All posts by Sarah Bomkapre Kamara

Covering the Ebola story: Journalism a risky job in West Africa

10700097_10152599576391773_8416625079733622265_oBy Sarah Bomkapre Kamara

American freelance journalist Ashoka Mukpo, this month became the first journalist to have been diagnosed with Ebola.

(Picture: Reuter’s video Journalist in Sierra Leone Idriss kpange ready to visit an isolation center. Credit: Idriss Kpange)

A member of the NBC News team, Mr. Mukpo will enjoy the same facility every American who contracted the virus enjoys – he will be flown to his country for proper treatment which will eventually lead to his recovery. A good thing to know but, his contracting the deadly Ebola virus sent chills down my spine and left me thinking about the many local and western journalists in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone who come in contact daily with people to tell their stories. Sometimes these journalists have to go into communities that have been hit by the virus and are quarantined. They can dress up well with protective clothes to go into these high risk areas but what about their equipments? Their cameras, audio recorders and more? What happens to them if they contract this deadly virus like everyone who has? How are these journalists taking care of themselves whilst on duty?

10593212_10202415956672393_594845582837309477_n(Picture: Canadian journalist Stephen Douglas took this selfie after observing a training  session for health workers on precautions in treating Ebola patients. Credit: Stephen Douglas)

In just two months it will be a year since the hemorrhagic fever Ebola virus was first diagnosed in Guinea, West Africa. Since then we have continually received news reports on how each community, society and country is doing. Some journalists especially local journalists on the ground were one of the first to report these stories. Stories of death, tragedy and even survival. Even though many of them didn’t quite know what Ebola was, didn’t have training on what they should do or not do, and had serious logistical problems (as always), many risked it anyway.

They went into Ebola hit communities, the firsts of which were not easily accessible areas most times without good roads, to get more information on the progress of the disease, visiting     isolation units and giving out educational information about the disease. Some of these journalist have lost their lives whilst on duty like some colleagues found dead along with other health workers last month in Guinea believed to have been killed by the people. What were they doing in this community? Working together with health workers to ensure the right stories are told that will eventually prevent more deaths from Ebola.

DSCF1060(Picture: DW correspondent Julius Kanubah interviews an ebola survivor in Liberia. Credit: Julius Kanubah)

Many at times during this crisis, we worry about the lives of the health and aid workers in this region. That is legitimate as they are the ones working day and night to care for the sick and suffering making them the highest risk groups, vulnerable to contracting Ebola. But like health and aid workers, news-makers and reporters too risk their lives daily. Going into rundown communities, visiting isolation centers and interviewing health workers, all in a bid to show the world the pictures and tell the stories that many people living out of these areas can only think about.

A journalist colleague for example interviewed a medical doctor in Sierra Leone just a few weeks before he tested positive for the virus whilst another visited an area in Liberia that has been quarantined and labelled a high risk area. Every single day journalists come in contact with people as their work requires that – making them also vulnerable to the disease and adding them to the list of one of the high risk jobs during this epidemic.

10379909_10203615630489296_8726040112274448766_o(Picture: BBC World Service Trust reporter Mariama Khai Fornah interviewing Dr. Mohamed Alex Vandy, District Medical Officer in Kenema, one of the worst hit regions in Sierra Leone. Credit: Mariama Khai Fornah)

I salute the bravery of our journalists in these three worst hit countries and other countries in Africa. I also salute international journalists who leave their comfort zones in developed countries risking their lives to tell the stories in places where no one wants to go at the moment. For me just like the health and aid workers, our journalists deserve to be applauded. They are part of the unsung heroes in this fight to contain the Ebola epidemic and improve the lives of people in these communities and countries. They work under pressure, stress and unbelievable conditions.  Their job does not entail telling their own stories but others’ stories, sharing valuable information whilst serving as checks and balances in monitoring governments’ actions in this period. They are an important contingent in the war against this virus!

1487811_10152599571036773_3256806812046617419_o(Picture: Journalist Idriss Kpange getting dressed before an interview with isolated Ebola patients. Credit: Idriss Kpange)

Just like Mr. Mukpo, we do not wish that any more journalists contract Ebola in the line of duty, but we cannot rule out the fact that this might be any journalist. I do wish Mr. Mukpo is evacuated as soon as possible for treatment in the US but I am not forgetting the other journalists on the ground at the moment – especially the local journalists who might not have the luxury of been taken out for treatment in case they contract this dreadful disease.

I implore governments and other agencies to please ensure they are treated right like other jobs deemed high risk professions in Ebola hit countries. I do hope news organisations are taking great care in ensuring their workers are protected too. Practicing Journalism is risky at this time in West Africa but all I can say to our colleagues both local and international is take all precautions you can while carrying out your duties as journalists.  Stay safe!

 

Capture Sarah

 

Sarah Bomkapre Kamara is a Media Researcher and Multi Media                Journalist living in Germany.  Her research interests include Journalism     Cultures, Human Rights Journalism, Media Ethics and more. She has worked for media in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Germany.

Ebola Virus: In the Heat of Death and Dread


DSCF1060

By Julius Kanubah

Besides Liberia’s brutal civil war, there is nothing like an epidemic of Ebola Virus Disease that brings journalism and human life into a real sense of emotions, distressed and danger.

(Photo: DW correspondent Julius Kanubah interviews an Ebola Survivor in Liberia)

Few months ago, the political heat was cheerfully steaming up in Liberia as the country was bracing itself for its first post-war Special Senatorial Elections for half of the 30-member Upper House of the Legislature, the Senate.

The son of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Robert Sirleaf, was dominating the political sphere after he at last threw his hat in the Senatorial race for Monsterrado County, a province that hosts the capital, Monrovia, with a population of over 1.5Million. His foremost contender is George Weah, the most popular Liberian, who heads the main opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party.

10624840_903848366310843_7290245711594744718_n(Photo: President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf visits an hospital in Liberia)

However, in the twinkle of an eye, the political debate vanished and the likes of Robert Sirleaf, George Weah and other Senatorial aspirants are hiding in their corners, concerned for their lives just as the entire Liberian nation today.

That’s what the Ebola Virus Disease does to a developing country like Liberia, which has and is being poorly managed at almost all levels. Ebola – the world’s most lethal virus – has not just plunged Liberia into crisis and brought it down on its knees but has evidently exposed the Government, its insensitivity to the people and the general healthcare system of our country, Liberia.

Nearly five Months ago, that is in late March of this year, the Ebola Virus Disease was confirmed in Liberia. By then, only 3 deaths were reported. The case in Liberia was traced to a Liberian woman, residing in Foya District, Lofa County in Northern Liberia, who had returned from attending a funeral of a relative in neighboring Guinea. Her relative was thought to have died in a village in Guinea under mysterious circumstances like many others there.

In northern Liberia, this woman too got sick upon her return and later died under the same mystifying situation. Prior to her death, she interacted with family members, healthcare workers and her fellow community dwellers. Her funeral and burial were also performed as normally done in most parts of Liberia, where some rituals including washing of a dead body are observed by the living as a sign of respecting the deceased. With our tradition of gracing in numbers the funeral and burial of our dead where we closely interact by hugging, shaking hands, eating and drinking together, precaution is bare minimum.

DSCF1221(Photo: An isolation center for Ebola patients)

So, after the burial of this Liberian woman, a common occurrence of a chain of illnesses resembling malaria; typhoid fever; headache; diarrhea and the likes became prevalent. Some of the sick were taken to the already less equipped medical centers while others gambled with traditional healers’ might. As most of our hardworking but sometimes sloppy healthcare workers attended to their needs, so too did they contract similar illnesses. The strange deaths that started to follow became a daily episode in the northern province of Lofa.

In the capital, Monrovia, Health and Political authorities were still underestimating and taking for granted the disastrous accident that was waiting to happen. That was highly not surprising as our country’s leadership is seemingly just as halfhearted as self-driven!

Our much-travelled President, Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in fact flew out of the country on her usual safari to the more developed world. As typical per her standards, she ran the country via telephone and internet with her redeemed aide, Morris Dukuly, Minister of Internal Affairs, who was placed in charge of the country as chair of the cabinet.

995628_10204615714223697_2406034300848098766_n(Photo: President Sirleaf has been criticized for the way she handles the epidemic)

With Mrs. Sirleaf in the western world again pushing the case of Liberia for aid and investment, the Ebola Virus Disease made sufficient use of her absence to travel from Lofa County and spread further into at least eight other provinces. A young woman from the Harbel District at Liberia’s largest rubber plantation in Margibi County became a principle source of the spread of the virus in the capital and other parts. This young lady had attended the same funeral of her relative who went to Guinea for a memorial service and was thought to have died of Ebola in Lofa County. The capital was in panic as Health authorities confirmed the outbreak of the deadly virus in the city.

Sitting in Europe, the Executive Mansion (Liberian Presidency) issued what it called a “Special Statement by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on the Ebola Situation in the Country” in which she for the first time commented on the epidemic amid criticisms from Presidential wannabe Benoni Urey, who had requested the Liberian leader to cut short her trip and return to the country as her absence in the wake of the Ebola outbreak showed a lack of leadership and love of the citizenry.

“There’s No Need for Panic,” was the flimsy response by President Sirleaf on 5th April 2014.

She justified that: “My trip to Europe was planned well before the Ebola situation evolved. Before I left, I had proper consultations with the Minister of Health and his team. The situation was assessed. We felt that it was well under control; that the health team would continue to brief the nation and be very straight forward on what the situation was. We believe that while it is a concern, there is no need for panic. The situation has been managed very well by the Ministry of Health working with some of our international partners and we do not believe that one needs to do anything more than take precaution, follow the instructions and advice of the Ministry of Health team.”

From March to April, May, June, July and now the expiring August, the President, her leadership and her team have been seriously exposed. Their initial assessment and response to the Ebola situation was nothing more than a farce!

10446221_1437465676514274_1595650047443268175_o
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(Photo: Ebola survivors are given a certificate of clearance after they are cleared of the virus)

Nearly 600 innocent Liberians have so far lost their precious lives as hundreds more are fighting for survival at Ebola Treatment Centers across Liberia today. Everyone in Liberia is more than equally worried when this nightmare will end.

Just as Liberians are worrying, the country is rapidly being isolated likewise as major airlines have suspended operations to the nation in addition to some countries including Ivory Coast; Senegal; Gambia; Kenya and South Africa, barring anyone of Liberian nationality from entering their countries.

In Liberia meanwhile, an overnight curfew (9pm – 6am) is in full-swing just as a State of Emergency declared by President Sirleaf who is now using “extraordinary measures” including the suspension of “certain rights and freedoms”. As part of the measures, two large townships – the densely populated slum of West Point in Monrovia and Dolo’s town in Margibi – have been quarantined with no movements in and out. The deployment of fully armed military officers and other security forces in the sealed-off areas and other parts of the country is also visible.

And, a clash between some angry and confused quarantined residents of the dirt poor shantytown of West Point and armed security forces have also resulted to the firing of gunshots and use of teargas by the security forces as well as stone throwing by some of the residents. Three persons are thought to have sustained fatal bullet wounds with a 16-year old boy dying in pains of his wounds without medical care. Another apparent bullet hurt victim is fighting for his life as a bullet was removed from his stomach.

As if these sad events are not lessons for the regime to amend its strategy by ensuring civil community engagement, journalists are also feeling the pinch of the curfew and state of emergency of President Sirleaf and her Government. The Government has plainly told and warned journalists and the media in general that they “are not exempt” from the curfew hours which run from 9pm – 6am.

DSCF1132(Photo: Julius speaking to a youth leader in one of the communities in Liberia)

This latest undesirable action by President Sirleaf and her Government without doubt places journalists in a difficult situation to perform their duties to society, especially thoroughly checking on the nighttime actions and inactions of the security forces and the Government. The Government’s move also proves that it does not view journalists as genuine partners in the Ebola fight but rather as part of the problem. Hence, the Government wants security forces to deal with any journalists found outside after 9pm and before 6am.

Clearly, this is yet one of the worst wrong steps by President Sirleaf and her Government. It shows to the world, that the President who is a glorified freedom promoter is now muddying her professed credentials in tatters. What this also does is that, it threatens the existence of a democratic society where the media is given unhindered space to operate without fear of being forced into submission.

Never before in the recent history of Liberia – inclusive of the bitter civil war period (1979 -2003) – where fatal bullets were flying just as marauding rebel fighters were on their killing sprees, has journalists been exempt from performing their duties anytime of the day, least to mention the night hours.

It is a massive contradiction that during the darkest era of our civil unrest in Liberia that journalists were exempt during the curfew periods while in our new democracy, journalists are not being exempt, particularly under the eyes of a Nobel Peace Laureate. Utterly, it beats logic that tyrannical regimes value and respect the important works of journalist during a civil crisis than that of a celebrated democrat, struggling to contain a national health emergency.

No matter the restrictive nighttime measures, Liberian journalists will continue to operate within the ambits of societal good “In the Heat of Death and Dread” as all Liberians and international partners collectively muster their efforts to fight the deadly Ebola Virus Disease, which has certainly cast a dark cloud over the leadership capabilities and motives of our country’s leadership.

Julius 1Julius Kanubah is a multiple award winning journalist and commentator of Liberian journalism and media practices. He has reported for Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands Africa online desk, West Africa Democracy Radio, international and local Newspapers,radio and television organisations . He has serve as the Assistant Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia among others.

Fighting an Enemy, Changing the Media Narrative

Capture023By John Baimba Sesay

Developing nations are often faced with challenges such as fixing up their infrastructures; economies, addressing governance issues including corruption, poverty, international media propaganda and a host of others.

The media’s, ‘raw materials’ especially from the western perspective used to discuss the African continent often include; poverty, corruption; famine; war, etc. Until the International Media in particular begin to look at the ‘other side’ i.e. the Good Side of Africa, like her development efforts, it would be challengingly difficult for the International Community to come to terms with the continent’s present day realities and as such, they cannot FULLY appreciate efforts made by Africa towards development, Economic Growth and building of Stable Democracies.   Countries like Sierra Leone, Ghana and Senegal, despite challenges, are today experiencing stable and functional democracies.

Arguably, many African countries are making remarkable progress in a range of sectors. Sierra Leone, for example, is currently making rapid growth in her infrastructural development, Fighting Graft, and pushing forward Economic Growth and building Democratic Governance Institutions, amongst others.

That notwithstanding, like many other nations, Sierra Leone is faced with a plethora of challenges. The country is currently battling with the EBOLA threat in her Health Sector.  Therefore, there is need for the Western Media to change their tone of narratives from War, Famine, Poverty and degradation in Africa to that of a continent with Growing Economy, Growing Infrastructure and a Continent that is committed to   meeting Governance Challenges.

To the Ebola challenges Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in large part and by extension, Nigeria and the West African Region. This health problem requires international awareness and treatment. At the Sub Regional level at their recent Conakry meeting, the Leaders of the three most affected countries, have, in various measures, displayed bold and committed leadership abilities to wage brute fight against this deadly virus with assistance of the United Nations and her Agencies

Sierra Leone’s President has ‘declared a war’ against the dreadful Virus. A State Of Public Emergency declared and a number of actions put in place. Personally, President Ernest Bai Koroma has visited two of the districts that are most affected (Kailahun and Kenema); setup up a Committee he chairs to addressing the challenge.  The disease, in the words of President Koroma “is beyond the scope of any one country, or community to defeat. Its social, economic, psychological and security implications require scaling up measures at international, national, inter-agency and community levels.”  We therefore expect our development partners to come to our aide as they’ve always done, and very quickly too.

This is a ‘war’ that MRU Nations are faced with. We are fighting an unseen enemy but one felt through its adverse consequences.  But the war can be won, should and must be won when collectively faced. This is an extra-ordinary challenge and it therefore requires “extra-ordinary measures” Writing in Front Page Africa, newspaper,  Liberia’s John S. Morlu, rightfully argued, that the fight against the Ebola Virus should transcend tribe, politics and “all must work together”  Fighting this dreadful  Virus demands National Unity  and most be viewed above Tribal, Party and Regional lines.

Ebola makes its victims bleed from almost any part of their body. Usually, Ebola victims bleed to death.  It is highly contagious and could be transmitted via contact with body fluids such as blood, saliva, semen or body discharges. Signs and symptoms include, but not limited to; fever, Headache, Diarrhoea, Vomiting, Weakness and Joint & Muscle Ache.

Washing your hands with soap; using good hand sanitizer, and avoiding unnecessary contact largely help in tackling the spread of the Virus. It is good to avoid eating Bush Meat and where possible, restrict yourself to food you prepared yourself. Dead bodies can still transmit Ebola, so don’t touch them without protective gear or avoid them altogether. Protect Yourself. Use protective gear if you must care or go near someone you suspect has Ebola.

EBOLA IS REAL, IT KILLS AND IT IS AN UNSEEN ENEMY THAT MUST BE DEFEATED!

JB Sesay

John Baimba Sesay is a Sierra Leonean diplomat and media commentator working in his country’s embassy in China. He served as a reporter and editor in various media in Sierra Leone including Awoko Newspaper and also worked as a communications specialist in various institutions. John holds a B. A. and M. A. in Mass Communication from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.

 

 

The quest for gender equality in the media in Sierra Leone

ladyladyphoto 2By Mariama Kandeh

In 2012, when four vibrant female journalists opted to contest for high ranking positions at the Sierra Leone Association of Journalist (SLAJ), they were faced with fierce intimidations and harassments from some of their male colleagues.

For the first time in the history of the association, women contested for the Presidency, Vice Presidency, Financial Secretary and Secretary General positions. This was an epoch-making election in which the ladies debated with their fellow contestants on radio and television shows. While some sections of the media saw this as a history making achievement for female journalists, others took it as a challenge against the men who had been on the spot light since SLAJ was formed.

The intimidations were so glaring that some female contestants on several occasions resigned to retract if not for the support of their female colleagues who worked tooth and nail to see them go through the electioneering process with ease.

ThWIMSAL Strategic Plan 2010-2013 for the web.pdf - Adobe Readere four female journalists faced harassments, intimidations and abuse from some male journalists and male contestants who also extended the bullying on social networks by posting insinuating comments and statements against the female contestants. This display exposed the many serious challenges women in the media spectrum are faced with on a daily basis.

Thankfully, the female caucus set up by Women in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL), held several consultations in organizing and mobilizing support for the female contestants. Albeit only one of the four positions contested for was won by a female journalist, it marked a new phase in the quest for gender equality in the media.

The media is seriously challenged by a widening gender gap at the decision making platform. While the media has a greater onus of adequately showcasing women’s empowerment, exhibit their talents and competencies, It is also the responsibility of media outlets to change societal perceptions, ideas, concepts and beliefs.

The media is also tasked with ensuring that international and local instruments that are crucial to the development of the society are upheld and implemented. How can the media perform these tasks if it is infested with chauvinists and people who don’t view women as partners in development? It is impossible for the media to impact change in the wider society if change has not reached its corridors. The media is a mirror for society; what is exhibited within is reflective of the wider society.

When it comes to the issue of gender equality and gender mainstreaming, media establishment history in Sierra Leone has divulged that women have no influence in determining their representation. Media images are formed through the eyes of men who are most times the sole decision-makers in the newsroom.

Furthermore, widespread chauvinism, sexual harassments and gender discrimination are among the many hurdles women journalists face in trying to pursue high-profile stories. The dominant nature of men significantly destroys women’s ability to fully partake in the decision making process, where males pride themselves to have greater competence in leadership than their female colleagues, oblivious of the intellectual abilities and natural talents of the latter.

Female journalists in Sierra Leone do not receive equal training opportunities and career advancement in relation to their male counterparts. They are hardly ever assigned to strong leadership positions. Arguably, because of the long standing archaic belief that men should lead and in the instances women have attempted to vie for offices, they have been limited to positions as vice president, financial secretaries and other positions that men do perceive to be feminine. They are generally assigned to the “less important tasks” like gender violence, children’s issues, cookery, beauty and love affairs.

Female journalists are considered by their male counterparts as women and not colleagues. They are rarely given the opportunity to prove their competence and if by accident they come up with some excellent results they are accused of having used their “woman power” to achieve this.  Attaining the goal of equal representation in decision-making will provide a balance that more accurately reflects the composition of society that is needed to strengthen democratic principles and foster developments. Equality in decision-making performs a leverage function without which it is highly unlikely that a real integration of the equality dimension in policy-making is feasible.

There is a low number of women in the decision making platforms in the media. With over 40 radio stations, 50 newspaper houses, there are less than a handful of female editors or station managers. Sierra Leone can only boast of 3 female radio station managers and no substantial newspaper or TV editors. The dominant nature of men in the profession extends right into the newsroom, where the male journalists are always praised to be tough and hard working, females are regarded as lazy and incompetent. Most editors are deluded by the myth that women are intellectually incapable.

Equality of access to and attainment of educational qualifications is necessary if more women are to become agents of change. Female journalists in Sierra Leone still lack the capacity and confidence needed to fully gain equality in the news room. Many feel they lack the necessary skills including public speaking and interviewing techniques to fully attain their goals. They also believe that their lack of education put them at a disadvantage to their male counterparts. Oftentimes, male journalists have said it is the women who are shying away from taking front seat in the newsroom. This could be explained to mean that women are worried about their lack of capacity and public humiliation because of the absent of or limited education level.

The scarcity of female in leadership positions in journalism makes it difficult for burning issues to be discussed from a female perspective. There are handfuls of female entrepreneurs and males decide which position females occupy, making it difficult for the regulation of management policies that would keep women at ease.

Additionally, young female journalists feel that they do not have a place in efforts lead by veteran female journalists. Formal mentoring services that allow for the pairing of young female journalists to their more established counterparts are vital in getting young women to become informed and ultimately seasoned journalists.

Ideally, mentoring occurs on an ongoing basis and encourages young female journalists to ask relevant questions while getting exposed to journalistic realities. Engaging the younger generation in journalism is essential in keeping important issues on course which otherwise could become extinct without such consistency.

Most female journalists lack computer knowledge. Most are struggling with the use of the keyboard and basic computer icons and programmes. ICT is the modern day reality but for female journalists, this reality is still farfetched. Most media houses have few over-used computers, a handful with internet facilities and with the intermittent power supply and the slow nature of the internet, make the whole internet use very frustrating. Some colleagues could go months without even checking their emails or even access the internet. Among the few with Facebook accounts, a handful occasionally accesses it. Most do not have a Twitter account. Only a few have whats’app installed on their mobile phones and are very irregular users. Online media is becoming the most popular, and for sharp career growth, one would have to embed technology in practice.

Sexual harassment continues to be a predominant challenge to women journalists. Women often complain about treatments they receive from both their male counterparts, families and the public. Journalism has been described as a hostile environment so far as sexual violence is concerned. Female journalists are exposed to languages and actions that embarrass them sexually as they relate to the public and even with their colleagues and bosses at work place, these come in the form of jokes about their feminine features like breasts and hips that make them uncomfortable. They are often perceived by the society as “free women” because their job necessitates that they interact with many categories of men.

The recently concluded 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58) witnessed the deliberation of activists, lawmakers and the media as they discussed ways to accelerate the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They noted the many gaps in programming and legislation around MDG work, especially in Africa where there is a marked gender gap in leadership in the media.

The only MDG directly relevant to gender has just one target to promote gender equality and empower women (eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education). This is very crucial considering the persistence of unequal power relation between women and men and discriminatory laws, societal norms, practices and stereotypes that women are faced with from day to day.

The Sierra Leone media lack the training to deal with sexual assaults and gender-based violence. Sometimes the media have proven to be the pioneers of sexual harassments and intimidations.  The 2013 rape saga of a deputy Education Minister allegedly against a University student also exposed the lapses in the media as the privacy rights of the alleged victim was violated with publications of her picture, her name and some newspapers publishing some horrendous comments against the alleged victims. Objectivity must be a core value of the media but in the case highlighted, objectivity was completely absent. Issues like this could have been prevented if gender equality had been at the decision making platforms of the media.


Mariama_2Mariama Kandeh is a Freelance Journalist based in the United Kingdom. Has worked as an editor for Concord Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone,
reported for Business in Africa Magazine in South Africa and a contributor for the Gender Link Opinion and Commentary service in South Africa. She is also a strong women’s rights activist.

It’s the Dawning of a New Day for Journalists in Africa! The African Court has finally spoken!

Capture023By Rashid Dumbuya

At last, what has turned out to be one of the longest and most protracted trials on egregious violations against journalists in Africa has finally being laid to rest. On the 28 of March, 2014,
in Arusha, Tanzania, Africa’s highest court, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, delivered a far-reaching decision that seeks to protect the right to life of journalists as well as the right to practice their vocation free from fear of intimidation and death.

The court, in its first ever ruling of its kind boldly held that ‘the failure of a government of
Burkin Faso to diligently seek and bring to account the persons responsible for the assassination of a journalist intimidates the media, has a chilling effect on free expression, violates the human rights of journalists, endangers truth, and should not be allowed’.

This landmark judgment came as a result of a case that concerns the killing of a journalist,
Norbert Zongo, who was the publisher and former editor of I’Indépendant in Burkina Faso, over 16 years ago. Before his murder, Zongo was working on a story about how David Ouedraogo, driver and domestic employee of Francis Campaoré, was tortured and killed in 1998 for allegedly stealing vast sums of money from his employer. The said Francis Campaoré happens to be the younger brother to Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Campaoré. It was Zongo’s pursuit of the truth behind this story that led to his tragic death.

A presidential commission was eventually established to investigate Zongo’s killings and the Commission concluded that his killing was politically motivated, triggered by his mind blowing investigation into the killing of David Ouedraogo. The commission also identified five members of Burkina’s presidential guards to have been implicated in the killing.

Notwithstanding the compelling report of the Commission, only one of the five body guards, Marcel Kafando, was ever charged for these killings, and the charges were in fact later dropped against him.  All efforts by Zongo’s wife and her lawyers to seek accountability from the state for the killing of Zongo were thwarted.

In 2011, the bereaved wife of Zongo, Genevieve, with the help of human rights lawyers like Sankara Benewende and a host of others made their last attempt in their long search for justice to the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights. It was certainly a risky move but because of her determination and love for her husband, Genevieve confronted her worst fears… and with the help of human rights advocates, she successfully took the Burkina Faso government to the African Court.

When Burkina Faso appeared before the African Court, it raised a jurisdictional objection that the African Court could not hear a case about a killing that occurred in 1998 since it was only fully established in 2005. But the court’s wisest judges skilfully threw out this objection, ruling that ‘the failure to diligently look for and find the killers of Zongo, if true, was a
continuing one which had not yet ended’. Hence, the case was declared admissible.

Burkina Faso notwithstanding the first blow made another comeback and further argued that its government could not be held responsible for failing to find the killers of Zongo stating with impunity that ‘no one had held the United States of America, the most powerful country in the world, responsible for failing to find the killers of John F. Kennedy’.

In its judgment, the African Court on human and people’s rights stated that what Burkina Faso did was in effect a cover-up, which violated the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It also found ‘the government of Burkina Faso in violation of the Revised Treaty of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which requires it not only to protect freedom of expression, but also the vocation of journalism’.

Commenting on the raison d’etre of its decision, the court pointed out that ‘the legal proceedings before the courts in Burkina Faso were unduly prolonged; that Burkina Faso didn’t diligently investigate the crimes; that the families of the victims had not been contacted over eight years after the beginning of the case they initiated; that no proper investigation was ever conducted into the case; and that the government showed no will to hold the killers to account. The court also held that the killing of a journalist was a method of intimidation that should not be allowed anywhere.’

Significance of this decision for journalists in the African continent

This decision certainly has far and wide reaching implications for journalist’s protection in Africa and beyond. According to a recent report done by UNESCO, the last decade has witnessed egregious human rights violations being committed to journalist all over the world. According to the report, “more than 600 journalists and media workers have been killed… The report further concludes that…. ‘Attacks on media professionals are often perpetrated in non-conflict situations by organized crime groups, militia, security personnel, and even local police, making local journalists among the most vulnerable.” In nearly all these cases, no one gets punished for these killings.’

Also judging from the State of the Media Report 2013, done by Society for Democratic Initiatives in Sierra Leone, it is apparently clear that journalists in Sierra Leone are still not free to carry out their vocation without fear of intimidation and criminal charges. Apart from the numerous arrests that were made against Journalists in 2013, the presence of certain laws such as the Public Order Act of 1965 is indeed a testament to the numerous challenges on press freedom in the country.

Sections 26 and 27 of the Public Order Act WHICH CRIMINALISES libel clearly undermines freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association, three fundamental human rights provisions that are guaranteed under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution and other International treaties and conventions such as the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, all of which Sierra Leone has ratified.

Certainly, like has been re-echoed by the African Court and other regional human rights court the world over, to put journalists behind bars for simply expressing their opinions and exercising their fundamental human rights is not only unreasonable a response but also unnecessary in an open and democratic society. Sections 26 and 27 of the Public Order Act in Sierra Leone can be replaced with a Civil Defamatory law that will hold members of the Press and media houses accountable in the event where they intentionally defame the character of any person in the society. Such a civil law would have as a sanction; monetary compensation, open retraction equal in effect to the defamatory publication, public and written apology, suspension of a journalist or media house from publication or broadcast for a reasonable period and editorial censorship in the event where a journalist or media house crosses the redline and become unprofessional in their duties.

In conclusion, While I salute the daring wife of Zongo ( Genevieve) for mountain up courage in the face of deep animosity and political strangulation,  Zongo’s decision before the African Court has said it all….’the state has an obligation to guarantee the protection of the rights of journalists within the state’.  Of a truth, an excellent precedent has been establish in international law and Africa’s highest Court has echoed out loudly that it will not take light with any state that  fails to guarantee the rights and vocation of journalists.  But how many African states will endeavour to respect and abide by this decision is a question that will soon be answered clearly by them.

*All Right Reserved

RashidRashid Dumbuya is an International Human Rights Lawyer and a practicing Barrister and Solicitor from the Republic of Sierra Leone. He holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws honours degree as well as a Masters of Laws degree in International Human Rights Law from the Centre for Human Rights University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is currently an LLM candidate pursuing Petroleum Law and Policy at the University of Dundee, Scotland, United Kingdom.