By James Tamba Lebbie
I will imagine that both David Sarnoff and John Reith will be turning in their graves because of the reckless compromise or sheer incompetence of Sierra Leone’s public broadcaster, a media enterprise that is supposed to not only serve as a panacea for decades of governments’ abuse of our state media but also provide an equitable space for all shades of opinion regardless of political, ethnic, religious and other considerations.
Sarnoff was an American entrepreneur who first discussed radio broadcasting as a public service in 1922 by stating that “considered from its broadest aspect…broadcasting represents a job of entertaining, informing and educating the nation, and should therefore be distinctly regarded as a public service.” However, it was Reith, who in his capacity as the first Director-General of the BBC that gave public service broadcasting an institutional form in the United Kingdom and beyond, (McDonnell, 1991).
What underpins my concern is a letter written by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communication dated 8 March and addressed to Mr. Festus Minah, Acting Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). That document is an indication of either the government has run out of ideas in dealing with our public service broadcaster or that contrary to numerous public pronouncements, SLBC’s independence is being undermined and compromised.
The letter states that the President “has graciously approved” five issues which implementation Mr. Minah should facilitate. Among those issues are that the “advertising component of the Corporation be outsourced to a professional advertising agency so that the SLBC can generate funds for its sustenance.” In addition, government will “continue to pay the salaries of workers with the understanding that after six months the SLBC would have put its house in order and would therefore be able to pay the salaries of its staff.” Also, the letter states that the SLBC Director-General should continue in office and that a “definitive decision be taken on him after further investigations.” I will return later to outline some justifications for my views that the SLBC is both a paradox and a disservice to the people of Sierra Leone.
Meanwhile, according to Marc Raboy in his seminal book, Public Broadcasting for the 21st Century, “in eastern Europe, in most of Africa, and in much of the rest of the ‘transitional’ world, public service broadcasting is a distant ideal, not a working reality. In those countries where the leadership has embraced that ideal, the lack of a receptive political and professional culture is often the next huddle. Where neo-totalitarian or neo-colonial governments seek to retain power at all cost, the lack of autonomy of national media is also a problem of political will.” Written about 18 years ago, Raboy’s comment apparently captures the situation in Sierra Leone today.
And across the Atlantic, the renowned US media historian and policy analyst, McChesney, (1999) defines public service broadcasting as “a system that is non-profit and non-commercial, supported by public funds, ultimately accountable in some legally defined way to the citizenry, and aimed at providing a service to the entire population – one which does not apply commercial principles as the primary means to determine its programming.” McChesney asserts that in these broad parameters, public service broadcasting “may be democratic or bureaucratic, benevolent or banal” adding that where on the spectrum any particular public broadcasting system might fall depends largely on two factors: “the level of democracy in the larger society and the degree to which the system is the product of informed public debate.”
Taking the former point in the context of Sierra Leone’s experiment of public service broadcasting, the question of the chicken an egg conundrum arises. In other words on the one hand, how impressive is Sierra Leone’s democratic credentials to run a public media service enterprise, and on the other hand, does Sierra Leone need a public service media to enhance its democratic values? And the latter point raises the question as to whether the SLBC is a product of “informed public debate.”
Media scholars, industry practitioners and independent civil society activists say the answer is in the negative. For instance, Dr. Julius Spencer, Managing Director of Premier Media Company says “the debate was limited.” Joshua Nicol, part-time lecturer at the Mass Communication Department and Editor-in-Chief of the Cotton Tree News project and Isaac Massaquoi, Acting head of the Mass Communication programme, Fourah Bay College believe the debate was hastily carried out and did not target all the relevant actors that could have facilitated a robust public debate on the issue.
So if the SLBC is not a product of an “informed public debate” as some media scholars and industry practitioners seem to suggest, then one is inclined to believe that the policy document that underpins the establishment of the SLBC is flawed and designed to favour the establishment. And if the political economy theory of the media is anything to go by, inundating the public with skewed media contents designed to promote the establishment should not therefore come as a surprise.
Let me return to my position on the absurdity of the SLBC by throwing light on the issues contained in the letter written by the Ministry of Information and Communication on 8 May to the Acting Chairman of the Board of Trustees. The document states among other things that Mr. Minah should continue to act as Chairman of the Board of Trustees. While this action is not a violation of the SLBC Act, it is nonetheless against moral and ethical considerations considering the fact that Mr. Minah is an activist of the ruling All Peoples’ Congress party in Constituency 88 in Pujehun District. While it is Mr. Minah’s right to belong to any political party of his choice, it becomes an entirely different matter when he is a party activist. In societies with serious democratic credentials, such a person is not fit to serve as Chair of a Board of Trustees that is supposed to insulate the public broadcaster from outside interference. It is therefore morally wrong for the government to employ him at the expense of taxpayers. Indeed, this runs counter to Section 11(2c)(c), of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Act, 2009, which states that the discharge of the functions of the Corporation shall be guided by “promotion of fair competition based on internationally accepted principles for a public service broadcaster, which include independent management, public service ethos and representation of all viewpoints and sections of society in a non-partisan and objective manner.” And according to Raboy (n.d), public broadcasting “should be seen as a comprehensive environment” with eight principles among which is “distance from vested interested.” Also, the SLBC Act states in Section 3(1)(a) that “a Chairman…shall be a person competent and knowledgeable in the operation and management of broadcasting….” As far as I know, the current SLBC Board Chairman has a knowledge deficit in media generally and public service broadcasting particularly. He was a teacher and subsequently became a civil society activist.
The second issue of concern in the letter has to do with the outsourcing of the commercial component of the SLBC to private advertising agency. Again, this is in line with the SLBC Act, which states in Section 10(2)(l) that the Corporation “may outsource its advertising component to ensure reliable funding and sustainability.” While one is inclined to understand the rationale for this move, it is unacceptable to privatise a component of a public entity like the media. And I will like to remind my reader of McChesney’s definition of public service broadcasting above. In the first place, it is wrong for a public service broadcaster to have a commercial component because it runs counter to the sixth principle of public service broadcasting which talks about “direct funding and universality of payment,” (Raboy, n.d.). It therefore becomes worse when that commercial component is again privatized. The argument put forward by many media scholars is that when a public entity like media is commercialised, it is placed in a position where it has to serve two masters – public and the market. And research has revealed that most often than not, it is the market that is served at the expense of the public for obvious reasons.
The final point of contention in the letter is the directive that the SLBC Director-General should continue in office pending “further investigations.” This is absurd to say the least. Three separate investigations were carried out on the SLBC and only one lame report has been made public while the other two – believed to have indicted the Board and Management – are still kept in the dark. My source within the Board of Trustees told me the audit report carried out by KPMG is caustic and would be of interest of the Anti-Corruption Commission if the government’s commitment to fighting graft should be taken seriously. My source also told me that the report of the investigation carried out by Elizabeth Smith, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) is equally scathing. It recommends among other things that the entire top management of the SLBC would be relieved of their duties and be replaced with qualified and competent people.
Let it be known that the questions and doubts raised in this piece do not in any way, shape or form, diminish the need for and significance of public service broadcasting in Sierra Leone. Its existence is justified if judged against the background of the pre-existing media landscape in the country. And while the government should indeed be credited for providing the political will to this major first step in transforming what was once a government mouthpiece and propaganda machine, it is crucial that local civil society groups continue to advocate for an effective mechanism for accountability and transparency, and to ensure that the leadership of the SLBC is committed to the principles of public service broadcasting.