A two-week visit to Sierra Leone and Cameroon towards the end of November 2017 to gain an understanding of community media activities there left me quite humbled about the challenges we face in the community radio sector in India.  Alexander Vojvoda and Sebastian Lasinger, staffers for Bread for the World, a development and relief agency of Protestant Churches in Germany, that addresses issues of poverty, food security, democracy and social justice in about 90 countries around the world, were my hosts. They put together a hectic itinerary for me that involved lending my voice in support of community media and networking among practitioners in the region.  At the end, there was no doubt that this trip to West and Central Africa was a huge learning experience for me.

The following are excerpts from my Sierra Leone diary written during the trip:

November 20, 2017

Landed in Lungi, the only airport in Sierra Leone, after a nine-hour flight from Nairobi.  This was the first time that I had to take a boat to the city after landing in a new country. It was a rough ride by speed boat across the Sierra Leone river to Freetown, the capital. Freetown was founded in the 18th century by African-American ex-slaves and became a refuge for liberated African and Caribbean settlers.

November 21, 2017

Still somewhat jetlagged, I was picked up at 9 am by Desmond, the driver, to go to Culture Radio.

I had read about Culture Radio 104.5 FM being described as a Rastafarian-inspired radio station that espoused a pan-African ideology and broadcasts on issues of peace and justice.  At the station, I was welcomed warmly by Elijah MI Gregra, the founder CEO of the station that was set up in

2007, operating at 1 KW power. They send the signal via cable to a central transmission tower on the hill from which it goes out to a sizeable audience, consisting of almost all of Freetown and some parts of the country outside the capital. The station is on air for 18 hours a day, much of it live. They have news reporters and they do talk shows such as “Burning Issues”.  Elijah asserted that Culture Radio changed the media landscape in the country. They have had to contend with political challenges, with one of their staffers arrested and complaints made against the station to the regulator. It is very difficult to talk about corruption in high places without attracting libel cases.

The ‘culture’ in the name of the station, he explained, is about the cultural identity crisis that Sierra Leone faced after colonization. It’s an attempt to reconstruct a vision of Sierra Leone ‘from our own world view’, with an emphasis on pan-African identity. When I landed at Lungi, I had some trouble at Immigration and when I mentioned Culture Radio as one of my hosts, the person manning the counter had exclaimed, “Elijah, my brother!” and waved me off. I could now see why – Elijah was quite a charismatic personality! People often stopped him on the streets with the fist bump and the Rastafarian greeting, “Respect”.

Elijah also called Culture Radio a ‘causes-based’ radio station that takes up important issues. Among these issues that’s currently animating them, he mentioned the problem of transnational corporations grabbing land for their investments in Sierra Leone.  Talking with a distinct sadness, Elijah also discussed the Ebola outbreak in the region in 2014 and how everyone felt powerless. They were reduced only to broadcasting health warnings.

The station employed 20 full-time staff members and five volunteers who are paid at a flat rate.  Elijah admitted that sustainability was an issue, saying frankly that the funding from donors may not last long.  “How to be self-reliant?” he asked tantalisingly, without providing an answer.

After lunch, Sebastian and the dynamic station director of Culture Radio, Aminata Massaquoi took me to the office of the Independent Radio Network (IRN).

***

“Sierra Leone’s past is marked by political violence, an overly centralized government and a 10-year civil war that has devastated the country. As a result, the country remains behind in the development of a truly independent media sector – an important obstacle in achieving democracy. For years, marginalized groups such as women, youth and those in rural communities have been denied access to transparent, accurate information, and unable to play an active role in the country’s national decision-making process. The solution to these problems is only possible with information. In a country of extreme poverty, limited electricity and a literacy rate of only 31 per cent, radio is the preferred communication channel for most of the population.”

That was from the website of the Independent Radio Network (IRN) that was launched in 2002, in response to this demand. Ranford Wright, the Coordinator of IRN, told me that since then IRN has grown to include 40 radio stations, providing a platform for the people of Sierra Leone to interact with their government and bring their concerns to the political agenda. “It has increased the capacity of community stations and provided momentum for social and political change,” he asserted. “Over time, these efforts have strengthened solidarity among partnering stations and enhanced the radio landscape’s peace building capabilities.”

IRN offers large international NGOs and donor agencies the advantage of simultaneous broadcast through a network of radio stations on key national issues. The weekly one-hour programme in Krio, the Sierra Leonean Creole, that’s simulcast using a VSAT connection gets them a huge audience nationally.  They have done programmes on elections, accountability of institutions, and Ebola, among other subjects. These programmes are broadcast live, with a central phone number for call-ins. Ransford explained that, as part of their partnership building, IRN occasionally also provides infrastructure support, as in the case of five radio stations that were given transmitters.  They also provide some capacity building to stations on issues such as the governance structure and management of the stations. Reflecting on what he called IRN’s professionalism and impartiality, Ranford says, “We are a country with bad media laws. We can perhaps be more aggressive than we are, but we would be inviting trouble.”

November 22, 2017

It was after 3 pm that Aminata Massaquoi and I headed out to visit the rural community radio station that she had mentioned to me the other day.  It was about 40 km away from Freetown, in the Western Area Rural district of Sierra Leone. It was a picturesque route that was marred by various things.  There was a highway road widening project that the Chinese have undertaken, causing the traffic to really slow down. Everywhere one could see the tell-tale Chinese foreman/supervisor in a straw hat and scores of local labourers.  Chinese infrastructure projects are all over Africa and the current President of Sierra Leone seems to see the country’s salvation in Chinese investments. Other commentators are talking about it as a new imperialism of sorts. Then, Aminata drew my attention to the mountain side with a huge, ugly brown scar that was apparently the site of the horrible mudslide that had occurred during heavy rains in August this year, causing the death of over 500 people.  A combination of human factors is said to have contributed to the disaster.

Another sad thing on the way was related to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 that consumed nearly 4000 lives in Sierra Leone alone, not counting Liberia and Guinea.  Aminata pointed out one of the biggest Ebola centres on the way and a special graveyard where people were required to bury their dead instead of in the regular burial grounds.  People were not even allowed to visit bereaved relatives and friends because of the fear of spreading the disease.

Past the town of Waterloo, we finally reached Tombo, a coastal fishing town with a predominantly Muslim population and inhabited by several ethnic groups, including the Temne, Sherbro and Limba communities.

Among other things, the town is known for its own local radio station, Radio Tombo 96.0 FM. I met Salu Mangeh Koroma, the founder of the station, officially called The Voice of the Peninsula Mountain Radio, although it is informally also referred to as “Radio Tombo” after the town.  I met Salu Mangeh Koroma, the founder of the station, who, although slightly incapacitated from a spinal injury shared a fascinating story about the station and his experience. In 1997 at the height of the civil war, he said, there were only four radio stations in the country. People had no reliable sources of information and tended to depend a lot on rumour and gossip.  A school dropout with some technical knowledge, Koroma put together a small 5W transmitter, borrowed a microphone from the local pastor and started broadcasting to the fishing community of the town. The US $2000 a year for a radio license that was being charged by the government was too expensive for a community radio initiative. The government was not too happy with his illegal broadcast and he was arrested briefly in 1999 and taken to Freetown.  With the community mobilized behind him and with appreciation of his broadcast work by the national broadcaster (SLBC), he was subsequently released. Over the next year, he resisted pressures to register and get a license because he had no money and thought he was primarily rendering a service to a poor community. Eventually, Koroma obtained a broadcast license in 2005. A community radio policy was formulated with the initiative of the Open Society Foundation and a concessional license fee of about US $80 (approximately, 500,000 Leones) was set for community radios.

Edward, the head of programming at the station, told me that about five of them are paid staff and remaining are unpaid volunteers.  The station is on air for about 12 hours a day. Power supply is erratic, with only about 12 hours of guaranteed supply in the day. In terms of content, a lot of attention is given to issues related to fisherfolk – for example, the threat from mechanised trawlers and the need to promote sustainable fishing. The station also attempts to build local leadership by innovative coverage of local elections. There is some religious content on air, but interestingly despite being in a Muslim majority region, the station gives airtime to Christians because, as Koroma put it, “we have greater responsibility to give the minority some airtime.”

Koroma says that the station has been without major donor funding for the last 10 years, and has been surviving only on community support.  He shared some of the creative ways in which he raises revenues for the station. He runs a charging centre for people to charge their mobile phones and to charge the car batteries that they use for running television sets in their homes.  He also charges for community announcements, such as the ones by fisher folk who want some extra hands to work on their boats. The really interesting initiative was a ‘broadcast hall’ that the station has created, with a big-screen plasma TV on which screenings of live broadcasts of major league football are organized.  Young people are charged a price per match (depending on the importance of the match, about 2000-3000 Leones) to enjoy this community viewing. When I walked into an ongoing screening, there were about four or five men seated on benches, watching the match. They were a bit shy and reluctant to be photographed. It is no wonder that for the last 10 years an international agency has been supporting a football academy in Tombo where girls and boys get good education and football coaching for free.

November 24, 2017

At the workshop today, I met Sarah Rogers, station manager and founder of Voice of Women 88.5 FM radio station in Mattru Jong in Bonthe district in southern Sierra Leone.  The district, comprising of several islands, is the least populous in the country with a population of about 200,000. It is home to the Sherbro and the Mende people. Despite having one of the largest deposits of titanium ore (rutile), exploitative mining policies of international consortia and one of the worst environmental degradation episodes in memory, have resulted in economic backwardness of the region, with bad roads, indifferent supply of water and electricity, and lack of proper access to the Internet.

Sarah says the station was set up, with a 100 W transmitter, as a way to address the concerns and lives of women, who had an especially traumatic time during the long years of civil war.  She said the initial funding for equipment was facilitated by OSIWA (Open Society Initiative for West Africa), and BBC Media Action and the Dutch INFORMOTRAC provided some of the training.  The station became operational in 2006 and runs mostly on contributions of unpaid volunteers (about 12, with 6 women) who have full-time jobs outside the station. Sarah herself is a senior school teacher.   It broadcasts for about 12 hours a day, with a fair amount of repeat programming.

She seems to have made some agreements with mobile phone companies like Africell who pay her for airing their jingles and also gives her a free line for listeners’ phone calls. She and other station representatives who talked to me complained that the government departments don’t release payments promised for airing content, a story that sounds pretty much like the experience of many stations in India. For instance, the Radio Teaching Programme in which many stations delivered school lessons through radio during the Ebola crisis when schools were shut down. It was an important public service for which payments were promised, but not actually paid. A couple of other participants who joined Sarah and me in our conversation  felt that the local councils must provide more support to CR stations that are rendering a service to the community. Sometimes the local councils use the stations to reach out to the residents, but pay nothing for the service. They said the councils receive funds from the government for local community development work which they could use to make these payments to the station.

Watch interview with Prof. Vinod Pavarala, UNESCO Chair on Community Media by Alexander Vojvoda on behalf of Cameroon Community Media Network:

Vinod Pavarala

(Prof. Pavarala, the UNESCO Chair on Community Media, was invited to spend two weeks in the region to support network building among community media practitioners)