By Kemo Cham & Mohamed T. Massaquoi
Lack of integrity in the Sierra Leonean media is frustrating efforts in the fight against graft, the head of the Anti Corruption (ACC) has said.
Ady Macauley said that in spite of the valued collaboration his commission enjoyed with the media, they had also realized that a lot of journalists were hindering efforts by serving as hired hands for corrupt public officials. Journalists, he said, are sometimes paid by officials under the radar of the anti-graft agency to divert attention from them by attacking the personalities of anticorruption officials.
“Sometimes immediately the ACC arrest an individual that is high up there, I expect an attack from the press,” Macauley said. “They go out there and pay certain individuals in the press. So the focus is shifted to the Commissioner. That’s when they will bring about all sort of stories about the commissioner.”
The ACC boss also appeared to question the competence of media reportage of corruption issues. He said most reports in the country’s dailies hardly marched their headlines in terms of content, often leaving little or no room for follow up.
“There is not a single day you open newspapers and not see issues of corruption. I welcome it. But sometimes it is a bloody waste of my time,” he said.
Macauley was addressing a gathering of journalists and civil society activists recently as part of an annual session that allows the commission to interact with journalists and activists. The ACC also uses this forum to update the public on its effort in the fight against corruption.
Corruption remains rife in Sierra Leone with the latest Transparency International Corruption Perception Index , for instance, ranking Sierra Leone 123 out of 176 countries surveyed. The country dropped four places from 119/168 in 2015.
According to ACC and many local and international reports, bribery is the most prevalent form of corruption in Sierra Leone, and the commission has focused on it because it believes it has the most profound effect on ordinary Sierra Leoneans.
Through funding from the UK government, the ACC last year launched a "Pay No Bribe" - PNB - Campaign. Details of the progress of the campaign were reported.
The idea of the PNB was inspired by the 2013 Afrobarometer report which ranked Sierra Leone worst among 34 African countries, with two-thirds of those surveyed admitting to having bribed an official to get public service.
The PNB operates in real time with callers guided through a set of three questions. They are asked whether a government official demanded a bribe while they sought a service, whether they paid the bribe ir wether they met an honest person who demanded no bribe.
Six government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), covering the sectors of health, education, security, water and electricity are being piloted under the initiative. Citizens can also download an app on a mobile device and report verbally. On downloading the app, an automated voice prompt leads through the questions. They can also log on to a dedicated website [www.pnb.gov.sl] to report.
Within the last six months, the report shows, 16,657 people reported being asked to pay a bribe to access services. Only 3,537 reported that they received services corrupt-free.
Commissioner Macauley believes corruption in Sierra Leone is rife because of a “deficit in morality” among the people.
The ACC wants the media to up its role in the fight against graft. But journalists say they are constrained by several factors, notably the notorious criminal libel law which has become a tool with which corrupt public official keep probing journalists at bay.
Among the audience at Santano House was Kelvin Lewis, President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), who singled out the Criminal Libel Law as the single major deterrent against journalists’ ability to report on graft.
This law, part of a highly criticized 1965 Public Order Act, imposes a jail term of up to three years on journalists who are found wanting. And interestingly, reporting the truth doesn’t serve as protection under this law.
Lewis said for as long as the criminal libel law remains in the law books, the fight against corruption would remain unwinnable.
“The media believe in the fight against corruption owing to the fact that it will lead to a better society,” he said.
But, he added, “when we go after them, whether it is based on fact or not, the law is used against us.”
The SLAJ president also lamented the lack of access to information as limitation to journalists’ investigative ability.
Sierra Leone in 2013 passed the Right to Access Information law which was hailed by freedom of information law advocates. But three years on, journalists continue to complain that the passing of the law has been virtually of no help. Officials, they say, either provide information late or do not provide it at all.
“The access to information commission is very well under-resourced and what they are supposed to do they are unable to do it,” Lewis said, noting that because of this journalists find it difficult to get the right information, like financial documents, to aid them in investigating corruption issues.
SLAJ and the ACC have an MoU in the fight against corruption. On this basis the umbrella journalist body has appealed to the Commission to consider training its members on investigative reporting and on ways to avoid falling foul of the criminal libel law.
SLAJ also wants the ACC to look into providing compensation and security measures for journalists who are engaged in reporting corruption.
While acknowledging the danger associated with reporting corruption, the ACC boss sounded helpless with regards the issue of the criminal libel law.
“The criminal libel law is a political issue and you know that the ACC tries the very best to keep off from political issues, but that doesn’t mean we do not have conscience,” he said.
Copyright (c) Politico 2017