Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sierra Leone parliament slams temporary ban on coverage of budgetary hearing

By Kemo Cham
[First published on] Sierra Leone’s Parliament has invoked a controversial in-house rule forbidding journalists from reporting on ongoing budgetary hearing, with critics equating the move to lack of transparency.
Members of the parliamentary press gallery were surprised when they were informed on Thursday that they wouldn’t be allowed in on the first day of hearing of the 2017 Appropriation Bill (budget) at committee level due to the invocation of Standing Order 75. This rule forbids “premature” publication
of contents and evidence of proceedings of hearings until after the Committees’ reports have been presented to the well of parliament.
There are six Appropriation Committees which vet government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) in terms of their budgetary requests. A total of 125 MDAs will appear before these committees within the next coming days to defend their budgetary requests and explain how previous allocations were spent.
These hearings usual begin at the end of the debate that followed the presentation of the budget by the Minister Finance to the well of parliament.
Sheku Lamin Turay, a Senior Public Relations Officer at Parliament, told Politico that the decision was in line with the rules of the House which were necessary to ensure accurate reportage of proceedings. But Turay denied that journalists were prevented from covering the proceedings
“Members of parliament thought it fit that at this stage, members of the press are allowed to witness the proceeding but not to report on it, until when the matter is taken to the well of parliament,” he said on a telephone interview.
Critics say some of the parliamentary Standing Orders that prevent reporting of parliament hearings are bad and should be discarded.
According to sources, the Ministry of Defence was one of the MDAs represented during Thursday’s hearings. At that session all journalists who were supposed to cover it were prevented from entering the room. Turay said that’s because such sessions were protected under SO 79 due to the security implications.
A parliamentary press gallery member said the office of the Clerk of Parliament informed them that the decision was taken to prevent a recurrence of a previous experience from reportage that attracted bad press thereby creating negative perception of the House.
The human rights campaign organization CHRDI condemned the parliament’s decision, calling for the removal of the rules from the Standing Order of the House.
Abdul Fatoma, CHRDI's Executive Director, said the law is "very bad” for transparency and shows disrespect for democracy.
“The Sierra Leone Parliament’s impunity is back in action. Some Politicians and civil servants have undermined the fundamental principle of democracy. But others still back it, despite its faults, using parliamentary standing order, in order to deny journalists access to the country’s budget hearing. It's a clear disrespect to our democracy,” he said via a facebook communication from his base in London.
But Turay denied that the rules are there to curtail access to information or the liberty to report.
“Members of the press gallery are supporting us as part of our strategic media alliance. And we have a responsibility also to ensure that they report accurately,” he said.
He said discussions at the committee level are inconclusive and certain matter of reportage on them could have bad effect. He cited the example of a recent report on a local tabloid which warranted the Parliament to summon the editor for questioning.
The case precisely involves the Salone Times newspaper, whose editor was summoned to appear before parliament after the paper published a story alleging conflict of interest involving Presidential Adviser Alpha Kanu. Parliament found the report as misleading and as incorrect by the House.
“These are the kind of things that we are trying to prevent. Because once the matter is before the committee it remains inconclusive until the decision is taken to the well of parliament.”

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