Sierra Leone: When Committing Journalism Becomes A crime

Once again, the issue of corruption has reared its ugly head in our country; as if it ever went away. It involves the Chief Minister of the Bio government. But before I proceed with my 2 pence thoughts on this matter, I hasten to clarify that my views here are solely based on what is being reported in the media, and that I do not have the benefit of first hand information. There is an adage that “there are two sides to a story”. But in Sierra Leone, there are three sides: my side, your side, and then the truth. As we have already seen, the allegation, did you hear that? I said ALLEGATION; that the Chief Minister Professor David Francis is embroiled in a corruption scandal that is purporting to have received $1.5 m into his account, from a mining company. It has raised a lot of issues, and the subsequent arrest of journalist Sallieu Tejan Jalloh, in connection with this case has also engendered some considerations to address.

The case in point brings into focus the case of the free press and its inherent albatross of the 1965 Public Order Act, the fight against corruption, ethics of journalism, abuse of power, ad infinitum. The office of the First Minister has since issued a 10-point response in a press release. According to some media outlets, Sallieu was arrested and detained by police after sending an SMS text message to the Minister:  “Good evening sir, please be informed that we are currently investigating an issue of financial crime allegedly involving the Chief Minister. It was alleged that the FIU discovered the sum of USD1.5 million which was paid on diverse dates in your account at the ECOBANK. There are issues of alleged bribery from a mining company that also requires your response. We are already concluding our investigation and we would therefore need your own side of the story before publications. Thanks and we look forward to hearing from you.” (Sierraleaonetelegraph.com-12/11/19.)

Journalists cannot always guarantee “truth”, but getting the facts right should always be the cardinal principle of journalism. A measure of independence, humanity, accountability, fairness and impartiality can help in that direction. If the alleged text is anything to go by, then Mr Jallow’s attempt was to get the facts right, ensure accountability, and to maintain fairness and impartiality here. The impression you get from the alleged text is that Mr Jalloh was giving the receiver of the text, an opportunity to respond; in the interest of fairness and impartiality. But please read the text again. Sallieu is reported to have sent the text to the Chief Minister. If so, why would he say “please be informed that we are currently investigating an issue of financial crime allegedly involving the Chief Minister”, when you are sending it to the minister himself? I would have replaced “Chief Minister” with “YOU”, in this sentence. The question therefore is that, was this text sent to the Chief Minister? Don’t answer that.

The alleged text continues that “It was alleged that the FIU discovered the sum of USD1.5 million which was paid on diverse dates in your account at the ECOBANK”; Whose account? “There are issues of alleged bribery from a mining company that also requires your response. So it is not just one case of corruption but other “issues of alleged bribery from a mining company”. Although like me, we may be getting confused here, let us remember that according to the Sierra Leone Telegraph online paper, “that was the content of the SMS text sent to the chief minister (Photo above) by the journalist arrested yesterday. So, this may not be verbatim. But the confusion still abounds; as to whether this text was sent to someone else to respond or the minister to get his own side of the story. Or was it a message that was forwarded?  Another of the perils of WhatsApp?  You be the judge.

Ok, let’s leave the pedantic side of things and let us assume for a minute that it was sent to the Chief Minister. If the above is a correct reflection of the content of the text, there is nothing in this text to show that a crime was committed to warrant an arrest. If anything, it demonstrates the sender’s attempt to be fair and impartial; a major ethical artery in the blood circulation of journalism. In the meantime, the SL Mining Company has since refuted the allegation of involvement.

The Chief Minister’s office has since responded; that “this is a calculated attempt to smear the image and reputation of Professor David Francis”. It also states that the Professor “ received a text from a certain mobile number requesting comments on four questions” on 8th November 2019. The 3rd question reportedly states “We also learnt you allegedly received a kickback of Five Hundred Thousand Dollars from SL Mining. True or False? In addition, “the  text message also claimed that the enquiry was being made not only by Tejan Jalloh of Times SL but it also named the following: Abubakarr Kargbo of Standard Times, Ibrahim Alusine Kamara of Sierra Express Media and Amara Samura of New People Online”. Furthermore, “after receiving the text message, Professor David J. Francis immediately informed the heads of Anti-Corruption Commission and the Criminal Investigation Department reporting the text message as a case of extortion and harassment”. Interestingly, “this is not the first time he has received messages from unknown numbers with messages of threats, extortion and harassment. Therefore, Professor David J. Francis has always reported such text messages to the authorities for investigation”. There you have it, and the professor has spoken. Let’s get to work.

But just like the alleged text from Sallieu Jalloh, there are few points that some may feel, require clarification. The press release claims that this is not the first time that the Minister had received messages from unknown numbers with messages of threats, extortion and harassment, and that these have always been reported to the authorities for investigation. If this is the case, which authorities were these reported to? Were these complaints from the Minister ever investigated? If so, what were the outcomes? Was the ACC involved here? If so, why was the ACC trigger happy to parade corrupt teachers and not reportedly corrupt journalists?  If the Minister, who happens to occupy one of the highest offices in the land, had lodged such complaints in the past, what was different this time to warrant an arrest that has reportedly been linked to the text message?  Why did such reports not make headline news in the past? Oh sorry, I was not around to hear about it. Ar travel.

Furthermore, if the reported text claimed that the enquiry was made by 3 other journalists, and if it is true that the arrest of Sallieu Jalloh was connected to this alleged text, why was it that only Sallieu Jalloh was arrested? Was there more to his alleged text; like a quid pro quo, as insinuated by the Minister’s press release? Sorry for using loads of “ifs”, as this piece is entirely based on what has been published in the media. You can’t be too careful, right?

The Minister does not deny having an account with Ecobank, but that he “ONLY owns an international travel card account at Ecobank for ease of official travels”. That is perfectly understandable. But there are others who might think of no better way to take money out of the country. This piece is not aimed at running a moral code on the issue at hand. However, living in a digital world that is breast fed on “alternative facts”, it stands to reason that certain questions need answers, before conclusions can be made. Sadly today, it seems like the role of journalism is to keep us in touch with the ignorance of the community; as many commentators have given their verdicts already. Thankfully, I am not a journalist.

In the meantime, this case brings Bio’s fight against corruption into sharp focus. When Bio took power, he promised to fight corruption, but with a hazard warning; that corruption will fight back. The Commission of Inquiry (COI) has recently requested a declaration of assets from Dr Ernest Koroma and the 14 others. Some have accused Sallieu Jalloh as an APC echo chamber, and that this latest debacle is not only a distraction, but a realisation of Bio’s prophecy that corruption will fight back. If the allegations of threats, extortion, and harassment are true, then it is a criminal offence that could warrant arrests and due process of the law. If this was a libellous act, such arrests could be seen as an abuse of power; and there can be no stronger case to repeal the 1965 Public Order Act; one that President Bio promised to revisit in his manifesto.

In spite of your political persuasion, this case presents one of the sternest tests of Bio’s credentials on the fight against corruption. Many will be salivating at the prospect of due process, the rule of law, transparency and above all, a NEW DIRECTION IN THE FIGHT AGAINST CORRUPTION.

Don’t forget to turn the lights out, when you leave the room.

Abdulai Mansaray.

Credit to Cocorioko.

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