The state broadcaster is in dire straits. Despite a massive asset in its real estate and some very good staff, not many people, it would seem, care for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service.
A visit to the office at New England discourages you. Journalists and technicians some of them some of the best-skilled have literally seen their skills blunted by stunted growth.
Every opposition likes accusing the state media of being misused by the government. But in Sierra Leone, like the seditious libel law, they end up clinging on it once they are propelled to leadership.
Almost every head of SLBS in the past decade and over has been accused of having a smelly head, with their hands on the till and their feet on the tiller. But they have all been allowed to get away with it. Meanwhile the ordinary staff continue to starve.
There is hardly anybody working at the station today that does not want to quit at the slightest opportunity. Even if it means leaving a middle-level job there for a lesser one; as long as they can fend for their family. And the issue is not just the pay or the lack of it.
Producers at SLBS are still using cassette tape to put their programmes together. While even newly-established community radio stations have computers with the latest audio software to be able to function more effectively and less painfully. Their studios are obsolete and decrepit.
Those who are ready to put up with the appalling conditions – among the worst in the country – are made to suffer in frustration. Poor conditions of service yes! But also it feels like a Damocles hanging over their head with some government officials forcing them to do things they know are unprofessional. And the opposition are lashing out at them, accusing of being in cahoots with the government. Same old story you may say.
This has made SLBS very unattractive. Rightly or wrongly, respect for them has dwindled in the eyes of the public, who see nothing good in the station – excepting perhaps those in (or close to those in) government.
With a pheromone, you expect to let the butterfly attract the opposite sex. But with a job at SLBS, colleagues are forced to forage to feed.
This is happening at a time the country needs a public broadcaster. The previous government dilly-dallied over the promulgation of a bill to transform the station into a corporation. The new government has hardly thought about it as a priority. The bill should be laid bare for a public debate and scrutiny. After all, we (public) might be mandated to pay some form of tax for the running of SLBS. So let us know what is being proposed for its running.
Then there is the United Nations touting with an idea. So far there is no money for it, they say. But what it aims to do is setting up a public broadcaster to run for at least three years. The amount needed for it is anywhere between $ 700,000 and $ 1 million for a start. And around $ 500,000 annually for its running.
But in all of this, which the UN will take credit for, the money may end up coming from Sierra Leone’s pocket. And here is how.
There is a fund lodged somewhere for Sierra Leone called the Peace Building Fund (PBF). Agreed it was given to us by the United Nations! But the world body creating the impression it is setting up a public broadcaster for Sierra Leone and mooting the idea of using part of that money for the project is most unfair. Without bursting the ground from under an article I am currently regarding the state of the PBF, I will safely say that whatever the UN and the government agree to do regarding a public broadcaster, we can do better with it by revamping SLBS.
Even though the bill determining the status of SLBS has delayed, it is apparent that it cannot be in the shelves for another two years. So what happens when it becomes a corporation and a public broadcaster with another “UN” public broadcaster broadcasting?
The UN should sort out the way it wants to handle its own station, the UN Radio. They can give it to budding community radio stations or maintain it even after the expiration of their mandate in September. That is theirs. I feel sorry for my Sierra Leonean colleagues working there, in that closing down will mean out of job. But they should be mindful of the fact that any attempt to have the conceived radio station by the UN will mean a small fraction going into their pockets. The bulk of the money will end up in the pockets of so-called consultants who will be doing absolutely nothing more than what our local resources can.
Whatever is done to revamp SLBS let it be done in stead of the UN giving our money to some other organisation to provide employment for Europeans or Americans under the guise of helping set up a PUBLIC BROADCASTER for us.
But there are implications for the state broadcaster if it is to benefit from any such windfall. It must be restructured to be able to raise at least 50% of its running cost, with financial and editorial transparency guaranteed. This can be done if the station is run efficiently.
There are good journalists ready to return to SLBS if the right things are set in motion. The names that come to mind immediately are Joshua Nicol, Isaac Massaquoi and Cyril Juxon-Smith. These doyens of broadcasting did not leave the station with their hearts; only with their feet! In other words they were forced to by the former government which was hell bent on continuing to shackle the station.
Invariably, the station has an unnecessarily bloated staff; some having no business being there not least at the expense of the tax payer. And it begs the question how recruitment has been done there in the last few years. Surely that is testament to the deplorable conditions at the station in always wanted to work at, growing up. These people should be ready to face the axe, insofar as the state takes care of their entitlements. That will help in a substantial way, to pay the right people the right salary so that the right thing can be done.
I think the UN, foreign government departments and NGOs do not think they should set up and goad, in the real sense, a public broadcaster. I think they should. As for the UN, the fact that it now has as a policy at its Department for Peacekeeping Operations the establishing of a radio station in any peacekeeping mission, speaks volumes of how vital an unbiased public broadcaster is. Therefore, in the same way the UN emphasises on strengthening the rule of law, a government organ, so also it should help in having an effective public broadcaster while phasing out of a mission country, but at its own expense.
As for NGOs and other government departments, they owe it to their tax payers back home or wherever they may be, to have a strong and vibrant media to checkmate public officials. In a country such as ours, that applies to all forms of media but especially radio stations, and more especially a true public broadcaster. By Umaru Fofana