By: Abdulai Mansaray
The allegation that a member of the ruling APC party was involved in a rape scandal has been clocking political and social air miles recently. The gravity of this case and its inherent impact on the lives of both the “victim” and the alleged “perpetrator” cannot be overemphasised.
Their friends and families have come under so much “avoidably unwarranted but expected” attention and stress that the issue has taken a completely different life of its own.
There is no doubt that nature of this case is bound arrest the attention of even the morally bankrupt.
However, it is the manner in which the case has been handled by the so called “media” that is giving food for thought; hence running the risk of relegating a very serious issue to a cesspit of organised gossip.
The spin offs from the case have brought into question many issues ranging from the legal, constitutional, human rights, media regulation, press freedom, freedom of speech, gender equality etc.
With the media painting the town red with the story, the ensuing feeding frenzy has seen the media stretched and broken every sinew of journalistic ethics. Furthermore, the reckless abandon with which the story has been handled, has left many people questioning the role of the media; and wondering whether we have given the pipes to the wrong smokers.
Top of Form Repeating what has already been written or said is like flogging a dead horse, but a cursory look at our legal obligations in relation to the media: Bottom of Form Sexual Offences Act 2012 41 reveals that:
(1) No person shall publish or make public information that has the effect of identifying a person who is a victim of an offence under this Act.
A person who contravenes subsection (1) commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding Le 10 million or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding three year.
Judging by the media coverage, you would be forgiven to think that such a law had never existed in our statute books. Yes, I can hear you say that “it was the victim who went on the air to narrate her ordeal”; hence took away any anonymity she deserves.
If that was done in ignorance, what was the media’s legal and moral responsibility here? Opinions remain divided across board, thanks largely to the individual’s moral calibration.
The alleged perpetrator “was” a known politician, who was summarily sacked from his post, even before he was tried by the courts. There is no question that the subject is emotive, and as such is bound to draw a lot of passionate opinions and conclusions.
Many see the dismissal of the accused even before he was tried by the courts, as an act of rubber stamping a guilty verdict?
Others see the decision as borne out of political expediency; which in effect leaves many to conclude, “He is guilty, and that is why he was sacked”.
Like many other countries, Sierra Leone plies its legal wares on the presumption of” innocent until proven guilty”. Although there is no aphrodisiac like innocence, “ it does not find near so much protection as guilt”. Some believe that the accused should have been “suspended” until the verdict; but not for political expediency at the expense of sound jurisdiction.
Others believe that a suspension, until the courts have decided the outcome, was a better and fair option.
But if you think that the treatment of the accused was anything, spare a thought for the alleged victim. Before you rush for your moral thermometers, let us look at the issues at play here.
ASSUMING that her story is true, is it criminal for her to tell her story and seek justice? What was criminal about speaking up, for what she feels was a violation of her human rights, her right to choose and to say yea or nay? IF we are to go by the moral compass of some sections of the media, she is GUILTY as hell. But what was her crime?
Some sections of the media have already accused her of seduction, blackmail, prostitution, everything and anything under the sun. Some have even questioned, “What was she doing there in the first place?”
Talk about double jeopardy. “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses” (Malcolm X).
Notwithstanding the above implications, the role of the media here has generated a lot of tongue wagging. Unfortunately, even respected and renowned news pedlars have been caught up in this melee.
We know that journalists trade in pain, but the flagrant disregard and insensitivity on display has left a lot to be desired. There is a simmering feeling that the public’s general lack of information vital for responsible citizenship in a democracy is down to the media; which is fast becoming an aspect of show business, offering merely infotainment.
But as ironies go, it is the same media that is clamouring for freedom of speech and press freedom; all in the name of human rights and democracy. It is the same press that is opposing the libel laws of the Public Order Act, 1965; and that the libel laws should not be “criminalised”.
Flip the coin, and the same press is happy to trample on the human rights of the same people it purports to educate, entertain and inform. Talk about “eating your cake and having it back”. The toad likes water, but not when it is hot.
With the Constitutional Review Committee is in full session, one of the most contentious issues that the Committee would have to deal with is the libel laws. If the Committee needed any further proof of the necessity to enshrine that aspect of the law, then it should look no further than read the realms of paper and listen to endless hours of air time that have been dedicated to this case.
By definition, it is the custodian of the ethics governing the press. In collaboration with the legal sector, it is supposed to implement and ensure that all media activities are carried out within agreed parameters.
In view of the current circumstances, it is fair to say that the behaviour of some media merchants in this matter puts the IMC right on the spot. The IMC has the moral and legal obligation to protect the public from the excesses of reckless journalism. It has the duty to uphold the tenets of journalism.
The IMC has in its power to bring the culprits to book. Anything short of bringing these media piranhas to book will be tantamount to taking away the voice of the voiceless.
Together with other statutory bodies, it has the authority to not only discourage the practice of trial by the media, but also maintain one of the building blocks of our justice system; the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
All men are born equal, but when that equality is lost, it is only by the protection of the law that it can be recovered. The law should not be seen as a spider web through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught. The welfare of the people is the ultimate law.
If the IMC has any teeth, bare it, and let’s have some value for money. The accused and the victim may be on trial here, but there can be no individual or institution best placed for trial in this matter, than the Independent Media Commission.