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Independent Media Commission Vs Philip Neville…..A Case Of When The Cat’s Away

It was on the newspapers, the radio stations that the Proprietor, Publisher and Executive Editor of the Standard Times Newspaper has been fined Le 500,000 by the Independent Media Commission (IMC) in a matter between the Opposition SLPP and the Standard Times Press. That the Commission found him guilty of publishing articles that were inaccurate and incorrect which was discovered to be unprofessional. The release was directed at the person of the Executive Editor and not the establishment.

 

This was done two weeks back when the Commissioners realized that the Executive Editor was out of the country, and thought it fit to use the opportunity with one accord to embarrass him in his absence and satisfy their political godfathers. Perhaps, it was another clever way of maintaining the fragile peace and put the journalist on the slaughter house for the good of the nation. If that was the view, intention and desire of the Commissioners to sacrifice professionalism for peace so be it.

What remains visible in the performance of this brand of Commissioners of the Independent Media Commission is their pledge of loyalty to politicians at the detriment of professional journalism in the country. They have succeeded in exposing media practitioners to public ridicule and hate, thus resulting to a cross section of the public having disregard for journalists, the endanger specie in this small state called Sierra Leone.

 

The objective of regulating the media in the interest of the profession and the greater good for the greater majority of the public has been conceptualized differently by them. To them the journalists are always wrong and the public is right, giving credence not only to institutional corruption but putting the journalists on the firing line; even when media practitioners go the extra mile to prove the correctness of their publications by  providing documentary  and human evidence to collaborate their testimonies to the Commission.

 

Over ten editors are now victims of the Independent Media Commission, which is putting them in a state of frustration, disillusionment and lack of confidence in the Commission. At the end of every month each of the Commissioners collects over Le1.5Million as salary, excluding top-up cards for the big guys and mamas. These exclude salary collected from their regular jobs as Lecturers at the University and other government institutions and are still crying for more. Donor funds from goodwill institutions like Dfid, British High Commission you name it are extra package as they would have to be served with chicken wings after every sitting and Commissioners special meetings.

 

So while the Journalists are suffering to secure a day’s meal our Commissioners are double dippers and living in luxury. This is how they regulate the media in the country, with exorbitant fines levied on selected newspapers under the guise of professional misconduct. The journalists unfortunately are not privilege to ask whether or not these exorbitant fines are paid into the consolidated fund or used to assist media institutions that are struggling to grow and compete in this small newspaper market with little or no adverts coming to meet production cost and pay salaries to reporters and staffs.

 

The irony is that some of the Journalists appointed by SLAJ in the last Annual General Meeting (AGM) held in the second city of Bo to represent their interest cannot manage a four-page daily newspaper or a village Community Radio Station to achieve a success story, but are now flying on the winds and goodwill of the struggling Journalists who are moving from one corner of the city of Freetown to another in search of news story.

 

The SLPP case against the Standard Times has opened the eyes of the doubting Thomas’s who initially thought that the Independent Media Commission was established to regulate the media in the country to grow, expand and compete with other media institutions in the sub-region. The conclusion is now obvious that its purpose is to serve the interest of politicians and political alliance of some members of the Commission.

 

The bias posture was adopted by the Commission against the Standard Times when the paper published the first article. The Chairperson of the Commission, Mrs. Bernadette Cole immediately called the newspaper office and requested the editorial staff to surrender evidence of the publication, something that had never happened since the formation of the Commission on the flimsy excuse that they are now adopting pro-active measures.

 

It may sound unbelievable that such move was taken and pressure mounted, even when there was no Complainant in the matter. By the close of the day a Complainant in the person of El-Tayib Bah had emerged after some telephone calls were made. Mondays had never been scheduled for hearing of complaints but the Commission rescheduled its activities and made it possible that hearings commenced that very day.

 

The term pro-active measure was only applicable to the Standard Times and not a radio station that was calling for the intervention of the military when the SLPP Headquarters was allegedly attacked some months back. The insistence or demand for evidence sent the message that a grand plan had already been orchestrated to make journalism a more uncomfortable profession for the newspaper executive editor.

 

Reading from their eyes as they assembled at the Great Hall of Kissy House, speaking body language to one another it was certain that justice was going to be traded at the detriment of investigative journalism. The Commissioner from Sorogbema was most uncomfortable. His face became darker; while the other Commissioners concealed their feelings waiting for the evidence to be tendered which had already been whispered to them was in the possession of the Defendant.

 

Without speaking it loud and clear, observers could tell where there interest lies and their determination to twist the outcome of the proceedings. The Defendant in his submission requested for neutral players and experts in the fields of investigation and voice to be present before the recorded Cassette could be tendered in evidence. But this is not what they wanted, nor was there any need for media coverage as required by both the Media Code and Act of the Commission to be done. It should be only the business of the Commission and the public notified later.

 

The Inspector General of Police, Brima Acha was contacted to provide Police personnel, which he did in the person of superintendent Sheku, a seasoned crime buster and Lawyer Cherenor Bah, Member of Parliament, David Tam-Baryoh of the Citizen Radio, El-Tayib Bah and a Lawyer  were all present when the recorded Cassette of the meeting was  surrendered to the Commission. It was played, replayed, replayed and was later collected by Mrs. Bernadette Cole Chairperson to be transcribed by someone she called a professional at the English Department. Mr. El-Tayib Bah raised no objection before and after the Cassette was played and replayed, but said jokingly “I know where this Cassette was recorded. It was done at Kingtom Bridge”

 

The meeting ended with some of the Commissioners returning home with mixed feelings, the Commissioners from Sorogbema and Kailahun were disappointed as was evidently visible on their faces. Another meeting was scheduled, this time on a Wednesday when copies of the transcribed materials were handed over to both the Defendant and the Complainant, with no objection from anyone of them about the contents of the recorded Cassette.

 

Two days after the distribution of the evidence, the Standard Times published verbatim the document. The publication of the document which was done in the interest of the public angered Mrs. Bernadette Cole and some of the Commissioners and a fine of Le500, 000 was to be imposed on the Executive Editor, but was later squashed after some pep talks done by the Commissioners. Candidly, the public was disappointed over the entire proceedings, especially when they were not giving the opportunity to listen to the contents and make an assessment of it.

 

Without consulting the officer from the Sierra Leone Police Force to get his professional opinion about what he listened to, Lawyer Cherenor Bah and others who were present at the Independent Media Commission on the day the Cassette was released and played, the Commissioners issued out a press statement signed by all of them, even those who were not present at the time deliberations on the matter were conducted like Mr. Ade Bell signed the statement condemning the Standard Times and its Executive Editor and further imposed a Five Hundred Thousand Leones fine  on him.

 

What is amazing is that a Commission of more than seven individuals, there was no dissenting voice, but all concurred and supported; which gives a clear indication of the type of people SLAJ nominated to represent the interest of journalism in the country and government nominees too. At the time they jointly and knowingly took the decision with one accord Philip Neville was out of the country.

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