SLAJ President Remarks at the Historic Presidential Signing of Repeal of Criminal Libel Law at State House

28/10/2020

Mr President, let me start by making a confession. I still don’t believe this is happening. It is like I am still dreaming. I want to believe that all of my predecessors in SLAJ dreamt of this day happening under their leadership.

That is why I want to not only give God the glory for the unique opportunity of leading my Association to this wonderful victory but to also thank Him for making my immediate predecessors- Kelvin Lewis PMP, Umaru Fofana PMP, and Hon. I. B. Kargbo PMP- live to see this history-making moment. They worked so hard during their various tenures for this and they wholeheartedly supported me throughout this final lap. Indeed, it is rightfully their achievement.

So it is most apt for me to paraphrase the words of Gospel artist Sinach, in her song *”Chosen generation.”* All of us SLAJ members and media practitioners who are alive today, we are the “Chosen generation.” Today, the strong foundation for us to practice, God has given us. But today also we have not only been called forth to show the excellence of God as in creation, but we are challenged to show how excellently, and how professionally, we can practice.

Mr President, as I look at you today, I begin to think of urging my son to become a soldier. This is because I know the other Presidents before you had contemplated repealing the Criminal Libel laws. They say there is no courage without fear. As a politician, I know that you also share in the fear that this repeal might expose you to insults, abuse, and vilification. *But the fact that you have mustered the bravery to do it, shows me, that only a man, who enters the military profession, knowing fully well, that he may have to go into battle, face bullets and bombs, and may die, that can have the courage to do this.

Today, we celebrate peace as the politicians of this nation have voluntarily turned in their most potent weapon on free speech and freedom of the media.

Your Excellency, allow me to salute you. (Action: Salute).

You have demonstrated today that you are truly a brave and courageous soldier.

Mr President, let me on behalf of all media practitioners thank you for this gesture. It means a lot to us and the people of this country. We have consulted and are still consulting on how best to appreciate you. Traditionally, we would have brought a daughter (above 18 years of age, of course) from amongst us for you to marry, but you already have a beautiful wife and as a Catholic, you are allowed only one. If we were rich, we would have given you a priceless gift; but unfortunately, there is “media poverty and poverty in the media”, in the words of your Honourable Vice President.

Again there are some who would say we should help your campaign for a second term; but sadly, we are bound by our professional ethics to allow democracy to prevail and for individual journalists to make their own personal choices.

Some also suggest that we make you an honorary member of SLAJ.

Others have suggested that we crown you ‘Champion of Free Speech’ to add to your ‘Father of Democracy’ title; but as I said, we are still consulting.

For now, we can only pray that God Almighty guide and protect you. And may you succeed in all that you do in the interest of this nation, because when you succeed we all succeed, and may failure never be an option for you.

Nevertheless, our Association will celebrate its 50th Anniversary next June 2021 and we assure you we will accord you a befitting honour.

Meanwhile, Mr President, by the time I wake up tomorrow morning this dream would have ended, and I would be faced with the challenges of moving the media forward under the new dispensation.

As a President myself, though a small one, I campaigned on this repeal ticket with the assurance to my colleagues that it would open up the media landscape for investment. Most Newspapers are battling to survive with an annual turnover under a hundred million Leones. But there are also viable ones with an annual turnover of over Le350 million with the potential to make billions. So our first step would be to train media owners on simple business management skills, to function as Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

There are community radio stations, who can hardly raise enough money to buy fuel to run their stations for even four hours a day, yet they do vital work like making sure the people get messages about Corona in the local language they understand.

So we intend to set up a trading enterprise, invest in printing machines for both the capital city and the regions, and to import and sell printing materials for the Newspaper industry. Since we are a not-for-profit entity, we will distribute the profit as support to keep these community radio stations on air so that the people can continue to be informed and children in remote places may have access to radio teaching programs.

In addition, we also have our aspirations for a SLAJ Headquarter building in the CBD area where we can have training facilities for would-be editors and station managers, and even upcoming journalists on basic ethics of the profession.

Mr President, the lifeline of the media is advertising, which is also the engine of growth for most commercial enterprises. In other African countries, we have seen legislation for compulsory advertising and we would urge your government to examine those options.

But even as we are ready to open up and accept investors, we would urge that government looks at protectionist legislations. It would be unfair for wealthy foreign investors to come in and take over establishments, for which others have worked hard over the years, in building a reputation. Therefore, we call for laws that would ensure that any foreign national who comes to do business in Sierra Leone must by law partner with a Sierra Leonean. In the same manner, it must be a criminal offence for any Sierra Leonean to allow himself to be a partner on paper alone to facilitate the exploitation of business opportunities by any foreign national. Again these laws exist in most of our sister African countries.

As usual, we are looking forward to the government and our development partners to help us kickstart this phase of our development with either a grant or an interest-free-loan as seed money.

Now, to those who rightfully hold the view that it is unethical for the Government to support the media as it would undermine our independence, let me take this opportunity to clarify this issue today. It is the responsibility of the Government to support the development of the media to ensure it efficiently performs its role in our democracy. In Senegal, apart from an annual subvention of 700 million CFA Franc to the media (and this was increased to 1.4 Billion during COVID-19), the Government constructed a magnificent press house for the media, probably the best in the West African region. In addition, the Government also has a special fund for community radio stations to ensure they stay on air to provide accurate information to the people. In Togo, the government increased support to the media during the COVID-19 pandemic by 50% from CFA Franc 100 million to 150 million, distributed to 180 press organs, eight television stations, and 56 radio stations. The Kenyan government allocated US$1 million to community media to keep them afloat. In Mozambique and Angola, the governments passed Executive decrees to ensure journalists and media workers do not lose their jobs during the pandemic.

These governments are not supporting the independent media to escape scrutiny or being held to account, but because it is their responsibility to do so.

Mr President, as I begin to conclude let me say there is now serious and legitimate money to be made in the media business. The potential is there and history will be kind to mention that there was a President with the courage of a soldier who dared to step where others feared to tread and so changed the landscape of the Sierra Leone media forever.

I cannot end without paying tribute to my predecessors in SLAJ and our founding members, all of whom shared in this dream. Time will not permit me to name all of them, but there is still Daisy Bona around, Christo Johnson, and Mrs. Bernadette Cole.

I specifically must recognize the work of your upbeat Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swarray, and his deputy- our colleague Mamadi Gobeh Kamara and the entire team at the ministry. Rado has been very open, consultative, and passionate throughout. He would not rest. He was always on the edge with the issue of the repeal, he wanted to deliver on this assignment by all means. He was so optimistic that he was forced to break a few promises; two famous ones were:

  1. i) “The next time you visit me in my office it will be to thank me for the repeal”.

We visited him severally following this promise and we had no reason to say thank you.

  1. ii) “The repeal of the criminal libel law will be one of the key success stories His Excellency President Bio will take to the UN General Assembly.”

The President went to two UN meetings after this with totally different messages.

Mr President, the only moments I disliked your Minister of Information were when he was pushing for legislation of qualification for who becomes an Editor or Station Manager. His choice of adjectives was so uncomfortable, I would turn to Kelvin Lewis and Dr Sowa and say: ‘Rado nor de try o; how e go say some journalists parading as editors nor even sabi write love letter?’ (Laugh).

But all is well that ends well; and I would have recommended Mohamed Rahman Swaray for a much higher position but we still need him at the Information ministry.

Mr. President, I cannot forget the Honourable Members of Parliament. I have never experienced such unity and sincerity of purpose among our political parties, to the extent I wondered why we were always talking about a divided nation. Hon. Matthew Nyuma, Hon. Chernor R. M. Bah and Mr. Speaker, you deserve fantastic praises. Hon. Nyuma, thank you very much for withdrawing the repeal bill and for taking all the bashings from the media and the Ministry of Information in good faith; to me, that was the ultimate turning point.

And to the Chairman of the Legislative Committee, Hon. Hindolo Moiwo Gevao, and his Deputy, for the marathon meeting and the privilege afforded us. You worked passed the official working hours, without food and drinks. Hon. Gevao missed his son’s birthday celebration, just to ensure we did not postpone the session. What more dedication to duty could you have given? May God richly bless you all.

To our Civil Society supporters, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, PEN Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone Bar Association, Campaign for Good Governance, Center for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL-SL) and the Renaissance Movement;

the drafters at the Law Officers Department;

the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone,

the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG);

the Independent Media Commission (IMC);

the Right to Access Information and Commission (RAIC);

the Mass Communications Department, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone;

our friends in the Entertainment industry;

the International Community and donors- British High Commission, Irish Embassy, US Embassy, European Union, UNDP, NED, NDI, etc;

International press freedom organisations, IFJ, FAJ, CPJ, Article 19; we say thank you.

To Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara Esq. and Hon. Mohamed Bangura, we say thank you for trying.

To our in-house lawyers Messrs Joseph Egbenda Kapuwa Esq. PMP and Musa Mewa Esq. PMP, Dr. Francis Sowa PMP- the man with many hats; our colleagues who served in our Press Freedom Committee (Dr. Isaac Massaquoi PMP, Tanu Jalloh PMP, Dr. Abdul Rahman Swarray PMP, Mustapha Mende Koko Sesay PMP, Ransford Wright PMP, Dr. Julius Spencer PMP, etc.), the Chairman and members of the SLAJ Criminal Libel Repeal Advocacy Group (Sorie Fofana PMP and Co.), the Guild of Editors Chairman Donald Theo Harding PMP and his able lieutenant Thomas Dixon PMP; my national and regional executives, Regional Chair North Sahr James Bangah PMP, Regional Chair South Richard Ngevao PMP, Regional Chair East Victoria Bernard PMP, past executives, our affiliate bodies; you all played your part; you are truly the unsung heroes of this fight.

Last but not least to those who suffered in detention and jail. To Dr Sam Hollist (Late), Franklyn Bunting Davies (Late), Siaka Massaquoi (Late), Kaweigoko Roy-Stevens (Late), Ibrahim El-Tayyib Bah (Late), Frank Kposowa (Late), Pious Foray (Late), Olu Awoonor Gordon (Late) Paul Kamara, I.B. Kargbo, Dr. Julius Spencer, Hon. Mohamed Bangura, Philip Neville, David Tam Baryoh, Jonathan Leigh, Baibai Sesay, Sam Lahai, Sallieu Tejan Jalloh, and many others. Today, we have the reward for the sufferings you went through.

And finally, finally, to the Sierra Leone Police, thank you for detaining us on the orders of politicians in power and to the Judiciary for eventually jailing us. Thank you for helping to steel our resolve and for finally letting go of that power and supporting us to achieve the repeal.

PS:

  1. i) We also support calls for 23rd July (day of repeal in parliament) or 14th August (day of presidential assent) to be declared as Freedom Day by the State.
  2. ii) PMP- means Professional Media Practitioner.

May God richly bless us all.

Long live SLAJ!

Long live Sierra Leone!

Thank you Mr. President.

#END

Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)

PRESIDENT

SLAJ

 

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