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October 26, 2012

Challenges Face Journalists Covering Events in Sierra Leone

by Nina de Vries

Many journalists across Africa face challenges such as low pay and lack of resources.  Sierra Leone will soon be holding presidential and parliamentary elections. That may increase reporting challenges there for journalists.

Emeric Roy Coker, a host and journalist for Universal Radio in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, says journalists encounter many barriers especially when it comes to reporting on taboo issues.

Coker says he did some coverage earlier this year on the push for gay rights and faced anonymous threats through texts and phone messages. "That is a big issue in Sierra Leone, some believe our culture, it is not part of that, that is Western practice, so we should not be giving voice for those practicing same-sex rights," he said.

Coker says he is passionate about reporting on human rights issues, though.  And with an election set for November 17, Coker says he will cover the issue of gay rights again. 

But he also has concerns about being a direct target for violence. "Journalists during last elections were beaten, lost their gadgets, up until now they have not been refunded," Coker stated.

Coker adds journalists are constantly up against obstacles including bribes to report stories a certain way. He says he hasn't been directly approached but many of his fellow journalists have.  And he believes it could get worse during the elections.

If you're a female journalist in Sierra Leone it's even more challenging.

Martha Kargbo works as a producer, reporter and presenter for Premier Tok Radio, also in Freetown.

She says she has faced similar situations like Coker when tackling human rights issues.

And because she is a woman, people tend to question her more. "There is no freedom of information act here, the press is still harassed," Kargbo explained. "Politicians are still trying to buy the press, corrupt them so those who are refusing, are having challenges, they are being refused interviews, there's security threats.  It's very difficult to work in a country like Sierra Leone."

She also has concerns about her safety during the upcoming election. "I'm not nervous but I'm worried.  I work till 9, 10, 11 p.m.,  so before leaving the office, I make sure I look around the office so that there's no threats, and I will not go direct to my home, I will stop from point to point so that I make sure someone is not chasing me," said Kargbo. "Or looking where I'm going."

The issue of safety for journalists is something the Independent Media Commission of Sierra Leone, or IMC, is fully aware of.  The organization monitors and regulates media.

Rod Mac Johnson is the chairman and says the organization has already spoken to police about journalists being targeted.

"We tell police that if journalists cross the red line, they should not be beaten or assaulted, but to document a report and send it to IMC," he said. "We also tell journalists you should know your limits, do not put yourself in danger, when you're doing your report, do not cross a marking, you should listen to what police are saying."

The IMC commission has also been working with community radio stations to ensure they do not accept one-sided reports.

"So that if anyone comes in, say for instance a political party, who wants to bulldoze his way in to their programs, they have a format that they will show them and say sorry, but this is the format we use to operate our radio stations," added Johnson.

As for journalists like Emerick Coker, he just hopes things will go smoothly this November so he can broadcast the information that the public needs to know.