Cases of unprofessional media conduct and consequent sanctions by the judiciary or media regulatory bodies have been on the rise in a number of West Africa countries in recent times.
The situation is particularly worrying as it has a great potential to roll back the gains made in press freedom over the years, erode public confidence in the media, and thus, negatively impact on the media’s capacity to effectively play their watchdog role.
While unprofessionalism remains a major challenge to media development throughout West Africa, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is particularly concerned about trends in Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and Ghana.
In the case of Sierra Leone for example, as many as 15 media organisations have been found guilty of professional infractions and sanctioned by the country’s media regulatory body, the Independent Media Commission (IMC), within the last 14 weeks of this year. Thirteen newspapers – The Torchlight, The Informant, Standard Times, Metro, Independent Observer, Prime Time, Democrat, African Youth Voices (AYV), Arigbo, Owl, News Watch, Champion and Nation Business and Finance – and two radio stations, Radio New Song and Radio Bankasoka, have been fined various sums for breaching provisions in the IMC Code of Practice.
The Independent Observer and Torchlight newspapers have been fined twice already this year. In February, the Independent Observer newspaper was suspended for failing to pay an IMC fine before being fined again for breaching the Indecency and Pornographic Materials principle of the IMC Code of Practice. Three other newspapers – Nation, Exclusive and All-Met Business Journal – have also been formally warned by the IMC following professional lapses.
The situation has prompted Sierra Leonean authorities, including the country’s President, Ernest Bai Koroma; and Chairman of the IMC, Ambassador Allieu Kanu, to make several appeals to the media, urging professional conduct in reporting. Despite the appeals and sanctions, frequent ethical violations persist.
In Cote d’Ivoire, several media organisations and journalists have been sanctioned over unprofessional conduct within the last 15 months. In 2014 alone, eight media newspapers and four journalists were handed severe sanctions by the Ivorian Press regulatory body, Conseil Natiol de la Presse (CNP) for acts of unprofessionalism. The eight newspapers were Notre Voie, Le Jour Plus, Le Temps, Le Nouveau Courrier, Aujourd’hui, Soir Info, Le Quotidien d’Abidjan, and Le Monde d’Abidjan. Moussa Traorè, Alafé Wakili, N’Guessan Kouassi and Oula Saint Claver were the four journalists sanctioned. The sanctions ranged from fines to suspensions and withdrawal of licenses.
The MFWA subsequently petitioned the CNP complaining about the severity of the sanctions and the potential for such sanctions to result in self-censorship by the media in the country. At the same time, the MFWA urged the media to be professional and circumspect in their reportage.
While there have been many recent cases of unprofessional conduct by many Senegalese journalists, a recent incident of blackmail involving online journalist, Ibrahima Ngom, is worth highlighting. On April 22, 2015, a court in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, handed the journalist a six-month suspended sentence for blackmailing Mr. Mor Ngom, Minister-Counselor of President Macky Sall.
In a series of text messages, the journalist had accused the minister of having an affair and tried to extort money from him. The journalist did not only blackmail the minister about the alleged affair, he also sent insulting text messages to the minister’s daughter. He allegedly sent more than 50 blackmailing/insulting text messages to the minister and his daughter.
Following a complaint at the Court, the Senegal Online Press Association appealed to the minster to withdraw the case. The minister heeded the call of the media Association but the hearing of the case had already commenced. The court subsequently handed the journalist a six-month suspended prison sentence and granted him clemency due to the withdrawal of the case by the minister, bringing the sentence down to two-months.
Unprofessionalism in the Senegalese media prompted the inauguration of a jury of peers in August 2014, to help promote professional standards. A process for having in place, a Press Code and decriminalising defamation and press offences has been stalled by parliamentarians who have expressed concern that decriminalising defamation has the potential of worsening unprofessionalism in the media.
In Ghana, many individuals and experts have raised concerns about what is seen as an alarming rate of unprofessionalism in the media. Fears have been expressed that the spate of increased unprofessionalism in the media may result in public support for actions intended to limit press freedom in the country. Already, the Courts in Ghana are imposing what is considered to be punitive fines against the media, which have the potential of crippling or collapsing affected media organisations.
“The biggest threat to press freedom in Ghana today is not legislation, or governmental restrictions. It is the high level of unprofessionalism in the media that is occasioning public mistrust for the media. Increasingly, the public tend to support and legitimise acts of violations against journalists, citing unprofessionalism on the part of journalist,” said MFWA’s Executive Director, Sulemana Braimah, during a forum with editors and media managers in Accra.
While the MFWA continues to fight for media rights and freedom of expression in West Africa, the organisation also urges journalists, media owners, professional associations and academic institutions to prioritise professionalism. We also urge governments to support media professional development through effective frameworks and resource allocation as espoused by the ECOWAS Protocol on Good Governance and Democracy.
Issued by the MFWA in Accra on April 28, 2015.