New degrees, no pencils
By Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Pasco Gerald Temple Posted Jan 1 2007
As Sierra Leone prepares for the first elections since the departure of UN peacekeepers in 2005, veteran reporter Richard Margao worries about how he and his colleagues will report the elections in the 14 chiefdoms of his region. Margao, who has worked as a correspondent for the BBC for many years and is now chairman of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists South, relies on his mobile phone for interviews and other communications because landlines are not in working order. But mobile phones need to be recharged, and doing so requires electricity, which is only available to those who can afford gas for generators. Also, getting around is not easy as most of the roads are in terrible condition, says Margao. For print journalists, it will be difficult to file stories from the region, where there is limited Internet access.
“In the entire Bo District, we have three internet cafés. Only two are reliable, and they are not operating on a 24-hour basis,” he said.
The elections, which will take place on July 28, 2007, were recently described as a “major milestone” by Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the United Nations. As journalists in the country get ready to cover the electoral contest, they face a daunting set of challenges. Sierra Leone is ranked 176th out of 177 as the poorest country in the UN’s 2005 Human Development Report, and the country’s poverty and decade-long civil war have left a profound imprint on its media.
Margao is not alone in his concern about the quality of election coverage James Taiwo Cullen, managing director of Voice of the Handicapped Radio 96.2 FM, is concerned about his station’s coverage of the upcoming elections because he can no longer afford to pay for enough gas to keep his generator running for 24-hour transmissions. The shortage, he says, has reduced live political coverage and will make it more difficult for his station to deliver breaking news in the elections.
The case of Voice of the Handicapped is not unique. Radio stations across the country have been forced to cut transmission times because of hikes in gas prices. This is particularly problematic for audiences outside the capital, where timely elections reports will be limited to radio. Sierra Leone’s radio managers have devised an election coverage strategy to link radio stations through a central network, allowing journalists to report on activities at stations around the country live on air. However, because of reduced airtime at stations across the country, this strategy is unlikely to secure up-to-date electoral news across the board.
Television coverage is problematic for different reasons. Three out of the four television stations are owned and controlled by the government and are seen as unlikely to report electoral fraud.
“The state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS) radio and television are nothing more than propaganda mechanisms controlled by demagogues in the SLPP,” according to an Expo Times editorial. “Every news item that goes out for broadcast first goes through the Ministry of Information for vetting.”
The sole independent television station, ABC Television, is struggling to meet production costs.
Yet journalists in Sierra Leone continue to be proud of their media. Sierra Leone has a long history of independent and critical journalism. It was home to the first newspaper published in Anglophone West Africa, which came out in 1801. And the post-war media landscape reflects a revitalized journalism profession. It includes 44 newspapers, 33 community radio stations, six international radio relay stations and four television stations. Not only is there a wealth of media organizations, but Sierra Leone now also boasts a school to train its very own journalists. Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone’s top university, conferred its first degrees in journalism and mass communications in 2005.
Although graduates are proud of their degrees and the professionalism they symbolize and have secured jobs at the most prestigious news organizations in the country, several of them fear that their reporting will be hampered because they lack the basic tools of their trade. Most of them do not have computers or even tape-recorders.
In general, journalists’ work is made difficult by a scarcity of technologies and materials, including computers, printers, telephones, cameras, paper, notepads, pens and pencils, tape recorders, office space and office furniture. A recent survey of 50 Freetown print journalists conducted at Fourah Bay College showed that while one out of five respondents have access to computers and telephones in the newsroom, only one out of ten have access to tape recorders and note pads.
As a result of inadequate in-house resources, many journalists use expensive commercial computing centers for services including typing and desktop publishing and also rely on outsourcing for filming, plating and printing. The President of the Sierra Leone Reporters Union, Dawson Kuyateh, expressed pessimism about the timeliness and accuracy of electoral reporting. He pointed to the inadequacy of photographic equipment as a particular concern.
“Most of my members don’t have still cameras to take snapshots of activities,” he said. For those photographers that do own equipment, high-quality film is difficult to finance.
Other journalists are more hopeful. Philip Neville, executive editor of the Standard Times, said that his paper is equipped with computers, stationary and tape-recorders.
Media organizations that don’t have such resources blame flagging advertising revenues. In Sierra Leone, the government, mobile phone companies and international NGOs account for the majority of advertising revenue. The government only advertises in newspapers sympathetic to its policies, according to several newspaper editors.
“Government institutions consider my paper to be an opposition paper, so its ministries are not advertising with me,” says Mohamed D. Koroma, managing editor of the African Champion newspaper. “The government thinks without its adverts, my paper won’t come out, but I will continue to maintain my stance.”
Sheka Tarawally, the former editor of the Torchlight, was forced to close down his newspaper during the civil war. His newspaper’s critical stance towards the government made it impossible to resume operations after the end of hostilities, as public and private clients took their advertising accounts elsewhere to avoid association with the opposition.
“We lost everything, and there was no finance to restart publication,” he said.
As a result of low advertising and sales revenues, some media organizations cannot afford to pay employees a living wage. At least 20 percent of newspaper journalists work entirely without pay, according to a study conducted at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.
To support themselves, some journalists engage in what is known as “coasting” or “black-enveloping,” using blackmail or accepting payments in exchange for coverage. Coasting accounts for 30 percent of junior reporters’ income, according to the same study.
Such practices are not unique to Sierra Leone but are symptomatic of a difficult economic climate.
“The practice of coasting was not invented by a genius, by a Galileo or Isaac Newton, but by ordinary journalists as a practical way of surviving in these harsh economic conditions under which the print media operates in Sierra Leone,” says Kabral Blay-Amihere, the former Ghanaian High Commissioner to Sierra Leone.
The reliance on patronage payments is particularly problematic in election times, when parties with vested interests are more likely to seek to influence journalists.
Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, recently warned against the dangers of biased election reporting.
“Make your affiliation known,” he said. “Don’t pretend that you’re independent if you’re not.”
Writing in the Standard Times, Saidu Kamara cautioned journalists “to do everything in their power to extricate themselves from any political alignment” in the elections.
The media have “the social responsibility to help bring about cohesion and political pluralism in this country. This is what democracy is all about.”