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Vol 8 No 5

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ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN JANUARY 20,  2004

THE INDEPENDENT PRESS IN SIERRA LEONE - HOW SO?

It has now become fashionable to hear many a journalist in Sierra Leone to describe him/herself as independent and sticking the term to whatever news source, mainly newspapers, they could be attached to.

The word, attached, is used with the same meaning as one would relate to a kind of loose relationship where professional relationships only exist in scenarios of stories delivered and/or used. It does not include a paid and consistent arrangement that would see an organised set up that is worthy of the name. No, it is not the sort of freelance-newspaper/publication relationship that should characterise that level of the profession. Indeed it is so loose that the only "hold" an "editor" would have over  a reporter would be the ID card and there are stories of editors threatening to withdraw such cards should there arise a misunderstanding over "delivery".

But to understand the inner workings of the press/journalism world in Sierra Leone one needs to delve into the recent affinity among practitioners, of the word "independent". If we are to rely on the definition of the word as stated in the "New Choice English Dictionary" apt enough for those whose mother tongue is not English, then woe upon woe, few journalists in Sierra Leone would qualify.

The definition goes like this:
independent adj freedom from the influence or control of others; self-governing; self-determined; not adhering to any political party; not connected with others; not depending on another for financial support. *n a person who is independent in thinking, action etc. - independently adv

To appreciate why these meanings could not be found in some practitioners, one has to take a stroll through memory lane where the government media, tightly controlled would want all its employees to toe the official government line in their work. A number of these practitioners engaged in the service of the largest employer, the government sometimes fell out with their bosses and if not sacked/and or detained as investigations continue, would sneak out of the country to safer plains. There were others who, though in the employ of the government used various pen names to criticise government policies in overseas media outlets and this provided a kind of safety valve to ease the stress of working in an environment that stifled the freedom of expression. Thus it should not come as a surprise that it was these same people tied down by mandarin-like ropes who formed the core of an association for journalists in 1971 named the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, SLAJ. (Please note that the Editor was a founder member).

What has developed over the years is a thinking within non-government sectors of the profession that if one is employed by the government, no matter how well-trained one may be, one is not independent and that all others operating outside the clutches of government-controlled media are the truly independent. This concept also grew out of a kind of "jealousy" between those independents, all in the newspaper industry and those in the government media that comprised TV, Radio, Film and Video Units, the Photographic Section and the Government Information office whose duty it was to propagate the policies of the government using all the instruments at hand. Information attaches were sent to various diplomatic missions and it was a joy for families to have a member posted abroad.

The jealousy arose out of a feeling that those in the employ of the government were exposed to all kinds of training, arranged both locally and abroad and hence career advancement. But there were tried, tested and trusted journalists who would never exchange their "freedoms" in the newspaper with the "tight gentry" of those in the government service.

The previous definition of "independent", if it is to be applied to a number of those claiming to be so would find a good percentage wanting as they easily fall into the trap of political affiliation or characteristics that suggest a dependence on out of house financial packets.

Otherwise, how does one explain the practice of some independent editors whose publications are always timed to coincide with national celebrations and anniversaries, while keeping out of circulation for the rest of the year?

Or how does one comprehend the practice of some of these independent editors carrying adverts in their publications without prior authorisation from the business houses?

And even more bizarre is the method employed by some "independent" editors of taking the unpublished materials to the doors of business houses or potential victims/business rivals soliciting, threatening and sometimes just plain blackmailing victims? That kind of independence is pretty hard to comprehend.

It is no secret that the word "independent" has become so self-serving, that it would take some time to restore a modicum of respectability in a once-noble venture that has been turned on its head. Thus one hears of those working on newspapers that are clearly politically-affiliated daring to call themselves independent when in reality they are as loaded in favour of one party as is to be found in a political manifesto.

Nowadays in Sierra Leone it is hard to find cub reporters and reporters. Sub editors belong to another age it seems as straight from whatever institution, they all become Managing Editors and Editors-in-Chief at the drop of a hat.

Long may the profession flourish.

THE EDITOR ADDS IN 2008: KINDLY READ THIS PIECE FROM ONE "INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST" CALLING HIMSELF THE STATE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY AND EXAMINE WHAT THE ABOVE PIECE STATED.

 

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