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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View : Bureaucracy is more than just a nuisance it hurts journalism

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

I’ve lost count of how many times my colleagues and I have come to some agency or office for an interview, and had to leave with nothing in our notebooks or recorders — just a promise that we could come back later. Two times now, after being turned down, I was told I have to write up a letter of request and leave it in an office, or with a public relations officer, before they can arrange an interview. Before lunchtime rolled around today, I was denied two interviews, one because of a mix-up, and another because the only person we could interview was “in a meeting” (not the first time I or my colleagues heard that excuse).
I know this all might sound like petty complaining  and I’d have to concede that it is, compared to what many journalists face every day. If it was just me facing more difficulties than usual because I’m a foreign journalist, I wouldn’t have a good reason to complain. But what makes me angry is that day after day, my hardworking colleagues at Awoko newspaper are also smothered in impossible bureaucracy. Today one of my colleagues explained to me, as we trudged down a hill after being turned down for the second time from the same government office, that this is a fact of life for journalists in Sierra Leone. It’s hard for them to get access to information.
As if the cruel and outdated libel laws in Sierra Leone weren’t enough, journalists here have to face bureaucracy and obstruction that prevents them from being able to do their work.
To be clear, I know I haven’t experienced the worst of it. And I don’t have proof that I and my colleagues are being blown off for no good reason. But according to my colleagues, this is common. Instead, what I’ve seen are small, worrying signs that hint at huge problems.
Ever since I arrived in Sierra Leone I’ve seen some of the subtle and blatant ways officials control access to information. At press conferences, the officials running the show often only allow a few questions. I’ve heard officials tell journalists what to write. And the conference organizers give out free food, which I’m sure is great for journalists, but could give the appearance of trying to win positive coverage through gifts. And then there are the deflections journalists get when they try to arrange an interview  like I saw today.
This is more than just an annoyance. If it’s truly obstruction, it’s a serious problem. Without access to accurate, relevant and timely information in the public interest, there can be no real journalism. And without an independent press, democracy suffers immeasurably.
The idea that democracy depends on journalism isn’t an exaggeration or an empty platitude. Journalism allows society to solve problems by shining a light on them. Independent journalism has the power to hold powerful people to account. It gives citizens the information they need to vote, and take other actions (like joining an activist movement or civil society groups, or otherwise working to make a difference). All countries and communities should have a strong independent press, but this is especially important for a developing country like Sierra Leone, where the actions of government officials and departments deserve the utmost scrutiny.
All these obstructions and difficulties in getting access to information exist in the United States too, especially at higher levels. But at the local level, government agencies are often obligated to give away information to the public and grant interviews to journalists. Sure, as in Sierra Leone, government agencies and others in the US carefully control the information they want to release to journalists, whether to score good PR or smooth over embarrassing mistakes. But for government agencies in the US, transparency  or the illusion of it  makes them look good, and keeping a tight lid on information for no good reason makes them look bad. What does it say that Sierra Leonean government agencies don’t seem to care about how this obstruction comes across?
It certainly makes it seem like they don’t value or respect the press. At every press conference, some official praises the press and the important role it plays in the country. But as long as journalists are blocked from accessing information, and as long as criminal libel laws allow them to be punished for writing something a government official doesn’t like, these are nothing but empty statements.
Wednesday August 16, 2016

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