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COMMENTS & OPINIONS  

SLAJ: Still A Long Way Not Gone
By Sylvia Olayinka Blyden
Dec 3, 2008, 17:32
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In the wake of last weekends SLAJ Elections, one of my European journalist friends phoned me up to congratulate Sierra Leone journalists for, in his words, "removing an embarrassment from your countrys face of journalism." He was surprised as to why I sounded less than enthusiastic about the replacement of the Neville team with the Umaru team.

This week marks the start of activism in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). A Declaration that makes it an abomination for certain rights due to all human beings to be trampled upon with impunity. It was out of the articles of the UDHR that journalists the world over have adopted their Article 19 stances which gives all human beings the right to freedom of expression.

However, just as your freedom to move your hands around stops exactly where your hand might meet my face, so also does your freedom to express yourself stop where my right to my good reputation and my privacy starts. Article 12 of the UDHR, which is listed a good seven places before Article 19, (and by inference must surely be of more importance!) states the position of the world body insofar as the right to ones reputation and privacy is concerned. Article 12 says a persons right to his deserved good reputation is SACRED! Article 12 says:- No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

In all SLAJs agitation for the removal of the criminal libel laws, Im yet to hear one cogent position as to how to protect the rights of ordinary Sierra Leonean citizens from the mighty pens and microphones of journalists if criminal libel laws are removed. SLAJ members dont want to hear of any alternative deterrent to be put in place so as to ensure UDHRs Article 12 is upheld at all times.

Instead, they will quickly shout out for you to take them to court on civil libel charges so you can claim financial damage. However, how many of them can truly pay such damages if awarded? Many of Sierra Leones journalists are now well to do and live very good lives and some others have even made massive investments into the field of journalism and own some of the best printing houses in town. However, a certain percentage of local journalists live in penury and can scarcely afford to pay their monthly house rents thus making them very susceptible to unscrupulous offers. Citizens, who might wish to impinge on the reputations of others, are known to regularly hire these money-starved journalists.

For the cost of his monthly house rent, a broke journalist can be hired to libel another citizen as he knows he will easily get away with it. Firstly, it is so expensive for his victim to take him to Court. He also knows that if he is taken to the Independent Media Commission, (except if he wrote about Ojukokoro activities), he will get away with only a slap on the wrist and/or a paltry fine. The fine does not even get to be paid to the victim of his libel who suffers the damage to his/her reputation. Instead, the poor victim gets the satisfaction of an IMC Press Release saying it has been proved that he/she was libelled by the publication in question. The victim gets NOTHING in the form of restorative or reparative financial damages! Thus, it is now up to the victim to find a means of disseminating far and wide that he or she was innocent of what was written.

This is a serious problem and the lacklustre manner in which SLAJ members have addressed this wider concern of the general populace leaves much to be desired. The arrogance and laisse-faire manner in which these concerns have been dismissed by local SLAJ journalists is the cause of the very large gulf between journalists and the wider populace. It is the reason why local journalists sometimes find themselves being unfairly despised and demonised and kept at arms length from distinguished personalities and VIPs.

In a democratic setting, journalists should be able to request for and be granted immediate audience with any VIP in the society. On a personal note, I am glad that I am yet to be refused audience by any VIP in this society regardless of how critical I might be of their actions. My instant access to any VIP in this country speaks volumes about my practise of journalism in Sierra Leone. However, these same VIPs who will readily grant interviews to me and a handful of others, usually shy away from holding discourse with most other local journalists.

Many SLAJ journalists are treated with contempt and are despised. These SLAJ journalists need to look inwards to find out why. They need to work towards bridging the gap that exists between them and the wider populace. SLAJ needs some serious public relations makeovers. Is Sayoh Kamara reading?

This is why although SLAJ might have changed its Executive, until such time as we get a SLAJ Leadership which does not compromise issues of ethics and morality, I will for now, paraphrase Ishmael Beah the celebrated Sierra Leonean author and opine that SLAJ is still NOT a long way gone.

But is there hope?

The wise ones say that to stop to hope is to stop to live. Those who have read Barack Obamas book entitled "The Audacity of Hope" say it is an inspirational book. I am going to thus place my hopes for a better SLAJ under Umaru Fofana, on a very audacious pedestal.

Umaru has already seriously dismayed me with his spoken choice of a role model to be Richie Olu Gordon, a notorious serial libeller in Peep! Magazine. However, who knows? Umaru Fofana (and his team) might just surprise me and make my audacious hopes turn into reality.

Time will tell but for now, all I can do is to keep my fingers crossed and watch the unfolding developments.


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