Sierra Leone

Bring Media to the People

Refugees Sierra Leone
First food, then information. Refugees in Loungi, Sierra Leone (Photo: AFP).

The media have a crucial role to play in the sustainability of peace and democracy in postwar Sierra Leone. The country has gone through a nightmarish period. The biggest challenge to be faced in postwar Sierra Leone is reconciling divergent parties. The different political upheavals that occurred at different times in the past decade have polarized the nation.

In addition to the stark polarizations by affiliation or loyalty, deep acrimony characterizes the relationships between people and communities in Sierra Leone. When soldiers overthrew President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1997, and the Armed Forces Ruling Council was proclaimed, many people declared their support for junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma. Those who were in support of the ousted democratically elected government regarded the junta supporters as enemies, and vice versa. During the short reign of the junta, many pro-democrats were persecuted. And when the junta was ousted, pro-democrats too had a chance to seek revenge. Many junta “collaborators” were burned alive, and some were clubbed to death. Not surprisingly, the civil war subsequently escalated, resulting in widespread arson, torture, raping, and prevalent instability. When Kabbah was reinstated in 1998 after the junta was ousted, 24 soldiers were executed and 10 sentenced to life imprisonment after being tried in a court martial. The families and relations of the victims, not surprisingly, became dejected and developed resentment for the government.

For the past decade, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels committed atrocities described by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson as the worst in the world when she visited the country in 1999. The rebels burned houses, tortured and killed [the population], and gang-raped women. Because of the large-scale atrocities committed, the government formed a civil militia known as Civil Defense Force (CDF) to combat the rebels.

The war is now presumed to be over. Former RUF and CDF combatants, renegade soldiers, and all those who caused the people to endure these nightmarish ordeals now have to settle with them in the same community.

But will they live in peace? And what role should the media play to enhance harmony among people who belonged to divergent parties? There are certain things that will happen, but to report them may only ignite violent conflicts. So, where do we draw the line between truth and responsibility?

The media should write feature articles and organize talk shows that will motivate the people to embrace the concept of unity in diversity. Though the people of Sierra Leone all belong to diverse groups, have diverse opinions about the war and diverse loyalties or affiliations, they can still live together and still agree to disagree on various issues prevailing in postwar Sierra Leone. The media as a torchbearer of the nation should be devoid of negative tribalism and sectionalism. Journalists need to practice what is known as “preventive journalism.” What this means is that journalists need to forewarn people of the dangers of certain words and actions that carry the potential of plunging their communities or the nation into chaos.

The bulk of the sufferers, who [tend not to appear in] the media, live in the provinces. They suffered the worst brunt of the war. They have been marginalized and politically misused by politicians, but are not usually featured by the media as the politicians are. News organs should try to place correspondents in the provinces. These correspondents should work with the people and serve as agents of change by participating in community development and reporting on the needs of the people.

In postwar Sierra Leone, journalists should elicit the views of pacifists when conducting interviews on issues that affect the future or security of the country. The public should be encouraged to participate in the media. They should be encouraged to take part in phone-in programs, write letters to editors, and comment on issues, or even report to the media personally on what affects their rights. In other words, bring the media to the people. The media in Sierra Leone should now become a people’s media.

This will give the people hope. Journalists should set an agenda for the politicians, monitor policies that are formulated by government, and elicit the views of [ordinary] people on national issues.

As professor Kwame Karikari, executive director of the Media Foundation for West Africa, based in Ghana, said while he was in Sierra Leone in February, “A people without hope are better dead.” Because the politicians have failed the people and killed their confidence [in politics], hope for Sierra Leoneans now lies in the media.