The safety of journalists must not be compromised

The progress of the young but promising democracy of Sierra Leone will undergo a major test on Saturday, November 17 – less than a week from now – when electorates go to the poll to determine their leaders for various political offices from the presidency down to town councillorships.

Aroun R. Deen - Sierra Leonean journalist in New York

Aroun R. Deen – Sierra Leonean journalist in New York

In the run-up to the upcoming elections, the local media, as usual, have been fully engaged in providing the electorate with valuable analyses and evaluations of the performance of those who have been in office and are seeking reelection. Additionally, they have been educating the public on new candidates. However, local journalists are facing tough challenge as never before.

 At election times, it is common practice, all over the world, for politicians and their supporters to shift blame on journalists for some of their own failures and shortcomings. The tenuous political climate that precedes the elections of November 17 grows increasingly tense. There are worries that the safety of journalists would be at risk. It is therefore, important, that leaders of all the stakeholder groups involved, including political parties, and journalists themselves, play their part in ensuring the safety of every single journalist in the country, before, during and after the elections.

Notwithstanding that some journalists have reported being threatened by unknown persons, or harassed, there is no clear evidence to indicate that any political party is planning to harm any journalist. Without doubt, the media in Sierra Leone is enjoying the leverage of press freedom in the country at the moment. However, some journalists – or those who pretend to be journalists – are abusing that window of freedom by aligning themselves with political parties who, it is believed are financing their operations and/or determining their editorial decisions.

Worse, some of the so-called journalists have made it their daily duty, to attack, in the most disrespectful and outrageous of manners – through their radio programs and newspapers – particularly independent and serious-minded journalists who refuse to be parties to their dirty political games. They carry out such attacks by vilifying them and leveling unfounded allegations against them. Such actions are likely to engender a mindset of hatred by some low class, irrational-thinking, ill-minded politicians and their supporters, particularly, for the independent journalists who are targeted in this manner.

In a democracy, every media house has the right to express, freely, its views on issues, whether or not the media house, or the journalist, is believed to have ties to one political establishment or the other. However, journalistic responsibilities must serve as the cornerstone on which that right is exercised so that the rights of others are not being abused to the point that their well-being and or that of their families, are put at risk.

The politically-biased journalists in Sierra Leone obviously are not practicing ethical journalism or genuinely expressing points of view; rather, they are merely engaging in deliberate distortions, while at the same time assassinating the characters of others and exposing them to evil-minded party thugs.

The safety of all journalists, local or foreign, must not be compromised in anyway. For those coming from abroad to cover the elections, national media organizations, particularly the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, SLAJ, must work in collaboration with the immigrations department and the Sierra Leone Police, as well as put in place mechanism that not only would keep them informed of every visiting journalist, but also ensures that they play hosts to them and, if possible, work alongside them during the course of their assignment. The kidnapping and detention in Freetown of a French-speaking journalist from Europe about a month ago, allegedly by few supporters of the SLPP, is troubling. I am sure the executive and general membership of SLAJ will do all in their power to avoid such occurrence in the future.

In a fragile democracy such as Sierra Leone – one recovering from a decade-long brutal war that led to its classification – by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in the United States – as the most dangerous country for journalists in 1998 – the treacherous political climate that defines the path to the imminent elections raises concerns for the safety of all journalists, whether neutral, party-leaning or foreign.

 During that dark period, no less than ten journalists lost their lives performing their duties in Sierra Leone. With the fear of a repeat of that sad milestone in mind, I respectfully urge all candidates seeking public office to lend their influential voice to this crucial and time-sensitive issue. Journalists too, must desist from attacking each other’s person. After all, they are a very essential part of society, and their role cannot be more needing than at now. I am confident that this will help curb what is clearly a legitimate threat to their lives. – Aroun R. Deen – Sierra Leonean journalist in New York