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Will Sierra Leone's SLBC Fulfill Its Public Mission?Posted by: admin on Wed, 2010-05-19 17:15
By Bai-Bai Sesay
(Freetown, Sierra Leone)-- The United Nations entered uncharted media territory this year when it agreed to merge its legacy peacekeeping radio station with the former state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS). This was the first time the UN chose to keep a peacekeeping station alive post-mission rather than pull up its stakes upon exit.
The merged entity, dubbed the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corp (SLBC), hit the airwaves on 1 April this year and has a three-year funding commitment from the UN Peace Building Fund, a special facility for post-conflict countries.
The SLBC is supposed to be an unbiased source of public-service programming for a nation still on the mend from a devastating civil war, and move the media sector beyond the state-controlled outlets of the past. Will it live up to this mission?
Septimus Kaikai, chairman of the SLBC Board of Trustees, affirmed that the body will not succumb to the kind of political manipulation that characterized the SLBS. He said the SLBS operated to support the government of the day, while the SLBC will serve the interests and aspirations of the people. Kaikai pledged that the board will not allow any individual, political party or entity to interfere with the operations of the corporation.
Minister of Information and Communications Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo said the country’s Independent Media Commission (IMC) will sensitize and educate the general public on the use of the public broadcaster to ensure that Sierra Leoneans understand its independent status and fully benefit from its existence. He added that the SLBC is taking its cues from other independent broadcasters in the region, notably the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.
IMC Chairperson Bernadette Cole added, "It is time to inform and educate the people of Sierra Leone that it's now time to move away from serving the selfish interests of individuals, groups and organizations...." She said Sierra Leoneans of all stripes now need to "concentrate on issues of public interest...and in this context the SLBC will not be government controlled."
Suspicion over timeline
For now, the SLBC is running old programs of its two predecessors, and as such, it cannot yet be described as the new voice of a free Sierra Leone. Indeed, Kaikai appealed to Sierra Leoneans to be patient; he said the SLBC needs at least 18 months to become fully functional internally and another six months or so to develop an original slate of programs.
But the time lag is fueling skepticism among local observers who have witnessed frequent media manipulation in the past (particularly during the country's periods of civil violence) and fear the SLBC could head down the same path.
Ahmed Mansaray, station manager of Culture Radio FM 104.5, said, "The delay is unrealistic as far as media reform is concerned. Nowhere in the world has [state-controlled] media taken that long to revamp."
He added that, at best, the situation shows the new managers of SLBC did not do their homework. "Otherwise they would have mounted an audience survey to know the desired programs of the people. For now it is a continuation of rubbish that time, including their delay, cannot correct."
Mustapha Sesay, secretary general of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), noted that the ramping-up period outlined by Kaikai would extend roughly to the time of presidential and parliamentary elections planned for 2012. “My fear is that...this might create problems for the opposition parties to have fair coverage from public radio and television broadcasting" ahead of the elections, he opined.
This fear may be unfounded, however. During recent local council and bye-elections, the SLBC gave equal access to all political parties to use the radio station as a conduit for getting their messages out.
Aside from the delay, there is the question of whether the SLBC will be able to resist financial pressures from those in the government and elsewhere who may try to sway coverage. Kaikai responded that the three-year financial cushion provided by the UN will bolster the SLBC's financial independence, , reducing the vulnerability to outside influence, at least in the short term.
Longer term, he said, the corporation will do everything possible to secure funding from donor agencies. In the meantime, international public broadcasters such as BBC, RFI, VOA and Deutsche Welle have expressed interest in helping the fledgling broadcaster with training and technical assistance.
Sesay warned, however, that the public broadcasting corporation should not depend mainly on foreigners for its livelihood, as it will invariably lead to some priorities being set by foreign funders. Sesay would like to see a national public broadcaster reflecting national priorities.
Of course, this raises the question of whether the SLBC will be able to tap independent sources of revenue within Sierra Leone. The Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, for example, relies on a television license fee and advertising income.
Bai Bai Sesay is an independent journalist from Sierra Leone, who has written for the Independent Observer Press, the Legacy Magazine, Panos and Africa News Online
Pictures Courtesy: Bai Bai Sesay