Interesting but Risky
Martha Kargbo on what it’s like to be a journalist covering the election.
Being a journalist and covering Sierra Leone’s 2012 elections is very interesting, but risky.
Interesting, because almost all political candidates from the 10 registered parties suddenly want access to the media in order to sell their manifestos and agendas to the public.
Risky, because reporting the truth about election campaigns – when a party flouts an election code, or when opposition supporters or voters have their rights violated, for instance – can lead to harassment, violent attacks, and death threats from the perpetrators of these acts.
During elections, violence usually breaks out between the two main parties: the governing All People’s Congress (APC), and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). Incumbents take advantage of their positions and use the police to their advantage, which leads to violations of voters’ rights – especially for supporters of the opposition. Often, this leads to opposition supporters trying to defend themselves without going through the legal procedures. In September 2011, an APC supporter stoned the opposition SLPP presidential candidate, and the opposition, in turn, burned down the APC party office in the district.
Before 2002, journalists covering elections were not considered important in the election process because the media was not well established. There were not many media houses, and few could be heard throughout the country. But during the election campaign in 2002, politicians started to see the media – especially radio – as a very important channel to sell their agendas.
However, since 2002, politicians have also come to believe that bad press against their parties will make them lose elections. The SLPP believes that it lost the 2007 election to the APC because of bad press it received in stories on corruption published by Peep Magazine and the Standard Times newspaper.
For this reason, reporting anything odd against any politician or political party can endanger your life as a journalist.
For example, I invited the minister of presidential and public affairs, Alpha Kanu, who alleges that seven journalists were manhandled at an opposition SLPP rally, to be a guest on my radio show on Premier Tok Radio on Oct. 11. He promised to come on the show, but did not show up. By the end of the program, listeners who called and texted realized that the minister’s story was not the truth. The next day, the minister, quite annoyed, called me to complain that I was not fair when I told listeners that he did not show up for my radio show.
My talk shows are on human rights and good governance, so most callers perceive me as being too critical of the government. Lately, I have started receiving strange phone calls. I have now had to change my route home because I leave work at 11pm and am afraid of being attacked.
In Sierra Leone, journalists are poorly paid, or sometimes not paid at all. Those of us who are paid can hardly take care of our basic needs with our salary. For this reason, many journalists associate themselves with political parties for monetary gains, which makes it difficult for them to be impartial.
The two main political parties have both offered to pay my expenses if I report on their campaigns outside the capital city. I have always declined their offers.
Journalists who are paid by their media organizations are sometimes accused of favouring opposition political parties. At my radio station, most of our programs are based on good governance. Recently, the secretary-general of the governing APC, Victor Foe, came on my talk show and accused the station – and me – of being biased, because most of the callers and text messages were against him.
I hope to see a situation in which journalists will be allowed to practice without being subject to political interference or threats, instead of one where journalists receive money from politicians. I hope media organizations start paying their journalists, as well.