Journalists the world over on Tuesday 3rd May commemorated World Press Freedom Day, a day set aside by the United Nation to raise awareness on the importance of freedom of the press and to also remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression.
The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) was not exempted from this annual commemoration in the form of peaceful demonstration or symposium where issues affecting journalists and regulations about media are discussed.
For this year, members of the Association converged at the Harry Yansaneh Hall in a symposium on the theme ‘access to information and fundamental freedoms-our right’ where the President of SLAJ Kelvin Lewis said that between 2007 to date over twenty five (25) journalists have been arrested interrogated, detained and or jailed and two have been convicted of Criminal Libel.
He said in Sierra Leone the continued presence and use of the Criminal Libel laws is a constant threat of the right to media freedom, which is a fundamental human right as “Today two journalists will not be with us because they are due in court to answer charges under the Criminal Libel Laws”.
The SLAJ president continues to call on President Koroma, “to make do his 8-year-old election promise, to repeal the Criminal Libel Laws. We continue to maintain that there are enough provisions in the Civil Laws to address any redress sought from those aggrieved by our work”.
He questioned “if medical doctors are not charged with murder, and executed, for making mistakes on their theatre tables where lives are lost while practicing their profession, why should journalists be jailed for practicing their profession”?.
The deputy Minister of Information Connelius Devaux said access to information and fundamental freedoms are linked and are very important principles in any democratic process as this enhance “good governance, accountability, transparency and the people’s right to know and make informed decisions”.
Stating that it is because of the importance government placed on the freedom of information that in 2013, President Koroma enacted the Right to Access Information Act in 2013 and this Acts makes provision for the establishment of the Right to Access Information Commission (RAIC) which he said “is beginning to serve its purpose, but regrettably citizens and journalists are failing to fully utilize this opportunity”.
Contrary to the statement by the president of SLAJ on the number of journalists that has been arrested or detained by the government, the Deputy Minister said the government has tremendous respect for media practitioners since the journalists are seen by government as development partners and this he stated is indicated “by the fact that no journalist has been sentenced to serve a jail term despite glaring incidents of seditious and criminal libel committed.”
Disclosing that instead it is his government that has over the years appointed journalists to ministerial and other positions of trust to assist in nation building “as I speak to you … over 10 journalists who were appointed from the independent media are serving as press attaches in our embassies abroad. Some 25 journalists have just returned from a three week long training session on new media in China”.
During the symposium supported by the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG), the Chairman Ransford Wright explained that the group was set up with a focus to ensure that media practitioners operate within a conducive environment and that the group comprises all major media institution and the Mass Communications Department.
Mr Wright also called on the government “not to pay lip service to the issues of press freedom and access to information but to demonstrate commitment to it by not only establishing the relevant institutions but ensure that they operate freely, and one way the government can demonstrate true commitment to press freedom and access to information is to repeal the seditious and libel laws in the 1965 Public Order Act”.
To the journalists, he asked “we need to take an introspective view of our practice, do we prevent access to information, as gate keeper we are yearning for access to information after we have access to information, do we prevent the public from receiving the information because of our selfish interest”?
He called on the practitioners to pay attention on improving the ethics of the profession and ensure that the public benefit from the information the journalists have gathered.
Statements were also made by the Independent Media Commission Chairman, and the Chairman of the RAIC, and disscusants for the symposium were Emmanuel Saffa Abdulia (SDI), Ibrahim Tommy (CARL), Dr David Tam-Bayoh and deputy Information Minister Cornelius Devaux.