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press freedom

Beleaguered Press

David Tam-Baryoh
WPR Correspondent

In a country like Sierra Leone, where the people’s quest for news about peace and security is insatiable, the functions and effects of the available channels of communication cannot be overemphasized.

Whether it has to do with the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers or government pronouncements about which areas are rebel-free, sources and dissemination of news for a population traumatized by 10 years of civil war are very much desired and cherished. For a 4.5 million population with an 85- percent illiteracy rate, radio has become an effective tool and companion of many Sierra Leoneans. In the words of a leading Sierra Leonean journalist, Sam Metzger, “radios are for all, while newspapers are for a few educated citizens.”

Apart from physical threats to the lives of journalists, there are various sociopolitical, and more especially, economic bottlenecks to the sane and unhindered practice of journalism. The media industry in Sierra Leone is not only underfinanced but individual businessmen and women do not seem to see any need to invest in media. The badly presented facts and mixed syntax that are often the trademark in most published articles tend to lend credence to the reality that the distance between the story writer and the means of production of a newspaper in Sierra Leone is getting wider by day and more dangerous every time an edition goes to bed.

Presently, there are three printing houses doing jobs for some 56 newspapers with an average of 10 publications of four-page newspapers daily. These printing presses the newest purchased in 1973 are under-serviced and overworked, with absolutely no spare parts available. The National Power Authority (NPA) NPA is using outdated Japanese machines to supply the city of Freetown with electricity; these machines have to be overhauled, and during these servicing periods whole sections of the city go without light.

In addition to these headaches, the chronic shortage or absence of printing materials has been a thorn in the flesh. From the moment stories are gathered and handwritten, the editor hardly has any more control over his piece until he sees his paper with the vendor on the street. Most of the newspapers do not have their own computers, and rely heavily on the services of street-side typists in some corner desktop publishing café, where the stories are typed and if lucky, the editor or his ill-trained proofreader (for want of a better description) might be given the opportunity to proofread on screen.

Presently, the capital city, Freetown, has four radio stations. Two are government-owned, while one of the two privately owned is devoted to playing Christian music. Four provincial radio stations serve some two and a half million people in the south, southeast, and north. During the dry season (December to May) the FM Kiss 104, broadcasting from the southern town of Bo some 175 miles from Freetown, can be heard at the east end of the capital city. The only television station in the country, based in Freetown, covers only half of the city and due to incessant power cuts, only the affluent with generators can watch it.

Many Sierra Leoneans have expressed concern over the dismal state of the press. Sadly, this has not spurred the government to give a helping hand. It appears that an ill-equipped and less professional press is a delight to the government, which, in the absence of any formidable political opposition, looks upon the press as its principal antagonist.

To attempt a remedy of this situation, a few advocacy organizations have been formed by practicing journalists and their supporters abroad. The center for Media, Education and Technology (C-MET), which began operation in Freetown in July 2000 [but was officially launched in December], has supplied 19 computers, scanners, and printers to several media houses and has embarked upon training media practitioners from both private and state-owned media.

Supported with funds from the British government, the Thompson Foundation has also outlined various training programs, while the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists has conducted several training sessions for its members. Through the Canadian Journalists Federation for Free Expression (CJFE), the Canada International Development Agency plans to provide a giant printing press for the use of Freetown’s innumerable newspaper houses.

December 2001 (VOL. 48, No. 12)Overline Overline Overline OverlineHeadline Headline Headline HeadlineName
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