By Amin Kef-Ranger
The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) held its Golden Jubilee Annual General Meeting in Bo, Southern Sierra Leone, an occasion which commenced on the 4th June and ended on the 5th June, 2021 at the Galliness Paradise Hotel Hall with the theme “Looking Inwards: Towards a Strong & United SLAJ and a Free and Professional Media.”
In attendance were the Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swarray, Executive President of the New Harvest Global Ministry, Rev. Shudankeh Johnson, who led the Christian Prayer, the Bo District Imam, Alhaji Mustapha Coker, who led the Muslim Prayer, Dr. Alieu Bah, Adviser to SLAJ (Southern Region), Rev.Fr. Moses Kawa, Vical General, Catholic Diocese Bo District, a representative of His Worship Harold Logic Tucker, Mayor of Bo City Council, a representative of the Assistant Inspector General of Police, Southern Region, Aiah Edward Samadia, BrigadierGeneral, AB Conteh, Brigade Commander, 5th Infantry Brigade, RSLAF, Gondama, Southern Region, Director General of NATCOM, Daniel Kaitibi, the President of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, Michaela Eddinia Swallow, a representative of the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG), the Chairman of the Independent Media Commission, George Khoryama, the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Dr. Babatunde A. Ahonsi, Executive Members of SLAJ and a galaxy of media practitioners drawn from both the electronic and print media from all the regions in the country.
The welcome address was done by a representative of the Mayor of Bo City, Rev. Fr. Moses Kawa and two veteran journalists who were also part of the founding members of SLAJ namely: Bernadette Cole and Daisy Bona, all who heartily welcomed all present to the august meeting further expressing optimism that the deliberations during the proceedings will be fruitful further stating that at the end of the meet such will position SLAJ to become strong, united in order to enhance a free and professional media in Sierra Leone.
In his statement, the Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swarray stated that he is very delighted to be invited to speak during this year’s gathering, which, according to him, is organised to celebrate Freedom of the Press.
He additionally pointed out that the celebration is geared towards commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) which makes the occasion particularly auspicious.
The Minister congratulated SLAJ for making it thus far also expressing wish for its long life and prosperity informing that the celebration is poignant given the repeal of Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act.
“That repeal has triggered great expectations of a vibrant media and robust civil society and of a strengthened democracy,” he underscored adding how it was an honour for him to lead the repeal process which made the 50TH Anniversary of SLAJ a unique and historic GOLDEN JUBILEE celebration.
He intimated that the mandate of the Ministry of Information and Communications includes promoting the free flow of information between the Government and the Media and by extension the people.
“We will continue our work to foster a free, independent and pluralistic media, be it print, broadcast or online media,” he assured further stating that he is convinced that a free and independent media can enhance freedom of expression and contribute to the development of society.
He maintained that the theme for the SLAJ AGM is apt given the times the state of the media is in also urging all SLAJ members to seize the opportunity to reflect on issues pertinent to press freedom and ethical conduct.
The Information Minister continued by stating that undoubtedly the media sector in Sierra Leone is growing and becoming increasingly diverse also emphasizing that President Dr. Julius Maada Bio has been clear about his vision for the media in Sierra Leone which, he said, is one in which media practitioners and the Government should collaborate to foster development.
He told newsmen that the President considers the media an indispensable ally in efforts at transforming the country also disclosing how he has consistently promoted policies for press freedom and the safety of journalists furthering that he also believes that a free press has to be anchored on professionalism and sound ethical practices.
He anchored that while the 1991 constitution guarantees for every citizen the right to freedom of expression he, as Minister of Information, must point out that such right should never be exercised in a manner that could incite violence and unrest in the society.
“When free speech is deliberately exercised to stoke violence or advance selfish interests it undermines the important role of the media in society,” he cautioned.
The Information Minister stated that in democratic dispensations of free speech is exercised within the confines of law and order maintaining that freedom of expression is not absolute but it is a qualified right.
He informed that the media in Sierra Leone faces many challenges mentioning that good-quality training institutions are few in the country affecting professionalism in the sector, that poor salaries also create difficulties in retaining staff and leads to bribery-based journalism.
The Minister, however, assured that Government has made provision under the new IMC Act 2020 to address the issue of salaries for journalists.
He called for cooperation between the media and Government in order to promote and implement the Independent Media Commission’s standards stating that there is the need for more media training programmes, seminars and conferences.
He revealed that in line with the President Bio’s directive for support for community radio stations, they, as a Ministry are currently working with the Ministry of Finance to support those community radio stations with relevant training, fuel and transportation.
In his contribution or statement, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, the President of SLAJ, thanked all for braving COVID-19 in order to grace the 50th anniversary AGM.
He paid special tribute to erstwhile colleague journalist ,after he was elected as President of SLAJ, who have passed away naming Christo Johnson, Chernor Ojukwu Sesay, Rod Mac Johnson, Salieu Poborsky and a couple of others, with the most recent being Ralf Esse-Donu Sawyer.
The SLAJ President intimated that within the next 24 hours the Association will be celebrating its 50th anniversary since it was founded on the 5th June 1971.
“50 years is a time for us to take a deep breath, take an introspective look at ourselves and also dream of where we would want to be in the next 5, 10, 15 and 50 years,” he admonished also underscoring that was why the theme, “Looking Inwards, Looking Outwards: Towards a Strong, Accountable and United SLAJ, and a Free and Professional Media” was chosen.
He expressed hope that journalists that are present in the meeting will fired up to articulate their thoughts when all settle down for the in-house deliberations throughout the days of the meeting.
Ahmed Sahid Nasralla pointed out that indeed SLAJ has come a long way and media practitioners have arguably played their part in the development of the country.
He enumerated how the media has led the fight for democracy in the country.
“It was our opposition to the planned imposition of a one-party rule in the 1960’s which led to the enactment of the Criminal Libel Law,” he disclosed adding that journalists even though they were thrown into jail never stopped to hold State leaders to account.
“Through sustained pressure from the media, President Joseph Saidu Momoh (late) agreed to bring back multi-party democracy in 1991,” he cited an example mentioning that when the rebel war started in 1991 the war compromised the military, the Police, the Civil Service, the politicians adding that when the Government ran away to Guinea the media was the only opposition, him calling the media the last man standing.
“The media led the fight back against the rebels,” he told those present mentioning other instances when the media played positive roles like during the fight against the Ebola scourge, the flooding that took place at Kroo-Bay, the mudslide that occurred at Mortormeh and the fight against COVID-19.
He said in sync with key Civil Society players the media staged the first and a very successful political debate during which the top six presidential candidates were presented to the populace to choose who they thought was fit to rule.
“So today we have every reason to celebrate,” he stated adding how there is also the need to celebrate the founding mothers and fathers of SLAJ, past SLAJ Presidents and National and Regional Executive members, SLAJ membership.
He stated that SLAJ has moved from the days when it was literally begging journalists to become members to now where every practising journalist wants to be a member.
He dilated on all the positive achievements SLAJ has made so far.
“Yes we have come a long way to now celebrating the historic repeal of the obnoxious Criminal Libel Law,” he enjoined adding that there is every reason to be proud and to celebrate.
The President of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, Madam Michaela Eddinia Swallow, in her statement said Lawyers and Journalists share a common cause to promote the Rule of Law, safeguard Good Governance and protect Human Rights.
She furthered that as lawyers they are always in readiness to take up issues by challenging actions in court whilst journalists do so through various publications in the media.
Michaela Eddinia Swallow applauded the SLAJ President for sustaining the partnership and for the collaboration between the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and the Sierra Leone Bar Association.
She urged media practitioners to use the AGM as an opportunity to learn from the past, address the present challenges and prepare for the future.
According to her, SLAJ can look back with pride because of the pivotal role the Association has played in strengthening democracy and peace consolidation.
She said, “As your Association addresses the current challenges ranging from the economic sustainability of media outlets to improving the working conditions of Journalists, remember that every professional association has its challenges but you must face them, embrace them, defy them and conquer them. As you look inwards, you must also prepare for the future as the rise of the new media has enabled the spread of disinformation and continues to undermine professional journalism.”
In his Keynote address, the UN Resident Coordinator, Dr. Babatunde A. Ahonsi said development issues have been under-reported and therefore encouraged journalists to also focus on development and human interest stories.
Whilst commending Journalists for the key advocacy role for the repeal of the 1965 Public Order Act, especially Part 5 of the said Act, the UN Resident Coordinator urged journalists to continue to report the truth in a balanced and objective manner as the country prepares for the 2023 national elections.
He recommended that journalists must also focus on reporting issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals underscoring the importance of doing so because they are closely aligned to the development aspirations of the country.
Other speakers made salient contributions.
Climaxing the convergence of journalists in Bo were a panel discussion, a football game between media practitioners from the Western Area and the provinces, regional Executive reports, reports by affiliate bodies, audit reports, state of the Association report, election of SLAJEC Commissioners and appointments to vacant institutions.
(C) The Calabash Newspaper