Chris McWilliams, programme communications lead, Christian Aid
Right across Sierra Leone, the SABI programme is strengthening community-led accountability and building relationships between citizens and government. Funded by UK aid, and managed by a consortium led by Christian Aid, SABI has trained journalists on the media’s key role in highlighting challenges and supporting local solutions around essential services – including health, education and social protection.
We are all doing a service to the nation,’ says Nasiru Dinn Koroma, who was recently dispatched from Freetown to be the new station head of SLBC Radio, Makeni. ‘We are looking at the same thing – to improve the lives of people and we look forward to a mutually beneficial partnership with SABI.’
Reporters from SLBC Radio, Makeni, were among 47 journalists from stations across Sierra Leone trained by SABI partner, BBC Media Action in 2017. Week-long workshops were held in Bo, Makeni, Kenema and Freetown covering the role of the media in facilitating local solutions to service delivery problems.
In Bo District, SABI-trained media picked up the story of Ngelehun Badjia – a community in dire need of a new health centre. Kiss 104 Radio and SLBC TV, Bo, both sent journalists to the remote chiefdom. ‘We found they had two health centres but lacked staff and drugs,’ says Solomon Joe, Kiss 104 news director, who used his own motorbike at his own expense to ride the very bad road to the distant community. ‘We brought this to the attention of the authorities, but there is a communications barrier.
‘We spoke to the chiefdom speaker and women who are recipients of healthcare and noted the challenges of the road network, and the need to ferry patients including pregnant women on motorbikes and in hammocks.’
Both media outlets contacted the District Medical Officer, who suggested that this would have to be an issue picked up at national level.
Community leaders are now determined to continue working with SABI partners Restless Development and RADA, and new national partner Focus 1000, to highlight the need for health centres in the area with the relevant government ministries and departments. They understand that they must engage with government authorities, and even the media, to help this to happen.
SLBC reporter Allen Sheriff said he had visited the community as a result of the training, and knowing this was a SABI community. ‘The training broadened our horizons as to how to cover communities that are challenged,’ he says. A feature about Ngelehun Badjia was broadcast on the popular SLBC radio show "Morning Coffee".
Back in Makeni, Nasiru Dinn Koroma adds: ‘Skills learnt in the BBC Media Action training in gathering information have been useful. We are covering subjects relevant to SABI. And we use SABI as a source of information.’
Despite these success stories, big challenges remain for Sierra Leone’s media in covering stories of community empowerment and active citizenship. Because of the time needed and the transport costs, proprietors and editors are often reluctant to send reporters on in-depth assignments, particularly to more remote areas.
‘The challenges are there. We can’t keep it under the carpet,’ says reporter Phebean Baby Kendeh, of Kiss 104. ‘Investigative journalism takes time. To really know the problems down there, you have to go and meet them [the communities]. Then your story will have a basis.‘We are all doing this for the good of our country, but we can’t be as generous as the Pope.’
SABI-trained journalists working for Radio Mankneh 95.1FM, the Voice of the North, in Makeni, say even with good intentions, it is often tough for media to play a full role in the accountability of service providers.
‘We have found an unwillingness to give information at district level or community level,’ says Mohamed Daddy Jalloh, a Radio Mankneh journalist.
SABI-trained journalists in Freetown tell a similar story.
‘You know it’s an important issue. You need your sources,’ says Lucinda O’Reilly, of Voice of Peninsula Radio.
M’balu Sheriff, of AYV Radio, agrees: ‘The tough part of being a journalist is access to information, especially if the issue is hot and difficult to deal with.’
But Nasiru Dinn Koroma believes politicians and government officials should understand the benefits of transparency: ‘I say to them “if you don’t talk to us then your information will stay with you and people’s perceptions of you will stay bad”. Whatever they say to SLBC is contributing to the nation going forward.’
SABI is exploring ways relationships with media across the country can be further strengthened. This could include inviting journalists to accompany SABI team and partner community visits, reducing transport costs; sharing information on key SABI issues and themes on a weekly basis. Also providing content for regular programmes or features; formal memoranda of understanding with media outlets and media training.
For more information about SABI visit www.sabi-sl.org