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NEW MEDIA AND THE RISE OF INFORMATION DISORDER IN SIERRA LEONE

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INTRODUCTION

The Sierra Leone media landscape has witnessed a series of changes over the years with increase in outlets in both print and electronic media as well as policies and acts that are geared towards consolidating a habitable media ecosystem in the country. Post-conflict Sierra Leone, like every other post-war nation trying to rebuild, has been faced with a plethora of challenges in almost every sector of development. The political climate and polarization of the media landscape and the emergence of the new media have posed a serious challenge to professional journalism. However, the creation of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ and the establishment of the independent media commission (IMC)- as a union seeking the interest of journalists and the latter as a media regulatory institution has to a greater extent been able to enforce the practice of ethical journalism amongst media practitioners amidst other challenges.

New Media, which cannot be effectively regulated like the traditional media, still continues to ignite debates among politicians, media authorities, and policy makers as to how society can confront the challenges associated with it. Even though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was purposely set up to look into the excesses and main factors that led to the 1991 brutal rebel conflict did not indicate adequately the role of the media before and during the conflict. Article 9 of the TRC Report emphasized the “right to know the Truth” … and that the right to truth is important for certain reasons. One of those reasons related to this discourse states that “every human right abuses, by their very nature, are surrounded by a fog of lies. Sometimes the perpetrators and victims are the only eye witnesses. Surviving victims and relatives are entitled to a full explanation of what happened and why.”

 The Report, published in the year 2000, predates the emergence of Social Media but this excerpt from the report clearly emphasized the necessity of Truth. Truth in the flow of public information forms part of the fundamentals of journalism. The lethal combination of mis-information and dis-information especially in the era of the new media continues to destabilize the information ecosystem in Sierra Leone.

New Media as defined by Cambridge dictionary is a product and service(s) that provides information or entertainment using computers or the internet and not by traditional methods such as television and newspapers. The 2016 BBC Media Action coordinated research Report showed 81% of Sierra Leoneans having access to Radio “…Access to mobile phones is high, now achieving a similar reach to radio. Currently, 83% of people report having access to mobile phones even though just about 13% use social messaging services such as Facebook messenger and WhatsApp according to the 2016 Research report that engaged about 2,500 participants.” There has been a steady growth in the number of mobile phone and internet users since 2015 and this growth comes with the repercussion of the new media -top of which is the spread of fake news. The 2014 Ebola epidemic, COVID-19 Pandemic and our everyday socio-political engagements have shown us the grip misinformation is having on our fragile media landscape.

THE STEADY GROWTH

The growth and spread of ‘fake news’ and mis-information in the media ecosystem of Sierra Leone cannot be unrelated to the steady increase or growth in the purchase and use of internet friendly mobile phones but also the cost-effective and simplified nature of communication apps like Whatsapp and Facebook – both of which creates the space for citizens to freely express their views on societal issues. These spaces have also been utilized by people for the creation and spread of manipulated content mostly intended to deceive the public for personal and political gains. The period leading up to the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone saw a deepening influence of social media and a heightening escalation of the flow of information disorder by political opponents.

An article titled “Sierra Leone Media Must Step Up” by Memuna Fornah in 2015 examined the grip communication platforms like Facebook and whatsapp were having in the political space – referencing revenge porn as mal-information weapon used against political figures like the case of erstwhile vice president Victor Foe’s purported naked photos that was all over social media. Prior to these developments was the outbreak of the Ebola Epidemic that equally tested the media landscape as fake content dominated the new media platforms. The media witnessed an acceleration in the spread and influence of fake news in the wake of the 2018 general elections as well as the 2014 Ebola epidemic and there were notable consequential effects leading to hike in infection rates and loss of lives. One popular hoax that attracted massive public attention during the Ebola era was the unsubstantiated claim of the potent ability of bathing with salt water to prevent oneself from the virus. This endorses the viability of fake news during health emergencies

Fast-forward to 2018 where we were trapped in the web of countless fake, distorted and unsubstantiated claims directed at political opponents and institutions. These included but are not limited to photoshopped images and fake videos circulating on the internet as well as national newspapers aligned to political parties reporting fake stories and claims. The COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant infodemic challenge has had its toll on national COVID-19 response systems around the world and Sierra Leone is no exception with a spree in fake content adding to the global phenomenon of infodemic. WHO explains that infodemics are an excessive amount of information about a problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution. They can spread misinformation, disinformation, and rumors during a health emergency. Infodemics can hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people.

POLARIZATION OF FAKES

The new media has expedited the mass communication of ideas and contents in our society and as effective as it is, it is fastly becoming the most active platform in news consumption today. The emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp has created an accessible space for people’s participation in national and global issues. However, this indulgent freedom has seen the massive polarization of distorted contents and citizen’s journalism and as a result, a hike in the production and circulation of mis-information. As Wardle posits “While we know that mis-information is not new, the emergence of the internet and social technology have brought about fundamental changes to the way information is produced, communicated and distributed.” These contents are deep enough that they have the potential to threaten national security, damage hard-earned reputations and ultimately life-threatening. Quite recently, a woman was alleged to have died of heart attack in Freetown following fake news that was circulating on social media that some vaccination was ongoing in schools for children which they claim infects people with the COVID-19 virus. This incident reignited the debate about the regulation of social media. Several other cases of information disorder have over the years presented a strong case for the regulation of social media and control the spread of fake contents. The need to bring a cyber-law bill to parliament has been steadily gaining momentum as a result of the growing influence of the new media and fake news in our society.

However, the Parliament of Sierra Leone recently expunged the 1965 criminal libel law that has been in existence for slightly over half a century. This move, many think, will stimulate the proliferation of fake news and irresponsible journalism in the country as the laws are now less stringent, even though there have been some modifications on the Independent Media Commission Code of Conduct with penalties stipulated clearly. Sierra Leone has experienced the inflow of fakes and inflammatory contents shared on social media and members of the political class have been detained for some contents shared on social media deemed as threat to state security. 

The most recent is a Facebook audio that was shared by popular Female Politician Dr. Sylvia O Blyden and a ruling party official named Abu Abu- both of which the Police labelled as inflammatory statements. The Attorney General and Minister of Justice has on the 16th November 2020 nullified the Libel case against popular opposition female politician Sylvia Olayinka Blyden in what is said to be the first precedent of the President’s promise to nullify cases related to the recently expunged Part v of the 1965 Public Order Act that criminalizes Libel.

IMPLICATIONS

Sierra Leone suffered from 11 years of gruesome civil conflict;  as a fragile state it is still yet to completely recover from the ravages of the war. Emerging platforms like the New Media have been of tremendous help in ensuring citizens participate in societal discourses. Nonetheless, the production, proliferation, and spread of information disorder have shown huge potential of eroding the successes made so-far in trying to consolidate the hard-earned peace. The ethno-regional realities that engulf our politics and the gradual propagation of fake, inflammatory political contents and hate speech have made the new media a weapon used by political opponents to spread dis-information and mal-information. The growth in these political gimmicks have on countless occasions urged activists to remind the Sierra Leonean population of the Rwandan Genocide and its dreadfulness. The reference is also associated with the role the media is playing in all of these ugly developments and how a much potent new media can be more aggressive than the traditional media that caused immeasurable havoc in Rwanda.

 The Ebola epidemic which ravaged the Mano River Union nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea and now the COVID-19 pandemic have all exhibited the need for societies like ours to take information disorder as a serious threat as it has proven to be as deadly as any virus. The Ebola epidemic at the very initial stages for instance was associated with witchcraft in Sierra Leone. There was a hoax of a bewitched aircraft that crashed in a remote part of Sierra Leone and that a certain local alcoholic drink Bitter Kola can cure the virus. This coupled with several other unfounded claims on local medication that was widely circulated via social media led to the escalation of an already bad situation and a massive rise in infection rates in different parts of the country that it was too late for authorities to handle.

The recent SARS protest in Nigeria also shows how fast fake contents unrelated to events in different places can be easily associated. There were images shared during the protest relating to killings that were totally unconnected to the SARS protest and generally Nigeria. Dubawa fact-checked the veracity of most of the claims and images and published articles on the relevant fact-checks. This does not imply that there were no shootings or murder cases related to the protest but as a credible and professional fact-checking organization, the truth and nothing but the truth remains our primary responsibility in every given circumstance. That truth we must ensure we propagate as a society for decent flow of public information.

CONCLUSION

The debate around the implementation of a cyber-law that will guide and determine how the law deals with all aspects of information disorder from mis-information, dis-information to mal-information in Sierra Leone keeps getting momentum especially when there are major occurrences or fatalities related to the spread of fake contents. The new media with its huge influence and ever-growing audience in societies like ours demands not just the establishment of institutions that will deter the growth and normalization of mis-information but the mass teaching and awakening of the public on basic media literacy skills and how to identify and thwart the spread of fake news.

As the fact checking industry is literally new in this part of the world and is still striving to gain the status of a trusted haven in an era marred by the spread of mis-information, authorities should ensure that they launch a concerted effort in the fight against a societal menace as harmful as information disorder. The culture of fact-finding by media houses should be supplemented by fact-checking and must be practiced in news rooms, along with continuous media literacy articles for the public and symposiums organized to teach journalists and the public on how to detect fake news. This will greatly complement the effort of the cyber-law department when it is established. Importantly, Dubawa as a fact-checking organization is penetrating the West-African Region in this regard.

Dubawa is stationed in Nigeria and Ghana and has recently extended to Sierra Leone where an academic is doing  fact-checking under the auspices of Dubawa in Sierra Leone  as a fellow. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abdullah, I., 2017. God Bless Whatsapp. In: I. R. Ibrahim Abdullah, ed. Ebola Epidemic in West Africa-Towards a Political Economy. Freetown: s.n.

Ebola Virus Epidemic in Sierra Leone Wikipedia

^ “The Ebola Outbreak Is Getting Worse in Sierra Leone”. VICE News. Retrieved 10 November 2014 

Sierra Leone Media Must Step Up- Memuna Forna 14/08/2015 Politico Newspaper.

^ “2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa”. Retrieved 4 October 2014.

New laws to Crack down on fake news Sierra Leone- Mohamed Jaward Nyallay 15 April, 2020. Politico Online

INFORMATION DISORDER : Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making- Claire Wardle, PhD Hossein Derakhshan September 27, 2017.

 Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)

Cambridge Definition of New Media.

 Does One size Fits It All- Amadu Sesay. Extract from TRC Report January 2006.

UN tackles ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and cybercrime in COVID-19 crisis from Department of Global Communications- 31st March, 2020.

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