Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sierra Leone journalists union pushes for self-regulation

By Kemo Cham
[First published on] The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has put in motion a system of self-regulation in a bid to win public support for greater press freedom.
The association last week kick started a campaign to popularize its revised Code of Ethics which seeks to promote professionalism among its members.
SLAJ president, Kelvin Lewis, was quoted saying journalists should choose between journalism and politics and that genuine practitioners should endeavor to let the public easily distinguish them from impostors.

Speaking at a training session on the Code, Lewis said professionalism was required at all times but especially so under a system with a tendency to stifle press freedom.
SLAJ recently upped its acts against unprofessionalism which anti-press freedom agents have used as a pretext to reign in on genuine journalists. One weapon that has been used is the notorious criminal libel law which leaves journalists in perpetual fear of jail.
Alongside other organizations, SLAJ has been championing a campaign to have that law removed. And in other to ensure its members do not stifle that prospect, it embarked on a number of initiatives, one of which is the review of its outdated Code of Ethics which entails a comprehensive guideline checking practitioners’ excesses.
Reviewed by a three-man committee, the 20-article document deals widely with challenges faced by media practitioners in the field and in the news room; it touches on freedom and responsibility; transparency and accountability; truth and facts; accuracy, fairness; privacy; confidentiality; conflict of interest; and decency.
"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," Lewis told a group of fellow journalists.
"That is why we should stand out as professionals in main stream media as well as in social media platforms… (and) weed out all those fake journalists giving us a bad name,” he added.
The current SLAJ Code of Ethics has been in existence as long as the association, getting amended along the way. But media rights activists say current development in the world of communication called for a comprehensive review.
Mass Communication lecturer, Joshua Nicol, heads the review committee. He said two key sections have been added on defamation and digital media.
The committee studied journalistic codes of a number of countries, including Ghana, Nigeria, US, UK, and Canada, from which the SLAJ Code was adopted to fit the Sierra Leonean socio-cultural, political and professional reality.
Nicol, a lecturer at the Mass Communication Department of the Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, said they found out that there was hardly much difference between the code in one country to another.
Journalism is a universal profession, he said, noting that ethics in one country is almost the same in another and that all journalists needed to do is to respect the ABC of journalism - balance, accuracy and credibility, truthfulness, and factual reporting.
SLAJ hopes that with the code on defamation, complaints will be handled by the association’s complaint organ and addressed so that complainants don’t feel the need to resort to court action.
“We should take pride in regulating ourselves, in looking at issues professionally,” Nicol said, adding that in the court lawyers do not look for professionalism, rather they look legality.
Digital media includes the online platforms and social media. And hard-line anti-press freedom agents have found it hard to differentiate between journalists and citizen journalists who mostly operate on social media.
The code on digital media is therefore designed to force mainstream practitioners to distinguish themselves from citizen journalists, said Mr Nicol, noting that the same rules go for both digital and established media and that that the idea they want to instill in SLAJ members.
“As a SLAJ member, whatever you generate will be subjected to scrutiny in line with the Code and the IMC Code of Practice,” he said.
Due to poor remuneration, Sierra Leonean journalists have for a long time had an excuse for accepting money from newsmakers, which many believe influences reportage on important public interest issues. This falls under bribery in the revised Code.
Nico, who also chairs the SLAJ Complaints and Disciplinary Committee, said they are looking at the possibility of extending its composition from the current three members. They want to bring in civil society representatives so that once decisions are taken on cases the public readily accept the verdict.
There is also the plan to prescribe specific penalties for offences.
According to the current Code, the committee makes recommendation to the general membership for penalty. Nicol thinks the penalty should be clear for each breach so that journalists will know what they are up against.

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