Wednesday, August 10, 2016
SLAJ “misdirected” grievance – IMC Chair
By Kemo Cham
The Chairman of the Independent Media Commission (IMC), Alieu Kanu, has said the leadership of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) misdirected its dissatisfaction over disagreement on his appointment.
Kanu said SLAJ treated the Commission unfairly and unjustly by displaying a halfhearted attitude towards it following his assumption of office.
IMC is the regulator of the media in the country. It was created by an Act of parliament in 2000 and, among others, it functions as an alternative to the courts system so that it will be the first line of reference in case anyone has a complaint regarding media publications or broadcast.
A lawyer by profession, Kanu assumed office at the Commission under controversial circumstances early last year. SLAJ objected to his appointment by President Ernest Bai Koroma due to disagreement in the procedure followed by the government.
Kanu told Politico in an interview due to be published next week that he understood why the leadership of the umbrella journalist body felt that way but he thought they should have directed their dissatisfaction towards those who appointed him. He said believed he’d done his best to cooperate and work with journalists within the last over 12 months and described his experience as mixed.
“The only bitter experience I have got initially when we came… is that we did not find the leadership of journalists supportive and cooperative and they ascribed their luckworm towards the IMC as a result of the way the commissioners were appointed,” he said.
“But in my view, I believe that should not be a way of pushing the Commission to the corner because if the commissioners, including the chairman, were appointed by the authorities I would have thought that any blame the leadership of the journalists would have had would have been directed to the people who appointed the commissioners,” he added.
IMC was established by the government of late President Ahmad Tejan Kabah. Media rights campaigners familiar with its history say despite a few hassles here and there with the Kabbah administration, they never had as much issues as they have had with the current administration, particularly over relations with the Commission.
The period 2014-2015 was particularly a defining moment in the relationship between the Koroma administration and the media. Besides the turbulent transition at the management of the IMC, this period also saw a huge crackdown on the independent media.
According to section 4(1) of the IMC Act, the President is mandated to appoint the Commissioners but only in consultation with SLAJ. And Kanu’s appointment came as a shock to many in the journalism community not just because of the failure of consultation, but also because of how the government handled the whole situation. It followed a string of actions by the regulator which gave the impression of a Commission under the direct control of the government. In fact in one case it was too obvious.
In July 2014, the Commission announced the suspension of the popular radio talk show ‘Monologue’. The then chairman, Rod Mac Johnson, told the press he did so by an Executive Order from Cabinet. That was part of a major crackdown on the media including the arrest of some senior journalists under the notorious Public Order Act or the state of emergency occasioned by the Ebola epidemic.
Johnson eventually decided not to run for a second term as chairman, opening up a race to replace him. It also followed that the tenure of some of the Commissioners had expired and they needed to be replaced.
With the IMC provisions on appointment on its mind, SLAJ embarked on a frantic search for candidates from its rank. Three names were subsequently selected after elections for onward submission to the government for consideration. Then word came that State House had made its nominations. Only two of the SLAJ nominees made it on the list. These are Francis Sowa and James Williams. The third, Mustapha Sesay, was dropped, with no explanation whatsoever.
One of the government’s choices, a card holding member of the governing All Peoples Congress, Dauda Musa Bangura, also caused unease within the association. But the major fuel of the acrimony was the decision on the chairmanship.
SLAJ, according to sources, had identified veteran journalist Batilloi Warritay for the post. Mr Warritay had served at the Commission as a consultant in the research department.
But on December 3, 2014, the Association received a copy of a letter signed by the Secretary to the President informing Kanu that he’d been appointed Chairman of the Commission.
“SLAJ was never consulted or engaged on this appointment, as also we were never consulted on other appointments to the Commission,” the Association lamented in a statement released shortly after.
“SLAJ views this action as not only a violation of the provisions of the [IMC] Act but also a dangerous deviation from the precedent set by previous administrations which may lead to future abuses of the Commission by succeeding governments.”
The Association added in the statement that despite “strenuous efforts” in a bid to meet and discuss the issues with government, “all doors were firmly closed” on it.
But Chairman Kanu insisted that consultations were done, and he believed it was on that basis that he was appointed.
Probably as an impulsive reaction to the “lukewarm” attitude of SLAJ to his administration, IMC has come across as very aggressive to the media with many seeing him as out to destroy the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.
Between the end of 2014 and now, the Commission has slammed suspension or some form of punishment on over a dozen media outlets. IMC under Kanu has also been accused of opting for the maximum fine when it comes to portions of the code of practice that are vague in terms of the exact punishment.
But the former diplomat rejected the view that the Commission has been harsh. He said all fines have been reasonable, and that media outlets which got suspended deserved the sanction. He outlined personal interventions he’d taken in defense of journalists, like pleading on behalf a newspaper sanctioned by parliament, or fending off a police attempt to arrest a journalist in the offices of the Commission.
“We are not harsh and our relationship with journalists is very, very good. It’s only the leadership of SLAJ that has not been working closely with IMC,” he said.
In the interview, Kanu spoke on a wide range of issues, including professionalism or the lack of it in the media, and the IMC’s unfinished battled with Journalist David Tam-Baryoh and his talk show, ‘Monologue’.
The IMC board, which is the management body of the Commission, is composed of eleven members, including the chairman as head. Five of these are supposed to be experienced journalists, one of which is the official representative of SLAJ.
In addition to the SLAJ representative, five of the current board members are members of the Association. Although two of them – Sowa and Williams – were initially nominated by the general SLAJ membership, it is unclear if the government eventually appointed them on that basis. But they continue to serve in the Commission, which, in the view Chairman Kanu, points to the vainness of SLAJ’s grievance.
“If SLAJ had any concern, I would have thought that they should remove their representative there but they never did,” he argued.
He said however that he’d seen some sign of cooperation from the new executive, explaining that when the Commission slammed suspension on 12 media houses last month, SLAJ prevailed on it which led to the temporal lifting of the suspension.
Despite the absence of SLAJ at a number of functions organized by the Commission recently, the invitation of the IMC chairman to last month’s triennial meeting of the Association in Bo also points to the return to normalcy of their relationship.
“I am beginning to see the vision clearer under the tunnel. The new crop of journalists who have been elected to serve SLAJ in their executive I have seen some cooperative move from them,” Kanu said.
SLAJ President, Kelvin Lewis, declined to comment when contacted by Politico.
Chairman Kanu’s full interview with Politico will be published next Thursday.
Facts about IMC
- It was established by an Act of parliament in 2000.
- The Act was amended in 2006 and 2007.
- It regulates not just radio, television and newspapers, but also Direct To Home broadcasting services, like DSTV.
- All IMC Commissioners are appointed by the President, acting on the advice of SLAJ, and subject to the approval of parliament.
- The Board comprises two legal practitioners, two experts in the field of telecommunications, two experienced radio or television journalists, two experienced print journalists, one representative each of the Minister of Information and SLAJ.
- The tenure of office for Commissioners is three years, and eligible for reappointment for a second term.
- The Commission has four specialized committees.
- The Commission is funded by funds appropriated by parliament.
© Politico 12/07/16