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MUSTAPHA SESAY DECLARATION OF INTENTION TO CONTEST THE 2013 SLAJ PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

The Chairperson, Mr. President and other members of the outgoing National and Regional Executives, veteran colleagues, old and young SLAJ members, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, it is with special pleasure, honour and a deep sense of humility that I welcome you all to yet another important event in the 42nd year history of our noble association, which incidentally marks 15 years of my committed service to the organization.

Let me first of all express my profound gratitude and appreciation to all of you for honouring my invitation to attend this ceremony at short notice, despite your busy schedules. This does not only demonstrate your individual commitments to our Association, but also the value you attach to my relationship with you and the relationship between you and the Association.

 

As you are already aware, the purpose for gathering all of you here today is to formally declare my intention to contest for the position of President of our Association, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), in the forthcoming National and Regional Elections scheduled for Saturday, April 13, by the grace of the Almighty.

You will recall that about two years ago in March 2011, as your outgoing National Secretary General, I contested against the incumbent President, Mr. Umaru Fofana and for reasons known to all of us. Mr. Fofana won that election, after what clearly emerged as one of the most acrimonious and controversial electioneering process ever in the history of SLAJ presidential elections.

However, as part of the reconciliatory move on my part, I congratulated him and even danced with him, including some of you on stage at that jam-packed Trinity Hall in Kenema that evening.

Besides, all of you can attest to the fact that in all of these, I have also remained very active and prompt in honouring my subscriptions and attending and participating in meetings and events of our Association.

But that notwithstanding, the systematic campaign of calumny against my person by certain members of our association did not cease.

Thankfully, through the will, grace and supremacy of the Almighty and the support I received from some of you, I have not only been honourably vindicated from all those baseless allegations and negative attributes ascribed to me in the past, I have equally enjoyed satisfactory relationships – official as well as personal – with all of my former colleagues in that executive, whose support I have even sought and I’m confident of securing in this presidential bid.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, as already indicated, I am not highlighting these issues just to open up old wounds – as all that is now History. But to enable us reflect on the past and where we are coming from, which clearly demonstrates that we have all in one way or the other shared the joy and pain, as well as the good, bad and ugly names on the path of uplifting the status of SLAJ and preserving its heritage.

I believe this is not for anything else, rather than the love and good intentions all of us have for our Association, but using different approaches. That is however the beauty of democracy – respect for diversity!

I am sure you will all spare me a moment to thank our outgoing President, Mr. Umaru Fofana and my former Assistant National Secretary General and later Secretary General, Mr Ismael Koroma, among other colleagues, for not only joining me to put the past behind us for the collective good of our Association, but for also agreeing to co-opt me in October 2012 into the executive rank of the association as a means of restoring stability, following weeks of unease during the 2012 Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council electioneering period.

I was not only impressed by the overwhelming support that my nomination received from those of you who attended that meeting at the SLAJ Headquarters, but by the fact that it came from no less a person than the National Secretary General then, Mr Ismael Koroma. Although at the end of the day things did not work out exactly as planned, I still deeply appreciate the confidence that you reposed in me, which implies that as a professional association, we are now more than ever before genuinely prepared to put the past behind us in order to avoid sliding back into the mistakes of our recent past.

Therefore, let me use this singular honour and opportunity to urge all of you to be henceforth resilient and selfless in promoting and protecting the principles and values of SLAJ as some of us have been doing over the years, with the firm conviction that come what may, our Association remains our collective constituency and interest – bigger and more powerful than our individual wills and might. We must therefore not seek pride in blackmailing the Association when the going gets tough.

At this juncture, let us now briefly reflect on the status of our Association in order to understand our current situation.

Over the years, SLAJ, like every other public or private institution, has registered success stories as well as challenges and failings. But I am sure you will all agree with me that despite the setbacks of our recent past, a lot was achieved during the first half of the first term of the Umaru Fofana regime, when I was head of the National Secretariat.

Even with the cloud of credibility hanging over the media today, some of those achievements have remained outstanding in our Association’s history. Despite the fact that I was at the centre of those success stories, I believe Mr. Fofana should also be commended for spearheading them as President, including all of us who constituted the first term of his leadership during which those feats were performed, shortly before the sun went down.

Those accomplishments included securing a suitable National Secretariat (with a conference hall) for SLAJ and three of its affiliates and the establishment of regional offices through support from UNDP and the British High Commission. In addition, upgrading our status to full membership with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), securing affiliate status with the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), creating a social media forum and institutional web site www.slaj.sl for the first time ever in the history of our Association, with support from Talking Drums Studio – even if it was short-lived, and galvanizing our younger colleagues in advancing the cause of the Association; that is, in the defence of press freedom and freedom of expression.

Other peculiar areas of achievement by us included the adoption of a minimum wage for journalists in employment – even if that remains in principle, reviving the Sport Writers Association of Sierra Leone (SWASAL), successfully negotiating with the National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM) the reduction of licences fees for community radio stations, conducting credible elections for our key affiliates, and securing scholarship opportunities for some of our colleagues.

However, despite all these successes, and from the signs of the times, following the recently concluded General Elections, it goes without saying that our Association continues to face serious institutional and credibility challenges. There is therefore a lot more to do.

During those elections, the SLBC – the only national public service broadcaster – and the independent media did not only prove herculean to manage, but faced serious credibility challenges, resulting in a media crisis, which seriously haunted all of us. That crisis was not only a problem for SLAJ, but even for other key media stakeholder institutions such as the Independent Media Commission (IMC) and other democratic institutions, as politicians battled with each other day in, day out for control of the independent media, using all sorts of tactics, including kickbacks.

The leadership of the Guild of Editors which should have somehow contributed to rescuing the situation was also weak, and therefore handicapped to do anything about it.

At the peak of the campaign period, it was a sad reality that our Association lost control over most of its membership and its affiliate bodies. Its credibility and political neutrality also dropped to an all-time low; and even as I address you, we are still grappling with the fallouts.

Therefore, no one among us today needs to be reminded anymore that SLAJ is facing one of the most serious contemporary challenges in its 42-year history as a national professional body, as evidenced in the general loss of interest in its activities and programmes by most of our colleagues as well as our partners and the public.

I am therefore aware that the task ahead of us is daunting. But as a unifier and trouble-shooter who hopes to rise above divisiveness, pettiness and partisan politics, I am convinced that the task is not insurmountable; and the unavoidability of the challenge requires, among other things, our collective will to forge ahead in solidarity, backed by a dynamic, tolerant, credible and responsible leadership, which you all know I am capable of providing.

The Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, suffice it to say that challenges are normal in public as well as private institutions. Therefore, no institution has operated the world over without them. They are therefore not peculiar to SLAJ.

In fact, it is worthy to note that in every circumstance, weaknesses and threats have the potential to make such institutions even stronger if strategically addressed.

If other associations have been able to overcome similar or even tougher challenges, I see no reason why we can’t sail through ours as well, with hard work and a collective will to do so.

With a legacy of commitment to service, I will endeavour to lead my team to do the best we can to overcome those critical challenges. That includes, tapping your vast potentials and making the most of our limited resources, when you accord me the honour and opportunity to serve you this time around as your President.

Among the actions required of all of us in the process is to reach out with the olive branch to those colleagues who have been frustrated or disappointed by the mistakes of the past, especially our veterans. We should prevail on all of those who have lost faith in the Association and those who have almost succeeded in blackmailing it by their individual actions and pronouncements, to come back home.

This approach, to me, will help reorient our minds in redirecting our energies towards restoring dignity and public trust to our Association once more. Then, unity and a collective sense of purpose will follow.

At this juncture, I believe I will renege in my duty here today if I fail to give credit where credit is due, having highlighted our shortcomings during the 2012 elections.

It is therefore my pleasure to acknowledge and applaud the positive and outstanding roles played by some of our colleagues, such as the Independent Radio Network (IRN) and Talking Drum Studio (TDS) in the coverage and reporting of the elections.

The support these institutions provided to civil society elections monitoring, civic and voter education, and their timely coverage and reporting of events was exemplary. These are among our credible affiliates and media associations that my executive will strengthen relationship with in advancing the values and principles of the media.

Moreover, the overall performance of the electronic media and a cross section of the print media was commendable. I say bravo! to those of you from Freetown to Kailahun, and from Koinadugu to Pujehun who stood up for what was right at the time when standing up for the truth as a journalist was the most difficult thing to do in our country!

Bravo again to the leaderships of Women in the Media (WIMSAL) Sierra Leone – our vibrant association of female journalists and media personnel, who celebrated their fifth anniversary this year and to the Sierra Leone Reporters Union (SLRU) – the ever-ready foot-soldiers of the media, among other SLAJ affiliates, for not allowing partisan interests to divide your memberships during those elections, despite persistent temptations.

The Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, once the electoral list has been finalized, my candidacy certified and campaigning activities legalized by the Chief Electoral Commissioner, my Campaign Team shall be presenting to you a comprehensive Manifesto, mapping out the path that we shall be treading on in our overriding desire to lead SLAJ to the kind of positive change it deserves.

As I pause to take a deep breath, I can already sense that some of you are curious to know whether I will be giving up my current job for the SLAJ presidency after voting me in. The answer is: a big “No!” because the SLAJ Presidency, like all other executive positions, is a voluntary position, not a form of employment or paid job. Besides, the 2001 SLAJ Constitution does not prevent anyone, including an executive member or emissary to any public institution from being in employment elsewhere, public or private, paid or not. The basic qualification to contest for National and Regional Executive positions is being a full member for at least three years and paid-up.

On the earlier concerns of some of you as to whether my current institution might have any reservation regarding my intention, the best I can say for now is that the Commission has a statutory mandate to promote and protect the rights of people to freely associate, among other human rights protected or guaranteed by the national Constitution and embodied in international human rights treaties to which Sierra Leone is a party. And it has been doing this with distinct professionalism as all of you can attest.

With my experience as a staff, I strongly believe that as long as such Association is not with a political entity and one’s new role will not undermine the institution’s mandate or adversely affect his/her output, there should be no cause for alarm.

It is all about planning; and fortunately, freedom of expression and of the press, the cardinal principles on which SLAJ was consecrated, are justifiable human rights that human rights and democratic institutions and organizations the world over are either mandated or obliged to promote and protect.

In other words, although the approaches might be different, ideally, the Commission and our Association will always be on the same page regarding the full enjoyment or exercise of these rights by journalists, activists and other human rights defenders in particular and other members of the public at large.

Colleagues, while serving you and our country over the years, I have proven my character and capacity to you; and with my added experience in public life especially in social justice and human rights advocacy and activism over the years, I am even better capacitated to achieve more in advancing the cause of the media and our collective interests.

Therefore, I can’t hope and trust beyond hope and trust that all of you SLAJ members watching and listening to me, will invest your trust and confidence in me this time round, as I have already entrusted mine in you.

I also hope and trust that even those of our colleagues whose busy schedules or physical locations could not permit them to be with us here today will do likewise.

As you can all see, I have always been actively engaged in both public and private life, with rich credentials. I am therefore going into this race neither for personal gains or selfish ambition, nor to promote partisan interests or mediocrity; but to prove to you once more that I have all it takes – character, energy, the time and the capacity to serve and inspire you, and also to rebrand the image of our Association.

I pledge to build upon the foundation already laid by my predecessors over the years, strengthen the weak pillars and fill the cracks in the process.

The chairperson, colleagues all, it is no gainsaying that while some of us have come a long way with SLAJ through thick and thin, it is SLAJ instead that has come a long way with those of our colleagues who have so far manifested an interest in contesting for this position in this election.

We must not mortgage the future of our association to aspiring leaders who have no solid achievement in the association to count on.

In that vein, let me use this opportunity to urge all of you to judge all of us who will be contesting for various executive positions at national as well as regional levels on our individual merits: our professional competencies, integrity and track records in SLAJ, in general media practice and in nation building, and not on unfounded allegations or vicious propaganda as obtained in the past.

Judge me particularly on my record as National Secretary General and Assistant Secretary General of SLAJ, as Commissioner at the Independent Media Monitoring and Refereeing Panel (I-MoRP) for the 2007 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections, as one of the pioneers of and National Coordinator of the Sierra Leone Media Code of Conduct for the Coverage and Reporting of National Elections, embedded in the national Media Code of Practice; as SLAJ Representative at the SLBS Transition Management Team; as Member of the Technical Committee of the IMC; as Coordinator of the National Debates for Mayoral Candidates in the 2008 Local Council Elections; as SLAJ Representative to the Sierra Leone Golden Jubilee or 50th Anniversary Planning Committee; and as SLAJ Project Officer and Programmes Coordinator by default to the two most recent Presidents, in the persons of Ibrahim Ben Kargbo and Umaru Fofana.

Judge me on my record as a core member of the Pro Tem Committee that revived the Sierra Leone Sports Writers Association (SWASAL), as Member of the IMC/Airtel National Media Awards Committee, as one of the brains behind the establishment of WIMSAL, SLRU and a few other SLAJ affiliate bodies; and as founding member of the Federation of African Journalists, to which SLAJ is an affiliate.

Judge me also on my achievements as a professional journalist, social media and human rights activist, and by my contributions to the protection of colleague journalists and activists who were being prosecuted and/or persecuted in the line of duty, and in the promotion and defence of press freedom and freedom of expression.

And judge me on my record in enhancing the technological capacity and advocacy skills of our Association and a reasonable number of you.

The Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, as we approach the Elections, I am sure that you are all aware that come what may, as a professional and industrial association, we have our good public image to restore and preserve that made us the envy of civil society organizations country-wide in just a few years back, and a role model for most national unions or associations of journalists in the sub-region.

Therefore, let me conclude this declaration by cautioning all of us that we must no longer allow ourselves to become the victims of pettiness, prejudice and sycophancy as we tread the path to adding value and restoring unity and dignity to SLAJ once more.

We must also no longer judge our aspirants for national and regional executive positions on the sizes or weights of their pockets or purses as in the past, but by the value they attach to our Association, their individual capacities, character, motivation and commitment.

If not for anything, but for the fact that we are fortunate to be a powerful association of intellectuals from diverse backgrounds nationwide, with a 100% literate membership of over 600 able-bodied men and women, young and old, to perform any development or media feat – professional or industrial.

Let me also use this opportunity to respectfully urge members of the outgoing national executive to commit themselves to ensuring that the Electoral Commission conducts the elections in a free, fair and credible manner.

Those of you who are indebted to SLAJ are graciously urged to hasten up and honour your outstanding dues in time, and not to impose unfair burdens on aspirants to clear them for you, thereby denying yourself the opportunity to vote your conscience during the elections.

That said, it is now my humble pleasure to formally and publicly manifest my interest to become the number one gentleman of SLAJ come April 13; I therefore so declare.

With this pronouncement and as we aspire for higher heights, let me retire to my seat by urging you all to support me and other colleagues who you will be electing to serve you in good faith, in order to build on the success stories of our predecessors and restore that good image, character and reputation of SLAJ that each and every one of us will be proud of and willingly subscribe to once more. By so doing, it is my firm conviction that our Association will rise again and shine, to the delight of each and every one ofus. May God bless and guide us on that path. I thank you for your time and keen attention. Long live SLAJ, long live press freedom and solidarity!

– Mustapha M. K. Sesay, March 2013

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