By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)
THE ULTIMATE CHOICE: journalist or politician?
Sierra Leonean journalists may now have to decide whether they are indeed journalists or politicians as the crucial national Presidential and Parliamentary elections fast approach.
This is according to the revised SLAJ Code of Ethics which was outdoored to journalists from the Southern, Eastern and Northern regions on Monday 31st October, 2016 at a one-day training session funded by the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG) at J & E Hotel, Campus View, Torwama Road, Bo.
The journalists mostly included Station Managers/Program Managers who are in-charge of the news rooms as gatekeepers. This follows an initial meeting of newspaper Editors and Station Managers from the Western Area at SLAJ Headquarter in Freetown on 8th September, 2016 as part of the validation process where comments and suggestions were noted and incorporated.
“You are the first people we are outdooring this final document to,” said SLAJ President, Kelvin Lewis in his welcome address at the training session in Bo. “This will be our own Bible that will guide us in our practice as professional journalists. We expect you, as you go back to your news rooms, to teach your reporters to know what is right and wrong in this profession. You are the ambassadors of this Code. As members of SLAJ we must abide by this Code.”
Lewis said the Code of Ethics is key for SLAJ as it continues to fight for the repeal of criminal and seditious libel laws. However, he said whether these laws are reviewed or not journalists across the board should continue to practice professionally.
“People accuse us of being reckless or non-professionals. Our work is being threatened by this vogue of ‘citizen journalists’. The public hold us accountable for their actions. That is why we should stand out as professionals in main stream media as well as in social media platforms. It’s time to weed out all those fake journalists giving us a bad name. It’s time to separate the rice from the chaff,” said Lewis.
The revised SLAJ Code of Ethics comprises of a preamble including a mission statement, vision and core values. Its 20 Articles comprehensively covers challenges faced by media practitioners in the field and in the news room and how they should respond to those challenges- from freedom and responsibility; transparency and accountability; to truth and facts; accuracy, fairness; privacy; confidentiality; conflict of interest and decency. Article 20 specifically deals with enforcement of the code, giving that responsibility to the Complaints and Disciplinary Committee of SLAJ. The CDC, whose composition and mandate has also been reviewed, shall recommend to the Executive appropriate punishment for defaulting members.
Key additions to the document are sections on defamation and digital media, with the latter reminding journalists that ethical practice doesn’t change with the medium.
The revised Code of Ethics was put together by a three-man Committee chaired by Joshua Nicol, lecturer in the Mass Communication Department, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. He said like the Biblical 10 commandments, the SLAJ Code of Ethics bears the commandments for professional journalists.
“The SLAJ Code of Ethics outlines your duty to your profession and to society, with the truth as bottom-line,” said Nicol, adding that the document is in line with international best practice.
Another member of the review committee, Tonya Musa, Acting HOD of the Mass Communications Department, said the revised SLAJ Code of Ethics is related to the Independent Media Commission (IMC) Code of Practice but they are not the same. While the IMC Code of Practice targets media houses, he said the SLAJ Code targets the practitioners.
“The SLAJ Code does not in anyway redundant the IMC Code of Practice,” he noted, adding that in fact the SLAJ Code enjoins all journalists to also abide by the IMC Code of Practice.
Musa said as the climate fast changes into elections, it is very important for journalists to abide by the guidelines provided in the Code.
Also a member of the review committee, IMC Commissioner and lecturer at the Mass Communications Department, Francis Sowa, emphasized the seriousness of the SLAJ Code of Ethics noting that other institutions like the IMC and the courts can hold journalists responsible based on the document.
“When we accept and adopt it, the SLAJ Code can be referenced by other institutions. That is how serious this document is,” said Sowa. Explaining Article 13 of the Code, which deals with conflict of interest, reward, gratification and professional integrity, Sowa said now is the time for journalists to choose between being professional journalists and professional politicians.
“You cannot be a journalist and at the same time you are a politician. That will be clear cut breach of the conflict of interest clause. When you are a politician you have many interests and that will affect the credibility of your practice. You cannot imagine a journalist-politician belonging to Party A chairing a radio program with guests from his party and rival party,” noted Sowa.
Journalists at the training session praised the committee and SLAJ for putting together what they described as a ‘good document’. However, they raised certain concerns including the challenge of enforcing the Code across the board, the fact that most of the community radio stations are manned by non-professionals and volunteers, the need for continuous training, and the thorny issue of reporters’ salaries which are either very low or non-existent.
Meanwhile, Lewis said an abridged version of the Code will be developed and printed as posters to be hung in news rooms as a constant reminder to practitioners.