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Sierra Leone community radios, politics and professionalism

  • Radio Wanjei Manager in Pujehun presenting

By Mohamed Turah Massaquoi

It’s 12:00 noon in Pujehun, in the southern part of Sierra Leone. At this time each day in the week most people in this district of a population of slightly over 300, 000 are likely to be glued to their radio sets, listening to the most popular program on Radio Wanjei – Chiefdom Satellite.

Radio Wanjei is the only community radio station in the whole of Pujehun, and this flagship program provides a real opportunity for people to discuss issues affecting their lives. But this one-hour phone-in-program also represents an enigma in community radio journalism. It has been a source of acrimony between politicians and the radio’s management. The station has come under physical attacks severally and its small staff of mainly volunteers is almost used to receiving threatening remarks in relation to their work.

In some cases this may have been provoked by attempts by the authorities to question what the management has always claimed is “objective journalism”. However, for the most part, the program has been said to be unprofessional.

Community radios are one of the proud outcomes of Sierra Leone's
fledgling democracy and post-1991-2002 civil war. There is hardly any district that doesn't have at least one, according to Isaac Massaquoi, journalism lecturer and one of the pioneers of community radio network in the country. These radios have become a powerful tool with which the electorate communicate to their leaders. They are particularly instrumental in that they provide a platform for the masses to express their demands, especially during election periods.

But a seeming lack of professionalism on the part of the practitioners appears to be sabotaging this otherwise important democratic engagement process. Given Sierra Leone's unfortunate culture of regional and ethnic politics, journalists, depending on which part of the country they operate in, have tended to favour one political party against the other. This way not only is the people deprived of the opportunity to make informed decisions, but it has occasioned the risk of violence.

Critics say Radio Wanjei has created a platform for institutions and individuals to attack each other, thereby endangering the existence of peace and development of the district. The district medical officer (DMO), Dr David Bome, says the radio station is notably renowned for its failure to investigate issues before going on air on them. He further claims that the health sector has been a victim of such attacks.  

While admitting to the allegations Abubakarr Salam Mustapha, the new station manager of Radio Wanjei, says these are all things of the past. He was hired in August 2016, slightly over a year now, following the sudden death of his predecessor, Anthony Kebbie Deen.

“These things used to happen but not under my regime as a manager,” he says, before blaming all of it on lack of professional and qualified staff and management’s inability to financially run the institution.

Radio Wanjei’s tendency to create uproar is not only limited to politics. Its journalists have been repeatedly accused of portraying only negative happenings in the health sector. This, according to Dr. Bome in Pujehun, has worked against their effort to cultivate a motivated professional staff base. He says this in turn affects their services to the people. The DMO also recalls how people take to the airwaves calling him all sorts of

“If we are doing good things from January to January nobody talks about it on the radio, but when little things go down wrong they begin to decry us. We are de-motivated as health workers,” he says.
Even among local residents, there is a lot of dissatisfaction over the performance of Radio Wanjei, given its tendency to incite political conflict. Sheku Passay, a tailor, can’t remember when he last listened to any program on Radio Wanjei.

“I do not listen to Radio Wanjei because there is nothing relevant to me in terms of development for the district that is being discussed in their programs. All they do is inciting people,” he alleges.

Meanwhile, across the district, reports of land grabbing, armed robbery and sexual violence, some of the dominant social issues in the region that are at an all-time high. These issues have been on the increase in the last one year, according to the District Council chairman, Sadiq Silla.

Pujehun, one of four districts that constitute the southern region of Sierra Leone, has had a very dark record of violence prior to independence, he added. It became more alarming during the civil war when political disagreements assumed tribal connotations. With such a history, the media must be very mindful in its programing, some observers have said.

Pujehun shares border with neighbouring Liberia, the two being separated only by the Mano River. As such people across both sides of the border share a common cultural heritage. Radio Wanjei covers some parts of Liberia, as well as parts of its neighbouring districts in the Sierra Leonean side: Bo, Bonthe, Moyamba, and Kenema in the east of the country. All of this happens to fall within an ethno-political region believed to be dominated by supporters of the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

The composition of the board of management of the station is entirely political. This is because the appointment of board members has been based on political affiliations. This also means that premium is not laid on competence. There are 13 members in the board, including the SLPP Women's leader, its district chairman, and one of its councillors. The rest are largely card carrying members of the party. This has made it impossible for the radio to operate objectively.

Since the inception of Radio Wanjei, its management has been subjected to frequent changes. The explanations for this have revolved around allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and political interference. So maintaining its staff has always been a difficult task. Therefore, years of training offered by media development institutions like the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Independent Media Commission, BBC Media Action, have yielded no fruit.

The recruitment process of the staff of the station also leaves no room for efficiency. And because of this reporters of the station go for months without salary. So, for them to survive, the reporters are forced to work in the interest of politicians. A perfect example of the biasness of the station was displayed during a parliamentary by-election in 2010 at Constituency 87. The ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) candidate had paid for an air time and a slot was allocated. The management later went ahead to collect payment for the same slot from the SLPP candidate.

Despite protests from the APC, the SLPP candidate was allowed on air. It led to a violence and destruction of the properties of the station. Calm was only restored after the intervention of the police and military.
“It would surprise you to know that politicians use the resources of the radio station to go on their own campaigns. They even use the gadgets of the reporters in their campaigns," laments Silla, who is also a member of the SLPP.

Mr Silla, who is completing his second term of five years later this year, was first elected in 2007 on the ticket of the SLPP. But he has had a fair share of experience of political bias in the hands of the management of Radio Wanjei. He says this status quo has occasioned serious rivalry and conflicts among politicians.

Shortly before the 2012 general elections, Mr Silla engaged in a physical confrontation with Melvin Rogers, the former Station Manager of the Radio, in the studios after what he said was repeated broadcasts of personal attacks against his person.

“I went to the radio myself because it became so unbearable that every day you tuned in to your radio it was an attack on my person. People were paid and bribed just to attack me and when they come out they apologized to me…," Silla says. This same situation prevails in the northern Kambia District, where a huge portion of the journalists has been tagged with different political interests.

The main opposition party in Kambia says the media is bias in favour of the governing APC, such that they have been totally silenced. It got so worse that the SLPP have decided not to show-up in any radio discussion even when invited, says the station manager of MARWOPNET Peace Radio, Yayah Bilal Turay.

So serious is the situation in Kambia that even within the APC party there are rival groups enjoying varying levels of patronage. District youth leader with the National Youth Commission, Hamid Kamara, observes that some journalists working in Kambia have been seen in political party attires attending meetings of the APC. During one of my visits I saw some of the journalists take to the air presenting sensitive political programs while drinking and drunk.

There are a total of four community radio stations in Kambia. Critics say all of these are pro-APC, including MARWOPNET, which is one of the most powerful radio stations in the district. With next year’s elections fast approaching, tensions are already rising across the country and the media will be crucial in shaping how all this ends. And by every indication some actions are being taken towards this, albeit not quite sufficient.

In Pujehun, for instance, the board of Radio Wanjei has decided to engage the management with the aim of putting a halt on the controversial Chiefdom Satellite program until after the polls. But Khalil Kallon, Regional Desk Officer south-east for the IMC, says much more needs to be done if the 2018 elections were to be held in a violent-free atmosphere.

He says the commission would particularly want to see journalists giving equal opportunity to politicians and political parties in terms of airtime and coverage. He also urged journalists to refrain from identifying themselves with individual parties.

There are about 10 community radio stations in the two regions Kallon covers. He says the absence of professionalism in journalists in these regions remains a key factor fuelling problems in their communities which calls for urgent attention.

Kallon says the problem has persisted largely because journalists working for these community radio stations are not professionally trained and all they depend on is in-service training from partnership like the BBC Media Action, Independent Radio Network and IMC.

“These people were not actually trained groomed as professional journalists but because of their presence in their communities they have assumed journalism and are supposed to be serving the interest of their communities,” he said.

Kallon says in previous elections the commission moved around the country actively monitoring political programs at various community radio stations and that even then things didn’t go well. He laments that this time around they haven’t got funds for such an activity and he is worried about what that will mean for peaceful elections.

“The IMC is of the belief that without prior orientation these community radio stations will end up creating pandemonium during elections,” he adds.

“This story was written as part of a journalism fellowship with the U.S. Embassy in Freetown. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the journalist and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Embassy.”

© 2017 Politico Online