By John Baimba Sesay
The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists is on the verge of electing a new executive, marking an end to the presidency of Kelvin Lewis. Lewis’ presidency has, in my view, been a tremendous success. He is ending his presidency on the note of quiet diplomacy, not believing in “burning our bridges before we cross them. I believe in negotiation”, Lewis had said in 2016.
As president, Lewis has come a long way and has made his mark. Indeed, it has been no regret standing by him. I remain proud of his stewardship. He was committed to building on the foundation laid prior to him assuming the presidency. He started off by unifying the Association’s membership, ensuring training opportunities as well as pursuing the welfare of members. Today, the Association is being administered along proper financial management.
There has been a clear commitment on his part to transform SLAJ with a promise of giving back to the Association what he had taken from journalism.
“I have benefited a lot from journalism although it is through hard work. The respect I have in this country, outside of this country, it is through journalism. So I said I would give back,” he had told Politico newspaper during a 2016 interview.
Whatever success attributed to the outgoing president must have come as a result of the tremendous support he got from his executive. Team work is crucial to bringing success and we’ve seen this in SLAJ. It is also worthy to note, that Lewis must have got the Secretary-General needed for better output, in the person of Ahmed Sahid Nasralla who, rightfully is now contesting for the presidency.
Nasralla, a respected and prolific cartoonist and feature writer of long standing, in 2016 went unopposed when he contested to be the Association’s Secretary- General. He has spent the better part of his life in journalism, having dedicatedly served the Association with outstanding productivity.
If SLAJ should be seeking a non-confrontational leader, one that now has a better understanding of the workings of the Association, knows the media landscape and can relate well with media colleagues at all levels, then the best choice should be Nasralla. I hold the view that he can make a great and successful president, after Kelvin Lewis.
Mustapha Sesay has also made public his intention to run for the presidency. This comes in as brilliant idea more so as he too had served the Association and knows it well as ex Secretary-General and has contested twice for the SLAJ presidency without success.
However, his decision to run is being undermined by a clear conflict of interest since Sesay is at the Independent Media Commission (IMC) Board to which he was appointed by Government based on the recommendation of SLAJ. It sounds frankly strange to want to manage the affairs of SLAJ and at the same time serving the government (and SLAJ) as member of the IMC Board.
The IMC has an unsympathetically vital role in supervising and monitoring the media especially in making sure it (media) moves in line with its Media Code of Practice. Not only that, when government wants to appoint members to the Board, the president is required by law to do so “acting on the advice of SLAJ…” You cannot be within the IMC Board and serving as president of SLAJ at the same time when you are the one to be advising government on appointments to the Board.
Should government take a position that is not favorable to the practice of journalism, what would a president of SLAJ do when he is also a member of the IMC Board? Take calls for a repeal of the obnoxious Public Order Act. You cannot be directly serving government by way of being in a Board to which you were appointed by the president and at the same time wanting to present a confrontational approach when pushing for a repeal of the POA.
What would have been appropriate was for Sesay to have resigned his Board membership at IMC, therefore avoiding a clear case of conflict of interest.
We need a dedicated leadership, not one with divided loyalty. We should avoid those things that may end up undermining the standing, impartiality and integrity of the Association at this crucial time when this government, like the previous, has made another bold commitment to repealing the Criminal Libel Law.
We should seek a president for SLAJ who should be able to enjoy the confidence of the membership and that of the public. We are not suggesting a frosty relationship with government. However, we are also not seeking one that presents us as bedfellows. SLAJ should at least be seen as an independent body that can take government to task on issues of public interest.