Saturday, April 20, 2013

Has President Koroma Been Good to Sierra Leone Journalism?

President Dr. Ernest Bai. Koroma
President Ernest Bai Koroma of the small West African country of Sierra Leone, has been effusively praised for his excellent relationship with journalists in the country, with many of his ardent supporters quickly eager to point out that no journalists are in detention in the country or have been harassed since he assumed office.

Some social commentators, especially those in favor of the president's policies, are quick to state that President Koroma has been the best president for journalism in Sierra Leone for a very long time. These people are quick to point out the fact that under President Tejan Kabbah's rule, some journalists like the current Sports Minister Paul Kamara were indicted and incarcerated, as a testament to President Koroma's tolerance. The point these same people fail to state however, was the President Tejan Kabbah successfully survived two coup attempts, with the complicity of some members of the journalistic corps.

Some of President Koroma's praise singers also point to the fact that the most vocal critic of President Koroma during his first term, Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, who even wrote about the president's infidelities and personal family scandals, have now been promoted as his special special assistant, a testament to his magnanimity, they say.

From a purely superficial perspective, President Koroma may appear to have been a great ally of the fourth estate. But from a a less platonic perspective, those who have been blessed with the capacity to look at issues more critically and in depth will tell you that President Koroma has done more to erode the professionalism and stature of journalism than any other president in contemporary Sierra Leone history.
Journalist Paul Kamara

One of the first things that president Koroma did upon assuming power, was to identify some of the most vocal members of the fourth estate in the country and give them diplomatic assignments as press attaches.

In Sierra, journalism has always been a tough profession  Most of the graduates of mass communication in the country are often cash strapped, making it hard for them to provide even basic sustenance for their families. In a country with a high level of illiteracy and with a limited market for newspapers, restricted mostly to the capital Freetown, journalism was always a noble but hard profession. Survival as a journalist in Freetown, especially for those that wrote for mediocre papers, was an exercise in bare boned existence. Even Cocorioko, with the full backing of the current government has tried unsuccessfully to launch a paper in Sierra Leone, but the market is just too saturated.

It was therefore not uncommon for unscrupulous politicians or malicious people to hire journalists to write bad stories about their adversaries or perceived enemies for a small fee. At one time this "mercenary journalism" was so pervasive that some papers were reduced to mere gossip columns and glorified rumor mills. But even in the midst of this malaise, there were still some credible sources of good news and some very excellent investigative journalism.

When President Koroma took up the mantle of office in 2007, the profession of journalism was active, but most journalists were in dire straits. Since independence, Sierra Leone had maintained diplomatic missions in many important countries around the world, but had a press attache only in the United Kingdom. President Koroma decided to change this and send press attaches to Sierra Leone diplomatic missions around the world.

In a journalistic coup, the president appointed journalists that had either been loyal to his cause or those that were very unpredictable but had powerful pens as attaches to these newly minted diplomatic positions. With one swift exercise of presidential authority, vocal journalists like Chernor Ojukwu Sesay, Pasco Temple,  Sorie Sudan Sesay, Alhaji Jalloh, John Baimba Sesay, Abdul Karim Koroma, and others were sent to countries as far away as Belgium and China, effectively co-opting them into government and sealing their lips on negative events in the country, lest they be accused of betraying the president and sabotaging the government. In essence their lips were glued by government salary.

Other journalists who also wanted to benefit from President Koroma's diplomatic largesse, soon became praise singers of the highest order, as the president was soon discovered to be a nice man, particularly gullible to praise. Soon a lot of Newspapers in the country were transformed into mere outlets of Presidential "kumbayas," with journalists praising the president so effusively that you could not tell whether they were writing about Nelson Mandela or Pope John Paul II.
Praise Singing Alliance

These days it is difficult to read a paper from Sierra Leone without some mention of , "the fountain of honor", "the father of the nation", "the worlds best", "the savior of journalism", and a host of other platitudes, in reference to the president. It is almost as if an army of propagandists had invaded the journalists corps in Sierra Leone, converting the country's journalists into a battalion of blabbering sycophants. Even the radio media has not been spared this sycophantic invasion. With the suspension of the license of the opposition SLPP radio and now the withdrawal of the operating license of Afri Radio by the Independent Media Commission, the only thing left is for APC operatives to do is to write hymns praising Ernest Koroma to be sang on the airwaves in Freetown.

News media in Sierra Leone are now mere outlets for Press Statements. I was never been a fan of Sylvia Blyden's abrasive and malicious style of tabloid journalism, but at least she occasionally took some time to dig deep into stories. But with Blyden now leading the local army of praise singers,  reading Awareness Times these days can send you faster to sleep than a bottle of Tylenol PM.

Sierra Leone Diaspora Papers have nor fared better. The Competition between Cocorioko's Leroy Kabs Kanu and Patriotic Vanguard's Gibril Gbanabome Koroma for the attention of President Korom took journalistic sycophancy to a sublime level with Gbanabome appealing to the President as having come from the same area and Kabbs Kanu describing he and his team as "loyal palace dogs." PhD candidate Joseph Sherman joined the fray with a blistering attack on the president for rejecting them in appointments in favor of their perceived enemies. Even Sierra Leone forums on Facebook have not been spared. There was even an unsuccessful attempt to hijack the popular Open forum by sympathizers of APC.
Gibril Gbanabome Koroma

Journalist these days in Sierra Leone are the primary source of rumors and outright fabrications, all for the divine press attache position. Credibility is no longer important, but self aggrandizement. Journalism in the country has now been reduced to the ancient African art of "Djellibaism", with journalists becoming mere griots for those in power.

Surely, President Koroma has been good for journalists in Sierra Leone, but his insidious moves to dilute and successfully undermine the sector has been an unmitigated disaster for journalism in the country. The only hope for decent news these days is the spread of social media, cellphone and blogs. Those of us who have no training in journalism are now able to get news from these media and publish them on our blogs for the world to see. We have unwittingly become journalists by necessity. The only hope left for Sierra Leone is the few journalists who would not be attracted by the trapping of office, but would stay true to the esteemed profession of journalism.

This link is a testament to the nature of jounalism these days in Sierra Leone

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