THE SECURITY SECTOR AND THE MEDIA IN SIERRA LEONE

A PRESENTATION ON BEHALF OF THE SIERRA LEONE ASSOCIATION OF JOURNALISTS AT THE SECURITY THINK TANK SYMPOSIUM FOR THE SECURITY SECTOR AND THE MEDIA IN SIERRA LEONE

Organizers: The African Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS)

Theme: Security Sector and the Media in National Development: The Role of the media in national development with a focus on national security

By Tonya Musa

The Presentation
The media is a facilitator and monitor of national development functional perspectives; it increases civic consciousness among citizens, political parties, civil society and the government through timely, relevant and accurate information dissemination and interpretation of public policies on government actions to the public which may accelerate social accountability and confidence building in the security sector.

Professional reporting builds public confidence in the security trends which may attract investment locally and internationally. The media is a platform to discuss national security issues, policies and structures democratically.  The media is widely perceived as the watchdog of society through news reporting and commentary.  These social perceptions on the media’s position and its empirical effect on public opinion have rendered the role of the media recognizable in discussing national security in the context of national development.

The media in the era of digitalization and globalization is impacting on both global and national security frameworks tremendously by looking at both public journalism and citizen journalism paradigms. This is evident in the real time media characteristics among others is “raw news” reporting.” This has served as point of conflict for journalists reporting wars, insurrections, and demonstration and state insurgencies. In Sierra Leone journalists have suffered police brutality in attempt to give live coverage or video coverage to students’ riot, strike against mining companies, and demonstrations of traders etc.

The Live coverage of wars, coups, insurrections or insurgencies and above all terrorists’ attacks have made media impact on national security visible right from strong democracies to the fragile types. The proliferation of personal media making gadgets and the diversity of media ownership are visible development indicators in the media landscape of Sierra Leone and most other nations in the world looking at media and national development. Such innovations in democracy have increased citizens’ access to security information, knowledge on security sensitive issues, opportunity for expression or representation in decision-making relating to national security etc.

Sierra Leone is enjoying some of these indicators through electronic news gathering- the use of camcorders, mobile phones, and satellite televisions news and other programs, telecommunication networks, social media and the World Wide Web for the production of and current affairs programs.  We expect development to occur in the area of satellite news gathering too on security related matters when the optical connectivity will be effective right across the country.

What are the opportunities?
The operating environment – self regulation approach using the IMC as the institution. The legal framework for effective self regulation is very important here. This covers the right to access information and the room created to freely express opinion on state matters without hindrance or molestation. The right to access information by journalists and the public on national development is fundamental in every democratic society. Moves have been made in this direction by enacting the Right to Access information Law.  Generally speaking public access to information keeps government accountable to its citizens “…freedom of information laws allow citizens to find out “what the government is up to” in the present, and what it did in the past. By helping to check improper conduct, access serves as a valuable anticorruption tool and helps build public trust.

The Right of access to Information- Article 19 of the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption a treaty signed by 40 of the 53 members of the AU, says, “Each State Party shall adopt such legislation and other measures to give effect to the right of access to any information that is required to assist in the fight against corruption and related offences.”

My question on this subject is “IF SECURITY INFORMATION IS CLASSIFIED BUT FALSIFIED HOW CAN IT BE VERIFIED?”
Apart from security alertness, media reporting can reduce corruption in the security sector. Reporting what is happening within the ranks and file of the police and military is very sensitive. In Sierra Leone some journalists have complained being intimidated for promoting dialogue on matters relating to social accountability regarding to those serving in the peace missions as police or soldiers. Arguably, when journalists can obtain public records, they need not rely on the whims of a government source to report on government actions and activities, and they can better disclose if there alternative sources.

The second factor is the collaborative mechanisms among civil society organizations on national security. Through community policing, police partnership board, the National Security Council etc the media engagement has been made visible by articulating security trends in Sierra Leone.

The third advantage is the proliferation of ICTs, which is making content gathering and access possible by journalists and the security personnel including the general public.

What are the Hindrances?
The existence of criminal libel law Incriminating free speech and opinion is said to be undemocratic. This law is described by many critics as draconian and dictatorial. Many scholars view criminal libel law as outdated (its original purpose was to protect the monarchy or aristocracy from criticism or insults.) Many countries have abolished seditious libel and prohibit government entities from suing for defamatory statement, even though individual officials may be permitted to do so.

This is a weapon in Sierra Leone use on many occasions to silence journalists and impede investigative stories on sensitive security matters and most other sensitive matters pertaining to social accountability.  This is a threat to the media globally, as research says that even some mature democracies, including the United States, retain criminal libel statues on their books, although are rarely used. pg29

Are journalists to be neutral in giving security reports?
Public journalism requires journalists to inform and influence the public opinion positively by a way of increasing accountability and confidence building.  There are problems on neutrality in reporting security trends.  Here is an example, “At the root of the Washington Post’s objection is the supposed bedrock of the journalists’ profession: neutrality,” he wrote. “I believe that there are times in history …that neutrality is not neutral but complicit in the crime…The court needs reporters to stand by their stories on oath.” Pg21.

Another case in point is the Iraq invasion in 2003. George Bush counted more on the CNN framing and priming of security issues than the CIA reports. When asked he told the CIA that he is watching the CNN. The truthfulness of the report by the CNN might be another concern but the effect was very obvious on the advancement of Bush’s foreign policy.

Journalists are often being raided by police that intimidates the news production and expose confidential information to them, which is arbitrary in nature. It might even be confidential reports about them for accountability. There is lacuna in the law in Sierra Leone context. The US Congress for instance enacted the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 which protect from seizing documentary, or work product, materials in possession intending to disseminate them to the public (i.e. journalists).
This is not strange in Africa alone as observed by the Bureau of International Information program “…although the European Court of Human Rights holds that newsroom searches violate Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights, many European countries still permit them.” Pg 21

Public good is an essential justification in most cases for instance the Antiterrorism laws adopted in much of the world since 2001 September 9/11 have expanded law enforcement and intelligence authority to intercept communications through wiretapping and similar means.  Sierra Leone was recently threatened by online information on ALSHABAB threat as a result of sending troupes to Somalia. It was posted on the social media and there were diverse reactions to the subject. Recklessly, some newspapers framed the issue sensitively which further scared the public.

Politicking the police is very crucial in this presentation. Politicians using police to intimidate journalists could also undermine the effort of strengthening national security.  They instruct the arrest and search of premises of news production without following the due process of the law.

Interventions on the way forward
Media partnership should be revived with the national security sector for reporting and to build public confidence in the national security as one of significant measures.

Confidence building in the operations of the police, the army and judiciary is very important in mobilizing national support for the security sector.

Information flow is a very important measure to social accountability. This process can reduce corruption in the forces and improve their efficiency.

More development in the legal framework is required for strengthening the partnership. One is repealing the criminal libel law and enforcing the Right to Access of information Law.

At the same time increasing the capacity of the Independent Media Commission and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists is very fundamental to sustaining the self regulating framework.

Awareness raising among journalists on security operations and mandate is very timely.

Tonya Musa is a lecturer at the Mass Communications Department at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. He holds an M.Phil, MA, BA(HONS), diploma & certificate in Mass Communication from Fourah Bay College. He is also the Acting Coordinator Postgraduate Studies in Mass Communication at FBC, and a media commentator and researcher in Sierra Leone

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