Access to information is vital for the smooth running of any state; timely and credible information, on the other hand, serves as a useful guide in helping the citizenry form an informed opinion on the country’s development trajectory and at the same time sieve irrelevant messages capable of subverting the country’s development aspirations.

Against the backdrop of its primary role as a broker of public information, the Ministry of Information and Communication has played a critical role in providing verifiable information bordering on the achievements of President Dr Julius Maada Bio. Since 2018, the Government of President Bio has improved access to information through the registration of print and electronic media as well as increased internet penetration by creating the enabling environment for the establishment of more Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) in Sierra Leone, notably QCell Mobile Company. In these past five years, there has been an upsurge in the registration of newspapers, and broadcast media and an increase in internet broadband in the fulfilment of media plurality.

In this article, we analyse the gains of the New Direction administration in instituting positive media reforms that encourage free speech and the practice of journalism in the country. We also assess the efforts of the Ministry of Information and Communication in the area of providing credible information on the work of the government and the tremendous strides being made to deepen the space for citizens’ engagement with the government.

Repeal of the Seditious Libel Law
In 2020, the New Direction Government repealed the obnoxious media law, which criminalized sedition and libel. Before the repeal, the law was used by successive governments to stifle journalists and opposition voices. Criminal libel was considered antithetical to democracy since it undermined the efficiency of journalists to provide checks and balances on public officials. Repeated promises from all previous governments to abolish this law were left unfulfilled. President Bio, astutely believing free speech is fundamental to democratic good governance, took bold steps to repeal the draconian media law. Immediately after the repeal, all charges against individuals who were standing trials for alleged breach of the libel law were dropped. This move has without a doubt broadened the space for political engagement, improved transparency and accountability in public offices, encouraged more women’s participation in the media and stimulated pluralism and growth in the media landscape. The repeal of the seditious libel law by President Bio has been lauded both locally and internationally.

Passing MCC Scorecard on Freedom of Information

As a show of international endorsement for the repeal and the direct impact of other positive media reforms, the New Direction Government successfully passed the Millennium Cooperation Challenge (MCC) rating on Freedom of Information. This is a benchmark used to assess a country’s media regulatory environments and citizens’ access to information. Sierra Leone’s consistent passing of this indicator with excellent scores depicts further a liberal and friendly environment for media practice in the country. Currently, in Sierra Leone, there are no journalists in jail for the practice of journalism. Sierra Leone has now emerged as a model for free speech in the region. Journalists, more than ever before, enjoy freedom and liberty to practice their trade.

*Enactment of Cybercrime Law*
The emerging digital forms of media offer a lot of benefits. They have been essential to promote business and trade transactions, serve as useful resources for educational pursuits and deepening citizens’ knowledge, especially on governance issues. However, these new forms of media have seen an increasing level of misuse in recent times. Ill-motivated individuals have used digital media to create unrest and instability and promote immoral conduct, as was seen in the Arab Spring of 2011. In order to reduce the negative impacts of digital media on society, governments around the world have and continue to enact laws that protect the digital space. Sierra Leone is not in isolation from this phenomenon. After wide-range consultations with relevant stakeholders, the Government, through the Ministry of Information and Communication in 2020, enacted the Cybercrime Act which seeks to protect Sierra Leone’s cyberspace and promote the responsible use of online platforms. The Act also aims to protect individuals from undue attacks and scowls at those using social media to spread incitement and create unrest.

Annual Media and Civil Society Engagement Conference

One of the many initiatives introduced by this government to heighten citizens’ engagement is the Annual Media and Civil Society Engagement Conference. This initiative annually assembles the government, media practitioners and civil society activists to discuss government programmes and policies. The annual interactive conference allows government officials to provide further updates on their activities, while also using the sessions to provide answers to concerns from citizens.

Government Annual Subvention to SLAJ

Owing to its commitment to fostering an effective and viable media sector in the country, the President Bio led-government introduced the disbursement of an annual subvention to the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), the premier body for all journalists in the country. This novelty of the government providing resources to SLAJ is part of the New Direction approach to support the growth and development of media practice in Sierra Leone. More importantly, since the introduction of disbursement, the government has increased its support yearly. The subventions have served as a boost in supporting SLAJ to undertake some of its activities and programmes. There has never been a better time in Sierra Leone to practice journalism than now, and to conclude with words from the articulate and indefatigable Information and Communication Minister, Mohamed Rahman Swaray,: “President Bio has given the media everything needed to thrive. The only remaining thing he has not given them is a ticket to heaven which he, himself, does not have”.

National Media Viability and Investment Conference

Before President Bio’s ascendancy, Sierra Leone’s media landscape was plagued with myriads of challenges, of which lack of investment was key as a result of the draconian and repressive laws that had hindered its growth. In April 2022, the New Direction also launched the first-ever Sub-Saharan National Media Viability and Investment Conference in Freetown, in recognition of the important role of public interest media in open, developed, and prosperous societies. The Minister described the platform as the government’s manifesto promise and the president’s commitment to have a pluralistic and engaging media as a tool for national development. “We recognise the importance of trusted media in the public in Sierra Leone’s development and future prosperity. This conference will help to explore innovative solutions for stronger business models that will ensure a diverse, responsible, trusted press in Sierra Leone, to inform, connect and inspire our citizens for the future,” Minister Swaray emphasised.
Widely acclaimed by the International Community/development partners, the British High Commissioner, Lisa J Chesney MBE, also underscored Sierra Leone’s vision for the development and viability of the media.

These and many other remarkable strides have been achieved in five years. Media pluralism and investment will continue to flourish under His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio. He will continue to build on his firm foundation by spearheading more development initiatives for the media to thrive in Sierra Leone. His legacy—Champion of Media Freedom and Development—will stand the test of time.