By Ragan M. Conteh
A handful of members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery on Wednesday 20th May 2020 were denied entry in Parliament. The journalists had wanted to cover the ongoing Committee on NaCSA and NGOs sitting with the Commissioner of NaCSA, Bockarie Kokofele and team of officials at Committee Room No.1.
According to the Committee Clerk, the suspension of media coverage at the moment is an instruction coming from the Clerk of Sierra Leone Parliament, Hon. Paran Tarwally.
Many journalists, who were victims of the rejection, revealed that the decision was not communicated in advance to members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The reason for the rejection is still doubtful.
The Deputy Clerk of Parliament, Mohamed Lebbie, in his statement, informed that he was not aware of any such decision.
It could be recalled that the Parliament of Sierra Leone, through the Clerk of Parliament, has recently issued a press release informing that members of the media who wished to report on Parliamentary proceedings should apply through the Clerk of Parliament.
The Parliament, through the Clerk of Parliament, demands that the following documents will be required of every journalist wishing to be accredited by the Parliamentary Media Accreditation Committee, including CV and photocopies of relevant documents, academic qualification of at least a diploma in Mass Communication/Journalism or any other discipline from a recognized University/College.
The Parliamentary release also stated that a media practitioner who wish to cover Parliamentary proceedings should have at least a period of two years of practicing journalism, a photocopy of a valid operational licenses granted by the IMC, being a member of SLAJ or having practiced for several years is an advantage.
The development has raised serious debate in the media, stating that the criteria put for the media is baseless while others welcome the process that aims to streamline the media thereby weeding out the bad eggs and those purporting to be media practitioners.
The Guild of Newspapers (SL), in their press release, also notes with deep concern the contents of a press release dated 15th May, 2020, issued by the Clerk of Parliament setting eligibility criteria for journalists who wish to be accredited to report Parliamentary proceedings.
According to the Guild of Editors, while the Guild understands the need for credible and accurate reporting of parliamentary proceedings, setting out such eligibility criteria for journalists is tantamount to an unjustified restriction of their access to Parliamentary proceedings.
There are journalistic associations, such as the Guild of Newspaper Editors, the Sierra Leone Reporters Union, the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, which assist in regulating the conduct and practice of journalists in Sierra Leone.
The Guild of Newspaper Editors said there is also the Independent Media Commission, a body set up by an Act of Parliament to regulate the media.
Additionally, according to the Guild of Newspaper Editors, they wish to draw the attention of the Clerk of Parliament to Section 25 (1) of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, which states that “Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression.”
He continued that, for the purpose of this section, the said freedom includes the freedom to hold opinion and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, freedom from interference with his correspondence…” The Guild furthered that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Sierra Leone is a signatory and many other international human rights instruments, guarantees citizens’ right to hold their government to account.
It is their considered position, therefore, that the eligibility criteria set out by the Clerk of Parliament should be the sole function of SLAJ or any of the professional bodies regulating journalists in Sierra Leone.
Consequently, they stated, the Guild of Newspaper Editors views the latest request by Parliament as a form of censorship and a calculated attempt to muzzle free and independent press in Sierra Leone.
The Guild of Newspaper Editors, therefore, calls for an immediate review of the eligibility criteria set out in the aforementioned press release with the view to granting journalists an unfettered access to Parliamentary proceedings.
In a related development, the President and a cross section of Executive members of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) have held a meeting on Wednesday 20th May 2020 with the Clerk of Parliament in his office at the House of Parliament, Parliament Building, Tower Hill, Freetown.
The said meeting is not unconnected with the press release from Parliament through the Clerk of Parliament to amicably resolve and put the issue to rest.
By Ragan M. Conteh