Monday, August 8, 2016

Face-off, Sierra Leone journalists vote

By Kemo Cham
Next week members of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) will gather in Bo, southern Sierra Leone, as part of its Triennial General Meeting. Based on a rotational policy, the last elective congress was held in Kenema, in the east. Before then it was Makeni, north of the country.
This event will be unique for many reasons, but most importantly because the association is set to elect a new leadership, yet again, after three years. The elections are coming at a time when the umbrella journalist body is faced with hordes of issues. The well publicized internal friction at the executive committee has clearly made it difficult for the leadership to pay full attention to its responsibilities.
Incumbent President Kelvin Lewis is going for his second and final term of another three years. He is being challenged by his vice president, Stanley Bangura Jnr.
That the two men are facing each other somehow indicates the level of division within. And that both didn’t mince their words on the issues that set them apart is even more concerning.

Mr. Lewis is the Managing Editor of the AWOKO NEWSPAPER, one of the leading dailies in the country. He was first elected to the SLAJ presidency in 2013. Kelvin is likely to garner support from the old guards. Stanley Bangura, on the other hand, appears to be banking on the support of the younger folks.
Stanley owns the newest media group (City Media) in Sierra Leone; it is based in the northern city of Makeni, from where he operates.
As you will find out in this special edition, both men, in exclusive interviews with POLITICO, share very strong views about each other. There are accusations and counter-accusations of maladministration, corruption and incompetence.
These may not be strange for any election situation in Sierra Leone today. But for a community like SLAJ, which is 100 percent literate, you may find it striking at the shape the contest is gradually taking.
It has been equated to the national politics, with each candidates being identified with one of the country’s two major political parties – the All Peoples Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Both candidates have however denied this claim.
So far the SLAJ Electoral Commission (SLAJEC) has received three petitions relating to the elections. The latest one came from the Stanley Bangura for SLAJ President Campaign Team which wants an ongoing verification process of the SLAJ membership discontinued and investigated. If this is upheld, it has the potential effect of delaying the completion of the final voter register before the polls in less than two weeks.
The verification process was put in motion to “cleanse” the membership register of the organization. It has been a widely held view within the organization that many people have found their way in through the ‘back door’ and that many such people do not deserve being part of a professional body like SLAJ. The move was also designed to upgrade the register in terms of members’ qualifications.
But, as it has become apparent, it is the way this verification process has been handled that has caused confusion. Stanley’s team believes that incumbent President Lewis has “micromanaged” it in his favor.
SLAJEC, in a statement last week, has acknowledged receipt of the petition and said it took the allegations seriously and that it was investigating them.
Although Stanley himself declined to comment on what action they intend to take in the event they fail to get what they’ve demanded, some people who identified with his team have hinted at the possibility of a court injunction.
Kelvin Lewis’ team responded with caution. Shiekh Bawoh, his campaign manager, told POLITICO that they wouldn’t want to comment since the matter was in the hands of the SLJEC. He also said that it’s their right to petition.
While they appear to dominate the debate, it is certainly not only Kelvin and Stanley who are running in these elections.
The Vice Presidency is being fought for by two men who have a fair share of their own baggage, as it were, in terms of their competence and qualification for the post.
Samuel Haffner, for instance, who is currently the SLAJ Regional Chairman South, has a dark history of criminal offences. His opponent, Kasho J Holland-Cole, is a major part of the divisive Sierra Leone Football Association. He is a member of the Football Stakeholders and, until recently, was Secretary General of the Western Area Football Association (WAFA) whose executive has been dissolved and is set to go to election.
Holland-Cole, interestingly, is said to be running for the Vice Chairmanship of WAFA, at the same time as he is running for the Vice Presidency of SLAJ. Can he handle the heat from both offices? There are also accusations of embezzlement against him as WAFA Secretary General.
Politico tried to put all these concerns to the two men. and you will read how they responded to them.
These and many other issues affecting journalists and journalism in Sierra Leone today are raised in over half a dozen news reports on this edition.
We also look at the women candidates and try to gauge the views of the ‘women in the media’ on the SLAJ elections.
Reporters, like the foot soldiers in every army, constitute the vast majority of the membership of the organization. And they have many issues. We spoke to the President of the Reporters’ Union, Amadu Lamarana Bah, and a few ordinary reporters.
Beyond individual or group interest, there is a lot at stake for SLAJ. The organization has relied so much on external support to fund its activities. Sourcing out funding from corporate entities is a well known fact. But in the past politicians have also contributed to the organization’s AGM. Not only is this not sustainable, it also calls to the fore the question of ethics.
Relationship with government is a fundamentally vital thing to think about in this election. There is, for instance, the issue of the notorious Public Order Act to deal with. The retention of the criminal libel laws in the law books is akin to the threat of a nuclear missile directed at your home. Both presidential candidates have said they had good relationship with people at both sides of the political aisle to guarantee a safe sail to the final destination.
And thank God the new leadership at the Ministry of Information and Communication has displayed a rare desire to help lay these issues to rest.
But it is no gainsaying that this is a very slippery slope. Therefore, journalists certainly need not just a sober leader to lead them to the table, but they also need a team that can give the ultimate support to that leader.
This can only be guaranteed if the voters make an informed choice. And since the die is cast, journalists ought to endeavor to know better the people seeking their votes.
(C) Politico 25/05/16

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