Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Interview: Media regulator boss talks on Sierra Leone media

Ambassador Alieu Ibrahim Kanu was appointed chairman of the Independent Media Commission of Sierra Leone at the end of 2015. His appointment by President Ernest Bai Koroma only turned out to worsen an already thorny relationship between the media regulator and the independent media which feels the Commission is not operating the way it’s meant to be and blames political interference.
To many within the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) in particular, Kanu’s appointment is a typical demonstration of the existence of political interference in the Commission. He was appointed by the President in violation of the Act that created it, says SLAJ. But Kanu thinks the umbrella journalist body got it all wrong.
These and a horde of other issues in the media industry are what the IMC chairman spoke about in this interview Kemo Cham. He spoke about his plans to improve on professionalism, the Commission’s relations with journalists under his watch, and what seems to be the IMC’s biggest problem, David Tam-Baryoh and his Monologue programme, and a lot more.
The interview was transcribed by Mabinty Kamara.
Please read on.
Politico: Please briefly tell us about your role as chairman of the Independent Media Commission (IMC), vis-a-vis decision making arrangement.
Kanu: The commission as you know was set up in 2000 to regulate the media landscape of Sierra Leone. And me as chairman of the commission, my main role is to provide leadership and policy directions for the IMC.
You have been at the helm, I think, for over a year now. Please tell us what has been your experience.
My experience is a mixed one: I am happy to have been appointed the chairman, to assist in the development and the regulation of the media landscape in Sierra Leone. In that regard, I believe I have done my best to corporate and to work with the journalists in the country.  The only bitter experience I have got initially when we came, myself and the new commissioners, [is that] we did not find the leadership of the journalists corporative and supportive.  And they ascribe their lukewarm towards the IMC as the way the commissioners were appointed. But in my view, I believe that should not be a way of pushing the commission to a corner because if the commissioners, including the chairman, were appointed by the authorities, I would have thought that any blame that the leadership of the journalists would have had would have been directed to the authorities that appointed them. But to direct it to the commissioners, I believe, it’s unfair and it’s unjust.
When you say the leadership of the journalists basically you mean SLAJ…? I would like to know if you understand the basis of their concerns…
Well, I sympathise with them, but sympathising with them doesn’t mean that I agree with them…His Excellency the president, he is the fountain of justice and he is the Supreme Executive Officer in Sierra Leone, and therefore I think the constitution gave him the power  to appoint functionaries to certain commissions and parastatals and that includes the IMC. And until that is corrected in the constitution and also in the originating Act which set up the IMC, until that is corrected, I believe that the concern of the leadership of SLAJ in my view was misdirected.
Now that has been raised several times… the fact that the constitution gives the president the power to appoint; but the issue has been around the procedure. The leadership of SLAJ is saying that it is not being followed as the president should consult SLAJ but he is not doing that.
As far as I know consultations were held.
With whom? With SLAJ you mean?
Well, I don’t know. But the media was consulted. The ministry of Information and Communication was the intermediary whom I believe did the consultations and followed the process. And it was on that basis that the ministry of Information recommended to the president the people they thought should be appointed and even SLAJ nominated some journalists who are in the Commission to be members of the Commission as commissioners. And also SLAJ have got a representative who is here to seek the interest of SLAJ in the IMC.
And he is happy with all these things? 
Well, he is reporting. He is doing his work reporting to SLAJ what transpires in the IMC. So if SLAJ has any concern I would have thought that they should have removed their representative from the Commission. But they never did. Therefore what is the basis of their concerns? To me there is no rationality in that.
Ambassador, you are a lawyer, a well respected one at that, which is what many people have been referring to when they discuss the issue of IMC. You have been here for over a year now. You have acquainted yourself with some of the legal issues concerning the appointments and formation of the IMC. I would really like you to tell me from a legal point of view if everything that had happened had happened accordingly, because you are telling me that the Information ministry was the intermediary and you said you don’t know whether they contacted SLAJ and SLAJ have said severally   that they were not consulted. Have you taken time to make enquires?
If SLAJ was not consulted, why did SLAJ send a representative to come and represent them ok?
That’s a good question
They would have withdrawn their representative. But they never did and in fact by appointing somebody to represent them means that they would have been contacted for them to nominate that person to represent them here. So I find it very difficult to see the rationality of their argument.
From your introduction, obviously since you came to the IMC you haven’t got what you expected.
Well, I am beginning to see the vision clearer under the tunnel. The new crop of journalists who have been appointed to serve the executive I have seen some corporative move from them. For example, when we suspended 13 newspapers and radio stations, they came to prevail on me to put a hold on the suspension.
Including the president?
No, the president did not come but he sent his Secretary General and a very senior member of the profession in Sierra Leone. He sent a very senior person and on the basis of their intervention, we were able to put on hold the suspension until tomorrow (July 1). Those newspapers we suspended and because the date is fast approaching tomorrow, we have requested a meeting with SLAJ and the editors, including Mr. Theo Harding, who is a very good journalist, very good communicator and a very good administrator. I have tremendous respect for him. So we have summoned them to a meeting so that we can map out a way forward because if they don’t pay by tomorrow, July 1, then we are going to initiate an action and that may include legal actions.
None of them have paid?
They have started paying. Some have paid because of the intervention of the Guild of editors and SLAJ.
Beside your relationship with the journalist leadership, your relationship with journalists in general has been at an all time low. Most of the complaints that I have heard are that your decisions are too hash in suspending media institutions and this is not the first time. What’s your response to that?
My response is that we are not harsh and that our relationship with journalists, you cannot believe it, is very, very good. It is only the leadership of SLAJ that has not been working closely with the IMC. The journalists in general have been very supportive and we have a good relationship. But the relationship with the leadership of SLAJ has been lukewarm and frosty. I would have thought that the leadership of SLAJ would provide policy direction and leadership direction for the institution of SLAJ.
I don’t know how you have measure that, because you have just presided over the suspension of an unprecedented number of media houses, and the latest one, which is 13, that’s a huge number. I have been reading comments since your announcement and some of them are not happy. They are even calling for SLAJ not to corporate. That doesn’t sound like they are happy with you.
What they are failing to realise is that we take action on the basis of our constitutive documents. We have the media code of practice and then we have the IMC Act, and we also have the document…the media code of practice produced by SLAJ. When we are taking decisions we consult all those documents and we make sure that whatever decision we arrive at is not at variance with the law. Everything we do is in conformity with the law.
People come to the complaint committee, they present their evidence and the defendant is given the opportunity to present their evidence and you cannot believe it, when we ask the defendants ‘do you have anything to say, do you stand by your story?’ And they say no. ‘Do you do your investigations well?’ They say no. ‘Do you think your story is accurate?’ They say no, it’s not accurate on the basis of what we have heard.
And most of the fines that we invoke, they are not draconian because we have the power to invoke a fine as high as up to five million leones. But we don’t.
You said they are not draconian but most of the sections from which you invoke these fines leave it open…but most often you choose the upper side.
No. It depends on the kind of offence. For accuracy we can fine up to half a million leones. But there are other fines and there are other specific areas which the code gives us the power to invoke a fine not exceeding five million Leones, and when it says not exceeding five million leones, you can go for the maximum. It depends on the gravity of the complaint.
The way you invoke these fines, people are asking what your intention is, because most of these media institutions you fine do not have that kind of money
You know, that’s why we are very sympathetic. The IMC is media friendly, that’s why we tamper justice with mercy. Most of the journalists they bring before us, we don’t fine them. We just warn them. We don’t fine them on matters like in-print or matters like ethics; there are many things we do here which the journalists do not know. Most times we call them and give them a tap on their back and say don’t do it again, and they go happily.
But not in all cases?
Yes not in all cases.
I can remember a case between Salone Times and a brother of the President [Ernest Bai Koroma]. You levied the maximum fine on the paper, and they were arguing that it was too much, beside the fact that they were not happy about how the whole investigation was done.
We did not fine them because the man is a brother to the president. We are not influenced by any political or political backing of anybody. We found that the man presented his evidence and the evidence was very substantial and Salone Time also presented their own evidence, and we believe that the evidence was in favour of the complainant. Therefore, we imposed a fine according to the media code of practice. So what Salone Times has done is that they have given us notice that they are going to court and we are also going to court. And by tomorrow (July 1), if they don’t pay then we will take action.
Are they among those who were suspended lately?
Yes, they are. And they have to pay. If they don’t pay we are also contemplating on going to court.
I was coming to that because recently you have lost one case which you said you are going to appeal
Yes and we have appealed
When you assumed office, I would like to know what your major priorities for the media were.
I had a vision when I came to the IMC, because as a teacher, I wanted to improve the professionalism of journalists. Therefore I wanted to engage on a wide spread systematic training programs in collaboration with the University [of Sierra Leone]. In fact we started that, we have trained journalists on how to report Ebola recovery issues. We also trained them on how to report major disasters. Now we want to train them on how to investigate, how to report and also train them on matters relating to the law, like criminal libel laws, seditious libel and slander. We want to bring competent lawyers to look into that and train them, but for now we are handicapped because of the unavailability of resources.
We have been hearing a lot on lack of resources
We have been on the radio stations, newspapers telling them, but it is not us alone, it cuts across the board. After this Ebola disease, the government had spent a lot of money on matters pertaining to Ebola. Therefore, we are very circumspective in criticising the government but we understand the problem, so the only thing is we keep reminding them to…provide us with the requisite resources to carry out our mandate.
Are those priorities still what you want to accomplish?
Yes. When I spoke with SLAJ I told them that I have a vision. And the other thing which we are trying to campaign on is to establish a vocational institute for journalists where, after Fourah Bay College, after university, they will come to train the ethics of the profession. And we are advocating that strongly. We are going to hold consultations with the universities to see how we can facilitate that
Have you not spoken with them already?
No. It’s an idea we are toying with.
I know that some of the commissioners here are lecturers at the FBC. I am wondering…at the college they are supposed to have done all these basics,..

Yes, I am also a lecturer at the law department in FBC. I think what we teach at the university, concerning the law, we give them the tools for them to be able to apply those tools when they would have left the university. But like the law school, they have the vocation which is where they come to practicalise what they have learnt and this is what the Mass Communication [department] is doing. It’s giving the students the tools so when they leave they have to practicalise those tools and some of them they come on internship here. I don’t think that’s enough. There should be a school where they should go to learn the tools of the profession, in other words to practicalise what they have learnt from the university.
In other words we need a journalism school which for sure we do not have?
Yes, we don’t have. You are spot on.
So how soon are we expecting that because I don’t think you need to get to the university authorities for that?
No. No. We need to consult them because the way I carry out decisions in my leadership in the IMC, I do it collectively. I consult every commissioner here and I even go to the extent of consulting the staff to find out what they think about a certain issue and it is after my consultation, before we take a decision, that I know the thinking of some of my commissioners who are lecturers at the university.
Is it your thinking that there is too much unprofessionalism in the Sierra Leone media?
Too much unprofessionalism, and the reason behind the unprofessionalism is the ignorance of the young journalists who do not know what the profession demands. Journalism is a very important profession in the governance of a state. Go to US, go to UK, go to Ghana, go to Nigeria, you heard in Ghana where a journalist was responsible for the sacking of so many judges. So you understand… So we need to have that calibre of journalists, but before we can get them we need to train them…Acquiring a diploma or degree from the university is not enough.
You don’t think we have some of them, because journalism did not start today in Sierra Leone?
Yes, we do have them. Recently they have established a veteran journalists association. Those people can help in the training. Christo Johnson, Mr Koryama, these are seasoned journalists. They can assist the development of the younger ones.
Earlier you said that you were not influenced by any political interest. It’s interesting…the case you lost against David Tam-Baryoh. He has accused you of having been influenced by politics. He cited an example when his programme was suspended after complaints by a cabinet minister
That is wrong. In Tam Baryoh’s case he was not suspended because of the matter. The matter he had, about the cabinet minister, was a separate one. We sat on that and we made a decision. I think he was fined or whatever. We suspended Monologue because we believed that monologue had the potential to incite public disorder in Sierra Leone. The way he talks, the program lasts for five hours, he talks from 9:00 pm till about 5:00 in the morning and the statements he made like… he says ‘if you know what I know’… It has the potential to incite public disorder. Even me as chairman, Sierra Leone comes first. I cannot sit here and allow Tam Bayor, no matter how big he may be, to incite public disorder. And we have just come out of a war for nearly twelve years. So it has to be within the confines of the law. The Office of National Security could have taken action but they never did. The police came here they said they wanted to arrest a journalist, I said not in our premises…
So on the one hand you are summoning them and on the other hand you are pleading on their behalf
Absolutely, we are balanced. We are putting our mandate into professionalism. We don’t only protect the interest of the public but we also protect the interest of the journalists. When Jonathan Leigh was taken to the police head quarters I went there and I demonstrated. I said he should be released and then the police said ‘well, Ambassador, if it were a civil matter…but you don’t have the mandate. It’s a criminal libel.’ So the police said I could not interfere. But I went there
IMC was set up as an alternative to the courts system, but with the case of Jonathan Leigh and others, these people, whoever they are, by passed the IMC. Are you happy with this?
We are not happy but they said it is a case of criminal libel law and whatever. We are looking at that. That is why we are revisiting the 1965 Public Order Act, Part 5. We are looking at it carefully together with the minister of Information and Communication and the office of the Attorney General, to see if we can repeal those sections…
The only problems we have now is what are we going to replace them with. There are suggestions that they should be civil defamation and things like that.
Ok, whiles we are on that, I would like to know, you as a legal practitioner as well as the head of the IMC, don’t you think that going to court directly on matters of the media undermines the IMC? 
No. No. They are not undermining the IMC. That is the law for now and we as the law abiding institution set up by parliament, we have got to obey the law. The law is the law; until that law is repealed, I cannot say they are undermining the IMC because it’s in the law. If it was not in the law then we would have said it’s undermining the IMC. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s the law.
So can you tell us whether the law is a bad or good one?
No. No, I can’t tell
Now with the issue of Tam-Baryoh, you suspended his program [Monologue] not Tam-Baryoh. The fact remains he was doing another program, even without the name. Did that make any sense to you?
We could have taken action against Tam-Baryoh because the program continued, even though under a different name [One-on-One…The nature of the program is the same as monologue. We did not want again to go to court on the One-on-One thing. It would have been presented as if we are targeting Tam-Baryoh; but no we are not. This is why I advised the IMC that we should just let the sleeping dog lies.
Recently, you were brought to parliament over some money you could not account for. What was this about?
No, no, no. There is no money we cannot account for. The issue was that whether the board sanctioned or ratified the expeditions of that money. So we were able to prove that the board sanctioned the expenditures…so the issue was closed.
Generally, you said there is a lot of unprofessionalism in the profession. But since you took over has there been any improvement?
There has been tremendous improvement because normally they were publishing pictures of dead bodies and naked pictures of women involved in sex cases. They have stopped. The level of professionalism has increased.
Is that because you are hard, do you think?
I will not ascribe to it. But it’s probably because we keep training them and keep informing them that they have some ethics which they have to conform with.
© Politico 15/07/16

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