I’ve been to three press conferences during my time as an intern with Awoko so far. They’re really different from what I’m used to in the United States in a bunch of ways.
On my first official day at the office, I went with a colleague to a press conference held by the National Electoral Commission, which was presenting information about the process of dividing up the country into electoral districts and wards based on population. At least, I think that’s what it was about. I was relieved afterward to hear my colleague say she was also having a hard time following it. That certainly made two of us.
At one point during that press conference, the lights abruptly shut off, and because it was a rainy, cloudy day in the afternoon, the room was plunged into darkness. I guess the power went out, which happens from time to time in Freetown. No one reacted whatsoever – they just continued as before and waited for the lights to come back on.
Press conferences are always in English, and it’s clear that speakers differ in how comfortable they are in English as opposed to Krio. The president’s spokesman Abdulai Barraytay, who I heard at a conference on the return of the Sierra Leaonean diplomat who had been kidnapped in Nigeria, speaks confident English with what sounds like the tinge of a British accent. Others have stronger Sierra Leonean accents. At a conference on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), an economic union of African states, one man asked at the beginning if he could speak in Krio. The assembled journalists said no, but he broke into it for the occasional sentence anyway. (Here’s the piece I wrote about that one if you’re curious)
Press conferences all around the world (I’m sure) are always held for specific reasons beyond a desire to help journalists out. The people holding them obviously want something out of it, whether publicity, positive press, or, well, non-negative press about an important issue that they have to inform the public about. These pressures play out in different ways.
At the press conference at the State House, they only allowed about five questions. My colleague said that if the president had been there, they would have only allowed three. They wouldn’t answer two of them (did the diplomat escape, and did the state pay his ransom?) for “security” reasons. I think it’s more likely that the authorities had nothing to gain from the answers to either of those questions becoming public.
Just judging by the three I’ve been to so far (which is a small sampling, but still), press conferences can be light on actually new or substantive information, and heavy on jargon and minutiae of complicated and abstract things. For example, the substance of the press conference on the return of the Deputy High Comissioner to Nigeria was basically that he had returned safely and in good health, Nigeria is going after the kidnappers, and relations between Nigeria and Sierra Leone are even stronger after the incident. For the elections and tariff press conferences, I wasn’t clear on much, least of all what exactly the news was.
The press conferences are always well attended, and I’ve seen many of the same journalists covering them. There’s a lot of comradery between the journalists form various radio, television, print and online media at the press conferences. Journalists ask good questions and aren’t afraid to be adversarial. At the ECOWAS conference, which was about a common tariff between member nations, the man presenting kept referring to the media essentially as “partners” or stakeholders in the process. This annoyed one journalist, who said something to the effect of, “Everyone keeps saying this, but when will it actually be true?”
Interestingly, at two press conferences I’ve been to so far, they’ve specifically made an effort to take a question from a woman to somewhat balance the gender ratio, saying “Let’s take a question from a lady if we can, before we call on the next person.” This helps balance the gender ratio, since the room is usually dominated by male journalists.
It’s well known that journalists aren’t supposed to accept gifts, even if it’s something small like food. This is according to the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics (and probably others), but at least when it comes to food, it doesn’t seem to apply here. It turns out that press conferences, if you’re a Sierra Leonean journalist, are a great place to get a free lunch. At my first press conference, I was handed a drink and a plastic container of food. I was about to refuse it when my colleague insisted I take both.
“Always take the stuff they give you at these things,” she chided.
“Okay, how much does it cost?”
“It’s free!” (you silly, silly person was implied).
At the dry tariff press conference (my colleague outright said it was boring, which was true, even if the subject was interesting for its broader implications), they served tea and sweets to start, then a full lunch with fried rice, french fries, salad, and whole roasted fish. They also gave out a thick notepad and pen to each journalist along with the information packet. My colleague said no one at the office has to buy those supplies because they can get them for free at so many press conferences.
I thought about all the trouble those putting on press conferences were taking. I would have expected one of the poorer countries in the world to not have such lavish press conferences. But it’s clear that, as always, they wanted something from the press conferences.
At the tariff conference, one of the men speaking would tell journalists to be quiet or pay attention at certain points (there was some arguing over the specifics, some bouts of laughter). He basically implored the press to write stories covering the conference, to get the word out. So, maybe press conferences are even more blatantly calculated investments.
It may not always be an investment that works, though. At the tariff conference, my colleague told me that out of the whole room full of journalists assembled, from dozens of news outlets, only a handful would write a story on this. Which, I guess would make them taking the free food more ethical in the end?