Freetown — Sierra Leone had one of the most promising newspaper industries in the sub region. However, most of what was achieved by the first set of thirty-one newspapers that registered between 1939 and 1984 remained a flash in the pan.
From 1991, the industry has seen over forty newspapers come and gone; leaving less than fifteen dailies in a country of close to 6 million people.
The history of the press, newspapers to be specific, in Sierra Leone could be traced to as far back as 1794. Some fourteen years later (1808) there was a major breakthrough. The first monthly publication under the control of the Wesleyan Mission was set up.
It was this wave of media evolution that apparently attracted some foreign nationals who had settled in the country then. Thus In 1855 the New Era newspaper was set up by William Drape, a West Indian. But poor sales, which affected the major source of income to sustain the newspapers, became the bane that affected every aspect of the media industry in the 19th century.
A Freetown based lawyer, J.T. Thompson later established the West African Mail and Trade Gazette in 1941. After his death, his son Columbus Thompson continued but later joined Lamina Sankoh and Bankole Bright at the Guardian where he served as the editor.
Although newspaper business or journalism proper could be said to have started in Sierra Leone as far back as 1939 when the late Isaac Theophilus Akuna Wallace Johnson, a poet, journalist, politician and author, launched the African Standard on a small scale, the effort only began to yield benefit a decade or two later. In essence, progress in newspaper development then was very slow.
It was against this backdrop that, newspaper ostensibly became the first medium of information dissemination in Sierra Leone. In the 18th century, for instance, The Sierra Leone Gazette was established but it operations were, however, short-lived. Despite all the odds, one of the longest serving newspapers, the Daily Mail did extremely well. It publications ran from 1939 to the late 1990s. It was so well established that it became a well sought after newspaper in the region.
Unlike the Daily Mail, which published for over five decades, The Guardian could not sustain its publications under the management and leadership of Columbus Thompson, Lamina Sankoh and Bankole Bright.
As a result, the Guardian newspaper was sold to a British newspaper company in 1949. Soon, an exchange training programme and the attachment of editorial advisers (on the job training) from the United Kingdom to teach rudiments of journalism, started between the three sister-countries of West Africa: The Nigeria Times, The Ghana Daily Graphic and the Sierra Leone Daily Mail. Those were the flourishing dailies.
Apparently, some of these intermittent achievements by newspaper managers served as a major source of inspiration for young aspiring graduates. Most of them took to the art of writing and eventually became very popular journalists. Among those young graduates was I.T.A Wallace Johnson who had worked with a Nigerian, Nnamdi Azikwei to marshal the African Morning Post in Ghana, then referred to as the Gold Coast.
Also were Bankole Timothy, the then feature editor for the Ghana Graphic; Kojo Neili who became the first General Manager of the Sierra Leone Daily Mail.
Herbert A. Johnson benefited from an African-American training, which played a key role in the development of the Daily Mail. Anita Awuta Coker after graduating from the Berlin School of Journalism became manager of the Daily Mail.
Sam J. Metzger, after serving on the editorial boards of Nigeria's West African Pilot and the Ghana Times, returned home and became the manager for both Unity and Nation newspapers. He then became the managing editor of We Yone newspaper, the official media mouthpiece of the All Peoples Congress under Siaka Probyn Stevens.
E.B. Wallace Johnson was trained in the UK. He worked with the Daily Graphic, Ghana Times and Ghana News Agency. On his return to Sierra Leone, he wrote for almost all the leading newspapers, including Unity, Nation, Daily Mail and We Yone.
Between 1970 and early 1980s the Daily Mail was still the leading newspaper in the country. Through out this period its management saw dedicated people like Arita Awuta Coker, Bob Kassim, Alhaji Kabba, Asadi P.
Koroma, Eve Langba, Gershon Porter, Robert Smith, Badara Sesay, Ottis John, Bruno Grant and Kabba Kargbo. Credit was also given to Ibrahim B. Kargbo, now Minister of Information and Communications; Mrs.
Daisy Bonah; Herbert Johnson and Murice Kallon.
In 1993, a five-month course was organised by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and UNESCO, during which journalists were trained in mass communication, media management, and public relations, communication law, newspaper production and marketing, technique in journalism, English grammar and basic writing.
This period also marked a sharp turnaround in newspaper development - its management as a business - saw the advent of electronic communications equipment.
For instance, computers replaced the use of typewriters. Hence, we began to see the use of Microsoft Word document and Adobe PageMaker to process news materials designed in a suitable format for electronic printing.
However, before this time newspaper development was dangling between professionalism and newspaper as a profit-making venture. Bridging this gap over the years has gained some momentum. Whereas some statutes alongside the Common Law were accordingly administered to regulate newspaper business in particular and the media in general, the Independent Media Commission, IMC Act No. 12 of 2000 was ushered in a bid to establish an autonomous body for the regulation of mass media institutions.
Against that backdrop, there were several amendments geared toward the inauguration of the Media Code of Practice, which contains rules and regulations governing the establishment of newspapers and electronic media in the country.
Today this development could be said to have manifested itself in varying forms of professionalism; a booming industry and a lucrative business venture.
Nevertheless, there are many problems hat confront professionalism in contemporary newspaper development one of which is the Seditious Libel Law of 1965. This, according to some communications experts and veteran media practitioners, is inimical to freedom of communication.
In a nutshell, therefore, no historical analysis of newspaper development in Sierra Leone could afford to evade explaining the Criminal Libel Law, especially the seditious aspect of it, and its adverse effects on the general development of the media industry in the country. If it did, it would be guilty of distortion or misrepresentation of the highest degree.
Note: This piece is a summary of a research analysis by the author.