Sierra Leone: Media Commission's Credibility in Question

Sierra Leone
Sierra Leonean refugees get the news, Nov. 17, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

Independent Freetown newspaper The African Champion, and the Independent Media Commission, which regulates Sierra Leone’s privately owned media outlets, are locked in a bitter fight over press freedom and journalistic ethics. This follows the Commission’s March 8 decision to suspend the paper and its managing editor, Mohamed Koroma, for two months for "professional misconduct". On Feb. 6 and Feb. 11, 2002, The African Champion ran front-page stories accusing Junior Kabbah, son of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, of using Yugoslav Consul Adonis Aboud’s diplomatic status to escape import duties. Headlined "Adonis Aboud Arrested," and "Kabbah Stinks in Dubious Deal Again," the articles were bound to attract negative attention from Sierra Leone’s government.

Strangely, neither the president nor his son lodged any official complaint against The African Champion challenging the veracity of the paper’s story. Following complaints from the Yugoslav Consul and the Commission itself, the Commission’s Complaints Committee summoned the paper’s editor to defend what it called as "allegations and insinuations" against the president and his son.

The editor obliged. A few days later, the Commission wrote to the paper to order it to "cease publication for a period of at least two months." The Commission did not stop there. It barred the editor from performing "any editorial functions in respect of any newspaper or magazine and shall not publish or cause to be published in his name any article in any newspaper or magazine for a period of at least two months."

The paper ignored the Commission’s suspension order and continues to publish. Under the 2000 Independent Media Commission Act, operating a media outlet not sanctioned by the Commission is punishable by a staggering Le1 million (US$500) fine, a two-year jail term, or both.

Koroma described the Commission’s decision as "irrational" and "draconian," and said that he would "not be intimidated by such veiled threats." He says he will continue to publish until the Commission gives him reasons for suspending him and his paper. In the event that the Commission fails to provide a more detailed explanation or to rescind its decision, his lawyer, Crispin Edwards, has threatened to go to court "to quash the Commission’s decision." Koroma believes that there is a tinge of malice in the Commission’s suspension order. He claims that the decision to suspend him and his paper may be the result of a deep-seated grudge Bu-Buakei Jabbie, a member of the Commission, has nursed against him since Koroma published a series of scathing articles accusing Jabbie of a conflict of interest in his treatment of Sierra Leonean cellular phone company Millicom during Jabbie’s tenure as a non-executive director at the Bank of Sierra Leone. "Once again," Koroma said of the Commission’s charges against him, "Jabbie is allowing his personal interest to cloud his judgment."

It has been a month since the paper defied the Commission’s directive. Curiously, the Commission has kept a loud silence over this flagrant violation of its suspension order.

Perhaps it would rather prefer the matter to die away. One reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he believes the Commission acted outside the scope of its statutory powers in the way it reached its decision. "Its gravest sin," he said, "was to suspend the paper and its editor without proof of violation of the Commission’s "Code of Practice.’ "

Sierra Leone’s Media Commission Act empowers the Commission to only "suspend or cancel the registration of a newspaper or magazine in respect to which there has been a second or subsequent contravention of the Media Code of Practice." The Act further stipulates that "no suspension or cancellation shall be made…unless the Commission has given a written notice to the media institution concerned specifying the conditions of the license which have not been complied with, giving direction for the rectification of the breach and the action proposed to be taken by the Commission in the event of non-compliance with the notice. In the case of African Champion, the Commission failed to adhere to this provision by giving the paper "an opportunity to comply with the directions of the Commission and to rectify the breach." In addition, the Act stipulates that the Commission "shall, in the pursuance of their various functions, hold public hearings," which it also failed to do in its decision to suspend the paper and its editor from publishing.

Small wonder, then, that Koroma’s lawyer, Crispin Edwards, challenged the Commission’s decision and told the paper to ignore it. "There is no media code of practice contravened by [my] clients," Edwards wrote to the Commission, adding, "In this circumstance, I still advice my clients to ignore your decisions, as they are wrong."

Since its creation two years ago, the Commission has struggled to gain credibility. Most government officials still prefer to take their grievances against newspapers to the courts. When For Di People newspaper accused former Marine Minister Lawrence Kamara of financial impropriety, he went to the courts. When, on Dec. 12, 2000, Freetown’s independent Democrat ran a banner headline calling Attorney General and Minister of Justice Solomon Berewa and President Kabbah "perverts," Berewa filed a libel suit against the paper and its editor rather than going to the Commission, despite the fact that he was the first to call for its creation to "instill discipline in the media."

Every nation’s press needs to abide by certain principles and codes of ethics. But establishing a government commission to enforce these codes without first establishing the codes is putting the cart before the horse. Until the commission can come up with clear guidelines as to what constitutes a breach of journalistic ethics, it risks being perceived as irrelevant, or worse, a politician’s tool for cracking down on independent journalism.