By Allieu S. Tunkara
At Council of Churches Sierra Leone (CCSL) building on Kingherman Road in Freetown, Media practitioners, representatives of the Independent Media Commission (IMC), Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT) came together in an interactive fashion to discuss the need for partnership and other issues confronting their professions.
The IMC regulates media institutions, and NASSIT administers the pension scheme and SLAJ is the umbrella body for the country’s media practitioners. Proprietors of various media institutions, managing editors and radio station managers were there.
NASSIT officials saw it as an opportunity to explain the operations of their institutions to dispel misconceptions. It was a big opportunity for few journalists who have never laid hands on NASSIT’s legal and policy frameworks. During the deliberations, the media poverty factor came up and occupied centre stage.
The pace for discussions on media poverty was set by Reverend Dr Father Victor Suma, an erudite lecturer in the Mass Communication Department. Dr Suma informed the participants that media poverty is clear in Sierra Leone, a situation that breeds the ‘Yellow Press’ phenomenon.
Put in plain terms, ‘Yellow Press’ means ‘Attack Collect and Defence Collect.’
It could also be explained that a media practitioner could blackmail a highly placed person in society and later collect money to defend the image.
Dr Suma also touched on the survival through press card syndrome which, he said, had become an integral part of the ‘Yellow Press.’ Most media institutions, he went on, had no definite payment plan. The card is the main means of survival, and survival through the card is a form of unprofessionalism.
In this situation, the personality is afflicted in his comfort zone for extortion by a media practitioner. Sierra Leone has witnessed a number of blackmails and extortions under the yellow press syndrome. A professor of good years standing in the University of Sierra Leone became uneasy when a newspaper publication accused him of a deficiency of intellectual integrity.
The publication indicated that the professor plagiarised his doctoral thesis. The publication forced the professor to solicit the service of an experienced media practitioner to organise a press conference to clear his name.
The press conference was held, and a lot of money went into it. The result was favourable as misconceptions about the professor’s academic credentials were cleared. It is not clear whether the journalists who organised the press conference was the publisher of the damaging story. It could be him; who knows.
Other very important personalities have experienced similar situations. At a time such publications were made, the seditious and criminal laws were in force.
But, victims of the scathing publications would prefer to keep mute to going into litigations. The only media therapy available to them is to hold a press conference where journalists assemble for facts to rectify the misleading and damaging publications.
Much ink has been spilled in media poverty discourse. In the state-of-the-Media Series, a column created by lecturers of Mass Communication Department, the notion of media poverty occupies a prominent place there. Late Professor Richard M’bayo did a wonderful research on media poverty resulting into the publication of a book titled: ‘Media Poverty.’
The book was part of the references cited by Dr Francis Sowa in his Doctoral thesis tiled: ‘Application of strategic Management Principles to Media Operations in Sierra Leone.’
In his Viva Voce (defence) at the School of Post-Graduate Studies Fourah Bay College, Dr Sowa agreed with the professor on his conception and analysis of Media Poverty, but went further to discuss on the absence of media accountability.
Dr Sowa argued that the media is poor but non-accountability by media owners worsened an already polarised media situation. The philosophical and analytical expositions of highly honoured academics have indicated that the media is poor and media owners are not accountable. Practical instances have also portrayed Sierra Leone media as poor.
But, parastatals and other notable corporate entities must not allow the media to be continuously relegated to the dustbin.
Many and varied investment opportunities exist in the media. Parastatals notably NASSIT can come into invest in machines, materials used in the production of newspapers, loan facilities to media institutions and sometimes grants or part ownership.
Sierra Leone takes pride in fine journalists and writers, but the wherewithal for effective media institutions are not there.
In the business world, money comes first.
Media institutions, no doubt, are business institutions and thus need money for their viability, profitability and sustainability.
The preponderance of money in running media institutions lends credence to the political economy philosophy. The political economy theory was well established in the work of Dr Binneh Kamara titled: ‘The legislative and Regulatory Framework of the Media: Making a Case for Effective Media Regulation In Sierra Leone.’
In his work, Dr Kamara argued that any institution within the state is a mere superstructure that needs money for its effective running. It is indeed incontrovertible that money is a cardinal prerequisite in the running of the media.
However, a precise and sound management structures have to be in place if media institutions should be placed among the category of serious business institutions.
Media institutions in Sierra Leone are still confronted with a number of management problems that still weigh down hard on them. Newspapers in Sierra Leone recently woefully failed to qualify for a 10, 000 Euros grant from the European Union for effective and sustained environmental reporting.
Several newspapers applied, but none qualified. None could produce relevant documents such as editorial policies, codes-of-conduct, gender and non-discriminatory policies, business plans, strategic plans, bank statements and other evidences of financial transactions, payment vouchers among others.
Since these documents are conspicuously absent in media institutions, the money was reserved for other purpose.
It is thus my argument that no matter how vigorously the state pursues prudent steps of media reformation, the dream would hardly be realised if not entrenched within a solid framework of sound management practice.
Management experts in the media could be built up through training. It is another virgin area for investors and other well-meaning organisations.