Thank you for inviting the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists to speak at this launch. We appreciate this opportunity and we take it as a recognition of the important role the media plays in social and behavioural change. You are also challenging us to take active part in the fight against corruption. We appreciate the recognition as much as we accept the challenge. Before I talk about the role of the media in the fight against corruption, let me first of all highlight four issues that I want to personally put on the table as we launch this new strategy in the fight against corruption in our beloved country.
One is the POLITICAL WILL
In April 2005, in my final year at the Mass Communication programme at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, I wrote a commentary in the 3rd edition of the Aureol Torch, the teaching newspaper of the department, for which I was one of the sub-editors. The commentary was titled: ‘Corruption and the Political Will’. The commentary was inspired by a passionate lecture on the challenges in fighting corruption in Sierra Leone given by the then Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Mr. Valentine T. Collier, to us final year students of the department.
Permit me, Your Excellency, Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, to share some excerpts which I think are still relevant today:
“Absence of corruption is fundamental to the promotion of good governance just as the Anti-Corruption Commission is to the fight against corruption in Sierra Leone. But the ACC is just an institution and it cannot do it alone. The ACC needs help. That help is the Political Will.
“Political will in this sort of dynamics or context should not be centered on the head of His Excellency the President alone. It should be a collective political will and it should take the following:
“ The Executive will : this is the goodwill of the President and his/her Cabinet ministers. Parliamentary will: this is the goodwill of the Honourable Members of Parliament. Judicial will: this is the goodwill of those who interpret the laws of the land.
Police will: this is the goodwill of the Sierra Leone Police, who are constitutionally charged with the responsibility of providing security and maintaining law and order in society. Civil Society will: this is the goodwill of you and me, a well-informed citizenry and civil society organisations such as the National Accountability Group and Campaign for Good Governance. And finally, the Media will: this is the goodwill of the media.
“All of the above should be prepared to play their part impartially and patriotically if we want to curb corruption and forge ahead majestically as a nation. “Once upon a time, Sierra Leone was better than Singapore; that country was just an Island with virtually no resources. They even had to import water from neighbouring Malaysia. But with a strong political will, Singapore has progressed from a poor nation to a developed state with the ability to provide essential services for its citizens and responding to their needs and aspirations.
“Now we can be like Singapore, or even better, it’s never too late, if together we tackle corruption in every sphere of our lives- from our homes, schools, places of worships, businesses, offices, social groupings and above all in politics and governance. “Corruption is the hydra monster that has eaten away our past, our present and is fast swallowing our future.”
The second one is SACRED COWS: In the fight against corruption there should be no sacred cows. If we can prosecute a poor teacher who sells grades, we should also seriously and thoroughly question the poor politician who became rich overnight to explain how he/she did it. When we fight corruption without fear or favour, we build public trust and confidence and there will be no hiding place for those of our compatriots who thrive on corruption.
The third one is a form of bribery that has come to be known as ‘KICKBACKS’ I think we should start talking about kickbacks and the need for a strategy to deal with that because it is has grown into the most ‘acceptable’ and widespread form of corruption in Sierra Leone and impossible to detect without one of the parties volunteering information.
The fourth one is the SHADOW STATE: Speaking in 2005 on ‘The Role of the EU and Donor Community in Fighting Corruption in Sierra Leone’, the then ACC Commissioner, Valentine T. Collier, said and I quote: “Corruption in Sierra Leone cannot be understood without attention being paid to what William Reno in his book – ‘Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone’- termed the “Shadow State’. In his analysis, a powerful “Shadow State” in Sierra Leone has emerged alongside and at the expense of the capacity and authority of formal state institutions.
“The development of this shadow state has its roots in the colonial period, when the colonial administration engaged in intensive accommodation of local chiefs in order to secure local peace and control. This resulted in the growth of networks of local notables active in the country’s growing illicit diamond industry and trade in other commodities. “The above brief analysis is relevant to any efforts at combating corruption for several reasons.
“Firstly, it makes clear the degree to which the state has been stripped of its capacity and authority in Sierra Leone. “Over time, the activities of these informal networks of traders and local notables, public servants and politicians, resulted in a situation in which the State in Sierra Leone neither directly controls, nor exercises proper regulatory oversight over the country’s rich national resources and the income derived from them.
“Secondly, it reveals how officials have simultaneously operated in both a public and a private capacity with impunity. “It was against this background that the Anti-Corruption Commission came into being with the passing of the Anti-Corruption Act in February, 2000.” Now, that was in 2005. Fourteen years on, this Shadow State is now well entrenched in all facets of our society.
Now to the Media’s role in the fight against corruption: We all know that the media’s role in social change and development (like I have mentioned earlier) cannot be overstated and it is something that we all recognise as important. Professor Barnes of the New Castle School of Media, Arts and Culture, once said that if us media practitioners failed to support anti-corruption commissions across Africa then the media must be a willing accomplice or a facilitator of underdevelopment.
So, in order not to sound boring, repeating the things we all know to be true, I would base my statement on the need for public ownership and support of the fight against corruption, and how the media can help in that regard. We appreciate the efforts made by the ACC to involve the public in the development of this 4th Generation National Anti-Corruption Strategy 2019-2023. I recall that a session was held with the media at the SLAJ Secretariat at Campbell St., Freetown, where journalists contributed their own perspectives in the fight against corruption, including corruption within the media. So as we launch this new strategy today, it is important to highlight the need for continued public ownership of this strategy and support for the fight against corruption generally.
To be able to achieve this, we also need to re-examine the relationship between the state and civil society. By civil society I mean all of us that are not official state organs, and this include the media. We can all agree that one of the challenges we face in dealing with the scourge of corruption—which seems to have become a culture—is the lack of trust between the public (ordinary people) and the state. There is this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ way of seeing the relationship between the public and the state. We can trace this to the very many years of distrust and lack of confidence in the State’s ability to address the very basic needs of the ordinary people. The ordinary civil servant or woman in the market (in their misery and suffering) are also witnesses to the sudden social mobility of high-ranking public officials and politicians. People in power or close to power have a good life—with access to good healthcare and private education for their children, while ordinary people struggle to make ends meet. This situation does not support public confidence and trust in the state and a by-product of this is a normalisation of corruption and apathy to the fight against corruption. When corruption is normalised; when people don’t feel they have a stake in the affairs of the state because their basic needs are not catered for; and when they view their relationship as ‘us’ (the people) and ‘them’ (the state and ruling elite), it further complicates the fight against corruption.
What am I trying to say? I am trying to say that in the fight against corruption, we must seriously consider efforts aimed at rebuilding the trust and confidence of the people in public institutions and in the state’s ability and willingness to look after its people.
We must then move on to make people feel that they have a stake and should therefore take ownership of the fight against corruption and support the implementation of this strategy. Considering the nature of this challenge, you can call it a process of social engineering or any other typology. What we all can agree on though, is the important role the media has to play in this- which I will come to next.
I have just attempted to explain in my own way one part of the challenge- which is to restore trust in the state (through improved service delivery and better functioning of public institutions) and nurturing a sense of public ownership in the fight against corruption. We in the media are ready to be part of these efforts. As a matter of fact, we do every day. I see our role in two ways: 1. To provide adequate and accurate reporting on anti-corruption efforts by the ACC and its partners. We want to be able to help raise awareness about the new anti-corruption strategy and support efforts that are aimed at nurturing public ownership of the fight against corruption. But also, and this is No. 2) we want to be able to help set the agenda and become a serious point of reference for the ACC and other institutions that are involved in the fight against corruption. We can only do this by carrying out independent investigative reporting, as well as in-depth analytical reporting on corruption-related issues. We want to continue to hold public institutions and officials accountable and push for better service delivery because inefficient public institutions and lack of basic services is probably one reason the ordinary person doesn’t feel they have a stake in the affairs of the state.
We want to be able to do all of this. But as many of you are aware, we are constrained. We are constrained for resources and the capacity to take our rightful place in the fight against corruption. So as you invite us here today to take part in this launch, we in the media commit ourselves to supporting the ACC’s anti-corruption efforts. At the same time, we want to promote accountability- within the media and especially in the public sector- through our work. Therefore, we are open to working with the ACC, as we have always done. So there’s a need for renewed partnership between SLAJ and the ACC. The kind of partnership I am talking about is one where SLAJ and ACC will sign an MOU. ACC will train journalists on the ACC Act and investigative reporting so we grow a crop of journalists who will specialise in investigative reporting, especially in corruption matters. There may even be types of information that it will be agreed should be passed on to the ACC prior to publication in order to aid investigation. There’s a lot that we can do bilaterally, and I therefore call for an urgent dialogue between SLAJ and the ACC to develop a newly defined working relationship.
Let me conclude by stating that we would want to deepen our relationship with the Commission and other actors in the fight against corruption. We would want to see a reciprocation of this commitment and increased support to the media. When I say support to the media, I obviously mean resources to enable us report better and do our job. But it goes beyond that. We need an enabling environment while we do our work without fear of reprisals through the seditious and criminal libel laws. It is suffocating to do our job when we have such a sledgehammer hanging over our heads. We also need support through information and data sharing, more willingness and openness on the part of public institutions to engage the media on governance and accountability. We want to see the Right to Access Information Commission empowered with the resources it needs so that it is more efficient and effective. We want Public institutions and the officials that run them to see the media and journalists as allies and partners and not enemies or rivals.
Like I said earlier, this is one way to rebuild trust between state and civil society of which we are a fundamental part. As journalists, we are a part of society and we are part of the problem. We do not come from planet Mars. We equally want to be part of the solution and we would not relent in using our profession and the tools at our disposal to move this country forward.
Thank you for your attention and let us wish ourselves good luck in the implementation of the new National Anti-Corruption Strategy because a successful implementation would signal the beginning of our collective victory against corruption and a new dawn in the development aspiration of our beloved Sierra Leone.
Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)