For a larger story I’m working on about journalism in Sierra Leone, I interviewed my former editor Kelvin Lewis, who is the editor-in-chief of Awoko Newspaper and president
of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ). This is a transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What’s the story behind how you helped found Awoko as an independent newspaper?
I was reporting for international radio – Voice of America, Radio France International, Radio Deutsche Welle. We were going to the source to get the stories. Like for example, during the war we were going to the war front to interview people there to get the news firsthand. And we found out that we were the only ones who out there getting the story firsthand. Most of the journalists here, after we had gone over the radio and had broadcast our stories, that is when they would take those stories and publish in the newspapers. So I said to myself, why don’t I start a newspaper — because I always get the big stories, I get them first before most of the journalists here. The journalists here are very lazy, they always wait and copy from what you have done. So that was what motivated us. But I didn’t have enough money, so I brought together two other friends and we then came up with money to start.
But this was not my first attempt. I started journalism working for a newspaper. Even after college I tried to work with some other people to set up other newspapers and to run them. So then after the war and all these things were happening, I had the opportunity to do it. And that was how Awoko started.
Who were the friends who helped you start Awoko?
One of them owns the Citizen Radio now, he’s called David Tam Baryo and the other is called Joseph Rahall – he’s also a journalist, but now he’s moved into the NGO world, he now runs Green Scenery and he is one of those advocating for land rights.
Was Awoko an independent newspaper right from the beginning?
Yes, right from the beginning. The background I came from is, if you’re reporting for an international news agency, you have to be very objective, nonpartisan.
You have fewer newspapers now who are independent. But this was not what it was like in those days. In those days you had independent newspapers. You had Party papers, which were obviously run along Party lines, ideology. You also had the government newspaper. And so you had to find a niche in between.
Why are there fewer independent newspapers today?
Well the reason is that the brand of politics that came in in 2007, the ruling party wants to control everything. It wants everything under its control, and so you have a lot more politics involved in all areas. And as a result of that you find out that the newspapers all became skewed towards politics. In fact it became either or. Either you are for this party, or you are for the other political party.
In 2007 the government came in with, I would say, a lot of handouts for journalists. A lot of the journalists who were supporting the party got rewarded by being given diplomatic press attache positions. And so it became lucrative to support and publish along lines supporting the ruling political party, in the hope that you too would be rewarded with the high-paying diplomatic press attache job. And obviously those who were left out, who were considered to have been working with the opposition political party, those ones became real opposition mouthpieces, they too are hoping that if the party they are supporting comes into power, they will be rewarded with diplomatic positions and get high pay.
So because of the love of money, it was left with only a few of us who decided to play the middle of the road, and so being perceived as impartial, nonpartisan.
If it became easier for those who supported the ruling party, did it become harder to run an independent newspaper after 2007?
Considering the trappings of money and influence, it certainly became a challenge to stay as an independent publisher.
What are the biggest challenges for journalists and editors in Sierra Leone today, as you see it?
Well, we are practicing under a cloud of repression. The spirit of the law says you can publish, but the spirit of the law also says if you cross the line, you will be punished.
There is the criminal libel law, and the criminal libel law criminalizes free speech. So continuing to practice under that law means you are ready to face the threat of the consequences.
How does that law affect the way journalists and editors do their work?
It has cowered journalists into submission. Journalists can go just that far, and they can talk just that far.
This law applies to criticizing government officials, right?
Yes. If you do that you’re going to held, you’re going to be locked up, spend some days in jail.
As the editor of Awoko, has this been an issue, where you’d want to pursue some story, but it’s just not worth the risk?
The thing is, this law hangs like a sword of Damocles over your head. There is always the threat over your head. And a lot of people cannot bear that threat, so they step out of journalism. We are ready to risk it, as we can continue to publish even when that law is there.
When you say risk, does that mean it’s not always clear when a story is potentially libelous? How sure can journalists be whether something they’re writing is risky?
This law is unique. All other laws say you are not guilty until you are proven to have committed the act, and then they say you’re guilty. This law, the criminal libel law, says you’re guilty. And the worst part of it is truth may be inquired into, but it is not a defense. And the bedrock of journalism is publishing truth, unveiling the truth. If the truth is not a defense, then anything you do has the risk of you being jailed. Because it is not whether you publish the truth or not, it is just whether you publish.
As long as the government official doesn’t like it, you are in jail. And that’s the cloud underneath which we are practicing, which makes it repressive and inhibits the best coming out of us.
I don’t think any journalist publishes something knowing fully well that if I publish this, I would go to jail. If he knows that, he would not publish it. But then, the burning spirit in us is to reveal the dark truths and we sometimes are not mindful what are the consequences. The fact is, we have to come out with those dark truths for us to force change in our society. And if in the process you are arrested, then you go and suffer the consequences and come out again.
How does the Independent Media Commission (IMC) detract or contribute to journalism in SL. Is it a positive or negative addition?
The background for the IMC is that there had been too many cases in which journalists were taken to court. So we wanted to find a way of stemming that. And so we proposed a system of gradual self-rule. It was thought that when the IMC came in it would start regulating, and sometime in its lifetime, the rule and regulations would have stuck in and nobody would be violating them. And so with that self-censorship, that self-regulation, we would then disband, dismantle the IMC.
So the idea was that journalists and editors would learn and internalize the regulations?
Yes, having your own internal regulatory unit.
We wanted people to come complain to the IMC where the issues are resolved quickly before taking them to court. After the IMC it’s not the end of the road. If you still feel aggrieved you can then go to court.
I went to a press conference where representatives of Parliament were responding to rumors that Parliament had embezzled money. A member of the IMC who was att he conference said there are a lot of false and damaging rumors spread in the media. He seemed to be saying that because this was a major problem in Sierra Leone, it justified these legal restrictions.
Well from that angle, that is his feeling, and I cannot defend him. But from my own angle I would admit that yes, a few of the guys step over the line. But generally speaking the media performs very well, both radio and print. But in any situation you have some bad eggs and some bad apples. And definitely we have some really bad apples.
And how does that affect the journalists who are doing good work here?
It affects them because when one journalist does something that is bad, people tend to generalize and look at use that to classify all of the other journalists, and that is not a good thing for us.
Are there some issues that should get more coverage, but because of the legal situation of journalists, it’s too risky?
Well there are quite a few. Because of the presence of this law again, you cannot go overboard and talk a lot about government issues. But over and above that, people are not too open to talk and give interviews. Like the banking industry is very secretive, you can hardly get them to talk. The insurance industry too. And perhaps out of a fear of being misrepresented in the media, they are all media shy and refuse to talk extensively to the media. And because people don’t open up and talk to the media, journalists are usually frustrated in finding stories, and getting people to say things which they can quote to back up their stories.
In its report on journalism in Sierra Leone, Freedom House mentions the financial difficulties of practicing journalism here. Can you talk about this?
It is difficult. The pay is not too good, and because the pay is not too good, in a lot of media houses there is even no pay. And because there is no pay, journalists want to go to workshops and press conferences where they are given handouts as transports. So instead of going to look for the hard news you would always see them giving workshop story news and press conferences. But all that is because people who have money are prevented or are scared of investing in the press. Because the laws, especially the criminal libel law, is tailored in a way in which the proprietors are held responsible for what the journalists do. And because it is criminal, they are taken to jail. And so ordinary businessmen only want to do business. They cannot do that with the journalism industry because of the law.
So the owner of a newspaper could get in trouble for something a journalist does?
Yes, the owner is in trouble, the printer is in trouble, the vendor who sells the newspaper is in trouble. And we have seen examples of innocent people in those categories who have been taken to jail, who have suffered.