Despite the fact that Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Parliament (HOP) are on recess, that was not enough for the Leadership not to summon an unprecedented press conference to clear its image following accusations by Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI) Chief Executive Office, Abdul Fatorma alleging corrupt handling of the sum of one hundred and twenty billion spent by Parliamentarians in the last five years.
Cyril Juxon-Smith, Director of Communication HOP said that because the public can be gullible, such an allegation can be easily taken hook line and sinker.
The press conference which was held on Monday 8th August 2016 at Committee Room No. 1 was the first of its kind in recent history but the administration argued that even though the Press Gallery has been doing good media work, the press conference was necessary.
“One hundred and twenty billion Leones is a whooping sum, and you and I know that a lot of people may tend to believe this. That is why this press conference has been called and there is a need to provide a response,” Juxon-Smith said.
On behalf of the Speakership (which is above the leadership) of Parliament, Hon. CRM Bah, Deputy Speaker of Parliament said journalists are the pivot of the occasion, adding that: ‘this is the first time the House of Parliament is holding a formal press conference.’
Hon. Bah said that the press release by CHRDI has provoked a lot of discussions inside and outside of Sierra Leone, underscoring that they have checked for the registration of CHRDI but that it is unregistered neither with SLANGO, MoFED and other institutions in the country.
“We are yet to see the research that was conducted by the organization and we believe that the same is for the media. Our own information has confirmed that no MP was interviewed or contacted. We are always friends of the Fourth Estate and civil society organizations.
We have endeavored to ensure that we allow them the space to operate and we want to ensure you and the public that, that space will continue to exist. We have noticed that out of ignorance or deliberately; people are not taking the opportunity to ask questions.
We encourage all those who are interested in knowing about the workings of Parliament to come and talk to parliamentarians,” the Deputy Speaker noted, stating that whenever Parliament steps up to respond to issues, people will talk about Parliament muzzling free press without acting on those that malign other people.
Ambassador Alieu Kanu, Chairman IMC in his comments said he appreciated the invitation by Parliament.
“Members of the Fourth Estate are an important segment of the governance structure, therefore in the execution of that mandate they must act responsibly,” the IMC Chairman said and highlighted the need to regulate the social media.
Ambassador Kanu said that it is his thought that Fatorma went to cross-check with Parliament.
“It is very serious for people to make claims for which they do not have evidence to support what they are saying.
We have no intention whatsoever to muzzle the media in Sierra Leone but we must do things responsibly, we must cross check our facts, we must investigate our stories before we go to press, if we don’t do that, then it is an abysmal failure,” the IMC Chairman said.
Remarking on the scathing criticism, Hon. Ibrahim Bundu Majority Leader and Leader of Government Business said that Parliament is for the people and a national asset.
He said: “Information is power; misinformation is dreadful; Rwanda can be an example. We should not toy at this,” stressing that the constitution is the sacred book containing the dos and don’ts of MPs and citizens.”
He said that the session was not to defend the Parliament of Sierra Leone but to give opportunity to journalists to examine Parliament.
“We are here to say the truth backed by evidence,” Hon Bundu said adding that MPs found culpable will be punish under section 97 of the constitution and other relevant citations in the constitution and standing order.
He said: “no MP will go scotch free if he or she is caught under the law.”
On the part of the media, journalists asked if; MPs received CDF and what was done with money; the right of citizens to ask MPs to be accountable, how much has Parliament received as CDF, were the recommendations of PAC binding.
Another journalist asked; one hundred and twenty billion if not true what is the exact amount; if the IMC has taken any action against papers that publish the press release.
The Leadership of Parliament however responded that; Parliament makes recommendations and doesn’t sit as or have powers of the court, that PAC recommendations were largely acted upon, the Deputy Speaker said.
“If we have an issue with journalists and we want to send him to prison, we don’t have that power,” Hon. CRM Bah established.
“Yes, we received constituency development fund as published by the Accountant General which coined it then as constituency facilitation fund to the tune of five billion, four hundred and six million Leones in 2010; each MP benefited forty six million as constituency facilitation fund for four years.
We started receiving the constituency development fund in 2014 and amounted to sixty million, four hundred which was allocated to all MPs totaling seven billion, eight hundred.
For facilitation and development fund this Parliament has received forty seven billion and eighty nine million six hundred and sixty seven thousand and twenty eight cents,” Hon. Bundu responded.
The Deputy Speaker said citizens have right to respectful asked their MPs questions adding that a press release is not a question but a statement.
It was also cleared that funds to Parliament are accounted for through the Parliamentary Service Commission and the Auditor General’s office.
IMC Chairman, Ambassador Kanu said that the IMC’s monitoring unit (13 station twenty fours a day and newspaper editors), and requested that a report be put together after the issue is being looked at, there is possibility for action punitive or whatever.