Growing up in my birthplace of Bumpeh in the eastern Kono district my father who never went to school, introduced me to reading newspapers. Naturally as you would expect in the late 1970s to the early 80s when I was in primary school, the Sierra Leone Daily Mail was his favourite and later Tablet and the New Citizen newspapers.
Foday Fofana or FF Tablet as he was fondly called, who is now living the rest of his life now in our ancestral Bombali district, expressed his frustration to me about the demise of the Daily Mail the last time I visited him in Makeni a few days ago and wondered whether it could be resuscitated. “Never!” I told him. But he was equally if not more frustrated at what he said was the absence of “the old liveliness” the state broadcaster presented and represented in yesteryears.
But there have been some giant strides lately to address some of the teething problems bedaubing the state broadcaster, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service. They may seem ephemeral but addressing the electricity needs of at least some of its provincial stations dotted across the country is a lifesaver. Thanks to some mobile phone companies. Some of these stations should now be having their fuel money diverted to other things such as staff welfare. Additionally, the television arm of the station has added more broadcast hours with day-time SLBS TV now a reality, and has had more outreach in the provinces.
But how about this: The additional hours of TV programming are an extension of CNN’s uninterrupted programme output. The staff have neither the resources, nor the equipment or the requisite skills to produce programmes other than coverage of news. And some of them are among the most highly trained, journalistically at least, the country has to offer. Of course there is some deadwood among them.
SLBS workers’ welfare remains ever so unaddressed. Typical, you may say of the general public service. But SLBS is where journalists who have been on contract for almost a decade with take-home pay that cannot take them home. Those who are tenured have no lure in their tenor. They are so downbeat and downcast they cannot even sing. Gloom-faced they almost always are. A mood that smothers their mode.
The equipment they use is abundantly inadequate. Computer is a luxury in the production room and studio. At a time when even community radio stations are using the audio software Adobe Audition, cassette tapes are still being teeth-cut in their studios. Telephone calls to fix up interviews with guests and other newsmakers are mostly done at the expense of the producer. Sometimes the interviewee is asked to call the studio for a telephone interview.
These journalists have love for a job they are not equipped to do. All this is in the SLBS headquarters. The picture at the branches in the provinces can only be imagined. There, there are staff who go virtually without pay. There, some of those who get paid get as small an amount as Le 30,000 (less than $ 10). There, locally-recruited broadcasters complain of being sacked by their managers without valid reasons. There, journalism is loved by many journalists, but love does not have journalists in mind.
Sometime ago, a draughtsman was drafted to draft a bill for SLBS. With every passing day, that piece of proposed legislation becomes needier and on it the clock ticks very fast. The bill, largely healthy and well-placed, is yet to be debated by the public whose tax money currently runs the station and will have to run the new look corporation when it is eventually set up. And time is running out. When it becomes law, it will turn the state-owned outfit to one that gives ready news and information to the taxpayer as well as signals hope and prosperity for its staff in stead of the current one that sentences them to poverty.
Also as a redressing mechanism, a national public service broadcaster is being talked about. Is it stalled, it is shelved, is it in a coma, or what? And every day that passes does so with the steam and speed and fervour and flavour and maybe favour that should accompany it.
There is no doubt the ministry of information has a terrific minister in Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo. But unless the core of the problems at SLBS is faced squarely and speedily, the redeeming qualities of the broadcaster and the familiarity and determination the minister apparently has will be compromised. Then will emerge a gamut of teething problems confronting the station.
SLBS has been in a bad shape for a very long time now. Yet taxpayers’ money even if unsubstantial keeps being pumped into it with seemingly no urgent remedy being implemented. A good move it was that the collection of money was taken over by the National Revenue Authority to ensure proper accountability for funds that were being generated there. The financial leakages which saw some workers jockey for money that went in for public service announcements have now been blocked. But what has also been blocked, according to most staff I have spoken with there is the regular disbursement of badly-needed money for the running of the station.
What is needed now, while the bill to turn SLBS into a corporation is being looked at, is the injection of resources and training to revamp the state broadcaster. It does not take more than five computers to upgrade the newsroom and production and broadcast studios at least for the time being. Install audio software and internet into these computers and train the journalists in the basic skills.
What this will produce will not just be programmes that the public will enjoy listening to with the excellent audio quality being aired, but the producers will do their work effortlessly. I don’t think the public will be averse to directly paying some tax for the running of SLBS if they are sure it is run professionally. And I am sure a good condition of salary plus the de-politicisation of the station will turn it into one of west Africa’s finest. By so doing, my father and many others like him, may not be ever able to read the Daily Mail again, but he will have once again, a quality SLBS which, by the way, remains the main source of Government information to the public; especially with the apparent death of the Sierra Leone News Agency. By Umaru Fofana