I don’t care about this dead journalist because journalists in Sierra Leone don’t care about the truth, so what good are they alive?”
The writer goes on to detail a story that ran in The Standard Times about a corrupt government official who used abusive language in responding to a commentary.
“And you know what?” he wrote as I squeezed him further to expose his bitterness about a man who wasn’t perfect, but spent a good number of his years on earth busy executing his profession professionally for the good of his country and people.
“If this guy completely imploded and recklessly killed all of Media One’s executive staff, I wouldn’t approve of what he did but I also wouldn’t shed a tear, either. The truth is that most recklessly killed or murdered victims have it coming. It is a fact that most recklessly killed victims know the person who recklessly killed or murdered them and they usually did or didn’t do something that just about assured their reckless killer or murder … That is what has changed in Sierra Leone; today if a journalist is recklessly killed or murdered, nobody outside the radical left and the politically corrupt media is really going to care. Frankly, the media has lost its usefulness to our society, so why would we ever miss them?”
But do right-minded nationals really expect the past and current corrupt people in social positions of trust in Sierra Leone and beyond to care about the mysterious death of a journalist that exposed their rots for decades? Maybe some will, but others see it as an opportunity to vent their years of deep-seated anger against his dead body. Yet they can express their deepest sympathy to the family members of rogue politicians and corporate rogues when they passed away, but not when a journalist who spent his time on earth fighting to ensure the oddities that are holding our nation backward are corrected for the general good.
There are generally accepted moral principles that discourage speaking ill of the dead. These principles often stem from the belief that it is not respectful or compassionate to speak negatively about someone who is no longer alive to defend themselves or to offer their perspective on the matter. In general, it is considered more compassionate and respectful to speak kindly of the dead and to focus on the positive aspects of their life and character. It may be in your interest and outright beneficial to you to speak of the wrongs of Philip Neville at this time. But is this of any help to the national discourse?
A few weeks back was the Presidential press cocktail hosted by President Bio and it was in my every intention to write a piece for this page espousing the benefits of local news and praising a country that would weave such a right into its founding documents.
But my workload got a little heavy and the day I usually set aside for extra writing projects — was booked with something else: The Society of Professional Journalists webinar. I know that Philip Neville and many quality journalists get it wrong sometimes. But I honestly have never met a group of professionals so fiercely dedicated to their jobs that they’d sacrifice their lives to write and talk about how to get it right in Sierra Leone.
I know the political landscape has inexplicably tangled itself into questions about the independent media’s existence. It’s raised even the most fundamental questions of what our job means, when we’re allowed to do it, how well we do it, and if we should be allowed to do it at all. It doesn’t extract from that discussion the complicated differences between what we have always understood as the press, and what we’re currently defining as the media.
Our personal and political division has somehow leached into our understanding of what commentators are and how they differ from what journalists are. It is within that confusion that local journalists like Philip Neville and others are paying the price for the media machine of the politically corrupt-held news driven by metrics and ratings.
Branded “news” personalities engage in hateful rantings far removed from the tenants of journalism, then cast local journalists in the role of villains for their audiences.
And so, here we are.
The stakes are high, and our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when independent journalism is lost or diminished. In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country — and of grassroots democracy itself — is linked to the vitality of local journalism a course the late Philip Neville championed till his last day.
That premise, illustrated by the anger of someone that once held a social position of trust in Sierra Leone that landed in a WhatsApp forum this week, is no longer readily believed.
And that’s our fault.
As journalists, we’ve failed to understand that we’ve been allowed to educate the electorate because the electorate has allowed us to. We grew too far away from the duty gifted to us in the Constitution in the quest to brand ourselves and increase our personal worth in an industry that was crumbling around us.
We threw around terms like “media literacy” when we really just meant we had failed so hard at explaining to our communities how we do our jobs that our communities no longer understood what we were doing — or how.
We started buying into the concept of “engagement” as if it wasn’t something we were supposed to be doing all along. And when we got it wrong, we stopped apologising.
Because, sometimes, we do get it wrong; everybody does. The plumber installs the wrong fixture; the mail carrier delivers packages to the wrong house and waiters bring the wrong food.
Journalism, like all of these professions, is a profession of service and our intentions, like theirs, are good. And just as a wrong fixture or mail mix-up wouldn’t warrant the reckless display of anger against a dead plumber and a mail carrier, neither should an error in a news story carry the penalty of character assassination for a dead journalist.
So, while my intention had been to write a sunny story about the benefits of local news, I’ll instead say this:
In Sierra Leone, I always get out of my car, one arm raised in an open-handed wave, the other clearly holding my notebook when I stop at the end of a long, dirt driveway and am greeted by someone who may not know why I’m there — a gun tucked at their hip.
Once, a rifle in their hand.
I’ve made appointments with farmers in the middle of nowhere; have taken tours of towns in the passenger seat of a car owned by people I’ve just met; followed demonstrators into crowds, follow masquerades behind the curtains and craftsmen into the back of welding and “ataya base” shops — all to better tell their story.
It’s become too easy and too common for some to harass journalists under the guise of sticking it to the nebulous concept of “the mainstream media.” But for every story we read, there’s a journalist on the other side of it who followed someone into a demonstration, to a masquerade, to the back of the shop, around town, or onto a corrupt government transaction with international neocolonial rogue institutions.
Or into a corporate rogue deal with the support of our political figureheads. Some of them, like Philip Neville and others, never come home.
Admittedly, in Sierra Leone, I’ve gotten it wrong. But the only way this continues to work — the only way local news doesn’t fall into the darkness of things that once were is; if should we get it wrong, we’re given the opportunity to make it right when we are alive and not wait to throw deep-seated anger against us when we pass away. And that those mistakes come with understanding:
An understanding on the part of readers that we’re not acting out of malice and we’re not going to be perfect;
And an understanding on the part of journalists that we must be willing to sacrifice some of our busy schedules to learn how to do it better. Because our communities deserve it.
Intimidating journalists is a serious problem that can have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press and the ability of journalists to do their job. When journalists are intimidated, they may be less likely to report on sensitive or controversial topics, which can result in a less informed public and less accountability for those in power. Intimidation can take many forms, including physical violence, threats, legal action, and other forms of harassment. It is important for governments, media organizations, and civil society groups to work together to ensure that journalists can carry out their work without fear of intimidation. This requires strong legal protections for journalists, as well as efforts to promote a culture of press freedom and respect for freedom of expression.
May You Rest in Perfect Peace, Philip Neville.