importance to realizing press freedom.

Mentioning how the Government of Sierra Leone has announced an increment in its annual subvention to the media from Le250 million to Le500 million, he however disclosed that Government is yet to disburse for the year 2021 and 2022.

He revealed that just last month, the Government in partnership with SLAJ and the BBC Media Action, held the first national media viability and investment conference with the aim of positioning the media in Sierra Leone for investment opportunities.

Focusing on the threats to free media and free speech, the SLAJ President said while it is good to highlight the progress made in the area of press freedom, it is equally necessary to red-flag the emerging threats which have the potential to reverse all the gains made since the repeal.

He said a number of incidents recorded by both SLAJ and the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG) from 2021 to the present is cause for concern.

“Harassment, intimidation and detention of journalists have started happening all over again, including the digital space, and especially from the Sierra Leone Police,” he lamented referencing the close of 2021, when a popular Sierra Leone rapper unleashed a scathing video against the personality of the Station Manager of Radio Democracy 98.1FM, simply because the station reported the issuing of a bench warrant for him in a court matter.

He mentioned a journalist working for the Government of Sierra Leone, Abdul Fonti Kabia who was widely reported dead on social media in an attempt to intimidate him, the SLP assault and detention of AYV Media photojournalist, Ransford Wright, when he attempted to cross-check certain information with the Police.

Nasralla highlighted how the President of the Sierra Leone Reporters Union and Head of Digital Media at the AYV Media, Amadu Lamrana Bah, suffered humiliation and almost missed his flight to the AFCON 2021 in Cameroon after flight officials at the Freetown International Airport attempted to drop him allegedly on orders from above for a critical sports update on his Facebook page.

He narrated when the SLP sent two officers to Bo city, Southern Sierra Leone, to arrest Journalist, Solomon Joe, of KISS 104 FM for a broadcast concerning a transaction between two businessmen stressing that though a statement was obtained from him in Bo he was transported to Freetown and spent one night in police custody.

The SLAJ President said still worse was an apparent assassination attempt on journalist, Gibril Gottor and his family in Kambia town, Northern Sierra Leone, which he said has left the investigative journalist in fear for his life.

He stated that a free press goes beyond the arrest and detention of journalists but to the political economy of the media giving the example of the unfair distribution of Government advertisements and non-payment for such.

“But we are not just concerned about threats to free expression for journalists, SLAJ is also worried about the arrest of other citizens, including dissenting teachers and mentally challenged people for freely expressing themselves, as well as the suppression of peaceful protests and certain popular cultural activities,” he added stating that SLAJ is also concerned that the SLP now seems to be using the vague offence of incitement as an excuse to clamp down on free speech maintaining that the SLP is overreacting to dissenting views expressed by people.

He said that in 2021, one year after the repeal, and on the occasion of our Golden Jubilee celebration, they recognized His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio as Champion of Free Speech, they did so for good reason saying they reminded him that the title carries immense responsibilities.

“Freedom of the press is freedom of expression for all citizens, not just journalists,” he underscored saying President Bio must ensure the fundamental rights of everyone, including those opposed to his Government, are respected and protected.

He said as the President prepares to deliver his address at the State Opening of the 6th Parliament, they look forward to hearing his strong commitment to providing greater protection of freedom of expression for not only the media and journalists but also the general public.

The President of SLAJ revealed how with support from the European Union, Sierra Leone, will mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day with a PRESS FREEDOM WALK (WPD) 2022 under the theme: ‘Protect, Promote & Expand the Space’ to reflect upon the historic repeal of the criminal libel law in 2020 said to be a milestone which set a positive dynamic and an enabling framework for the protection and promotion of freedom of opinion and expression, including press freedom, and the civic space in Sierra Leone.

He reminded colleagues, and all media houses that media freedom is important to be used responsibly maintaining that Journalism is a privilege, a service to society, not to be wielded irresponsibly, never to be misused.

Nasralla said it is a priority for SLAJ stressing how they will continue to initiate more training programs to continue to build the capacity of media practitioners concluding by stating that it will ensure media houses and personnel uphold professional and ethical practice at all times and to put the public good ahead of all other interests or considerations.

(C) The Calabash Newspaper

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