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What a press conference that was!

State House

By Umaru Fofana

Wednesday 5 March 2014 was another press conference at State House that I needed to attend. It was a biggie - a joint one by the visiting United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon and his host President Ernest Bai Koroma. To start with Mr Ban deserves commendation for finding time to come to Sierra Leone at a time when eastern Europe threatens to erupt. Like the first world war broke out following the killing of Franz Ferdinand in Austria, Ukraine could well be the spot for the frightening realisation of another disaster for world peace. It requires a UN boss with deep commitment to Sierra Leone to be here at this time.  Anyway...

The last time I attended a press confab at State House, I think, was when the president promised that he would abide henceforth by his Advisory Note Number 8 which he said had recommended that he should hold a monthly press conference. Of course needless to say he has not abided by it. But that is for another day.

At the last press conference I attended the star for me was the precocious Star Radio journalist, Amadu Lamrana Bah whose question was piercing and timely. The reason for his star performance then was for what he had asked at the conference. At yesterday's presser he was also a star in his own right. But this time not for the question he asked, but for the way he was asked to ask a question which was much to his surprise. I will tell you more about that shortly.

I have never seen a press conference - never mind a joint one graced by such personalities - where a coup would be plotted by the organisers, at least by some of them, against the journalists they had invited. My colleague Isaac Massaquoi has shared with me an unpleasant experience somewhere along that line, choreographed by then Minister of Information, Prof Septimus Kaikai. But that comes nowhere near yesterday's damp squib of a question-and-answer session at the Ban-Koroma press conference.

After President Koroma and before him Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had paid glowing tribute to the work of the United Nations in bringing peace to Sierra Leone and efforts made by successive governments in goading that peace process, the Moderator/Chairman Alhaji IB Kargbo, then announced that there would be room for only four questions. That was not strange in that it had been on the programme and it does happen at such high profile pressers especially with a Secretary General whose enjoy in Ukraine was feared kidnapped in the Crimea amid the worrisome standoff in the former Soviet Republic. Surely Mr Ban needed time to rest and do some consultations about his diplomat who, it later emerged, had been threatened and surrounded apparently by Russian or pro-Russian forces but was not taken away.

What was bizarrely unbelievable the manner of the question-and-answer session was this: After announcing that there would be room for only four questions, the former  Information Minister said that the four questioners had been predetermined because they had "volunteered" to ask questions. How bizarre! How can a journalist attending a press conference be said to have volunteered to ask a question? Even President Koroma had a surprising and disapproving countenance as far as I could read him face from where I sat.

At that point I knew I was out because I had not "volunteered" to ask. And because Ukraine was tinkering on the abyss, Reuters, one of the foreign media organisations I now work, for in addition to the BBC, had asked that I should seek Mr Ban's reaction to the situation in Ukraine. So I knew I needed to do something unorthodox to have my question asked. I asked the group of journalists in the row behind and in front of me whether any of them had "volunteered" to ask. None of them had. They included Lamrana Bah. And this is sweet...

After two people had been asked to ask because they had "volunteered", "Lamrana  Bah of Star Radio" was called out to ask. The young man was visibly surprised. He had not "volunteered" to ask any question. But for his intelligence which enabled him to come up with yet another clever question, he would have been embarrassed in the name of having "volunteered" when clearly he had not, while those who wanted to "volunteer" were tactically barred. In any case I managed to ask the Ukraine question through a foreign correspondent colleague.

Prof Septimus Kaikai's trickery was because he was hosting the then British Overseas Minister, Hillary Ben at a time when his government was coming under flack both for what it was doing and not doing. The minister had to point to journalists he thought were "harmless" and less embarrassing to the government to ask. Foolish as that was, I still cannot understand the rationale for yesterday's bizarre behaviour. The question persists: what was embarrassing about the joint Ban-Koroma press conference to have warranted such strange plot?

Ultimately it boils down to this habit of setting up institutions and not enabling or allowing them to function as they should. There is, or should be, a Directorate of Communication at State House that is being undermined especially when big visitors come in, as if to say the directorate cannot handle matters. It is like giving someone a cow and holding on to the leash. The director, Unisa Sesay is both professionally and academically competent to handle matters at that level if only he is given the resources and the fiat to operate.

So is Jarrah Kawusu-Konteh, a brilliant young man I have known since our days back in college who would have stoutly resisted such strange handling of the media at that press conference if only he had known about it prior. If this is not a reversal of Advisory Note Number 8, nothing else can be.

Time is beyond ripe for things to be handled more seriously, respectfully and professionally at State House  otherwise the president should dismantle the Directorate of Communication if it cannot and will not be allowed to function as should. When President Koroma scrapped the position of Presidential Spokesman the impression was that the soon to be formed Directorate of Communication would become the powerhouse to handle information (dissemination). But this is how it is being made to look useless. It seems to be a case of one step forward and three steps backwards, if you ask me.

(C) Politico 06/03/14