Q&A with Kelvin Lewis, editor of Awoko

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

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Kelvin Lewis. Credit: Awoko

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.

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Trip to Bo

 

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A little over a week ago, I went on a trip with a colleague to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city, to do some reporting. It was fascinating to see another part of the country, and also a relaxing break from Freetown. The trip resulted in a few stories and a three-part column about my experiences, which you can read here:

Trip to Bo, part 1
Trip to Bo, part 2: All about recycling
Trip to Bo, part 3: Okada drivers
With water sachets flooding the market, Bo turns to recycling
Bo recycling plant transforms plastic water sachets into pavestones
Kakua Chiefdom struggles to collect local taxes and pay employees

It’s really striking how rural Sierra Leone becomes once you leave Freetown. Even though it’s the second largest city, Bo has basically no grid of streets. Venture just a little ways outside the city center and you’ll reach pothole-ridden dirt roads. There doesn’t seem to be any old colonial buildings, and the City Council building is a big house surrounded by trees and grass. And to get there, you pass through a simple community with no paved roads, where women wash and dry clothing outside.

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Outside the bus window on the way to Bo

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The bus ride from Freetown to Bo took about five hours. There were many several stops, and at each one there were people ready and waiting to sell their goods to the passengers: fruit, peanuts, cucumbers, biscuits, skewers of meat, whole roasted fish, water, soft drinks, bread. At one stop, a women held up three live chickens she was hoping to sell.

Our first stop when we got to Bo, after eating at a former Awoko staffer’s house and settling in, was the offices of Kakua Chiefdom, which contains Bo. Sierra Leone is divided into 149 Chiefdoms, each headed by a Paramount Chief. Though these leader are elected, candidates must come from one of the ruling families recorded at the time the British colonialists set up the system, and in some areas women cannot hold the position. The Chiefs have a lot of responsibilities in their local area, and also hold seats in Parliament. Kakua Chiefdom, which contains Bo, is having trouble collecting enough local taxes to pay employees, which is what my story was about. Despite the problem of not being able to raise enough taxes, for reasons I don’t quite understand the Paramount Chief said he would like to do away with these taxes altogether.

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Bo city center. Bo is not a diamond trading hub like Kenema in the east, but I saw several diamond shops

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Motorbike taxis, called okadas in Sierra Leone, are absolutely everywhere in Bo. The institution was popularized after the civil war. Many young people became child soldiers or victims of the war, and were left without job prospects. The okadas were a way for them to make a living

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The next day we went to the Bo Waste Management Department to learn about their recycling program. It turns out this program is one of, if not the only one in Sierra Leone. The the right infrastructure, education and attitudes toward recycling basically don’t exist in Sierra Leone right now. The recycling efforts in Bo include turning plastic, much of it from sachets of water people take as refreshments, into paving stones, which line the walkway to the Waste Management Department. There are other products made of plastic waste, like bags, and aluminium cans are melted down and poured into molds to make pots and pans.

At the Waste Management Department we learned that it’s hard to make a profit from these recycled products because they’re labor-intensive, and there’s so far no way to automate the production.

Later we got to see first hand how the products are produced at the recycling plant.

 

We also visited a shop that sells bags made of recycled plastics. It was exactly the kind of thing you’d see in a shop in the US that sells souvenirs from around the world, but it wasn’t geared toward tourists or anything like that.

We also saw the plant where they make the water sachets

Bo is famous for its gari (also spelled garri). What is this? It’s cassava (aka tapioca) that’s been grated, drained of its liquid and then fried in oil. The result looks like couscous but has the crunchy texture of fried onions. In my guidebook’s chapter on Bo, it says people in Sierra Leone are obsessed with gari, and will travel to Bo and bring back sacks of it. Judging by my colleague…this is completely true, as it’s exactly what she did. While riding motorbike taxis on the way to do some reporting, we made a detour to a gari shop, and she bought a huge sack of it.

There are a few ways to prepare gari. When we got back to the house of the former Awoko staffer who now lives in Bo, we made some the simple way: mixed with cold water, milk powder and sugar. It turned into a slightly crunchy porridge that reminded me a bit of shredded wheat or frosted cornflakes. It was enough to make me want to take some home with me, so I got three bags, which cost all of 90 cents:

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More photos from the trip:

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Aruna Kamara, a reporter with Radio Bo, helped us in our reporting. This station owes its existence in part to Andrew Kromah, who helped build a network of radio stations in Sierra Leone during and after the war. I interviewed Kromah for a story on journalism in Sierra Leone — look out for an upcoming post on that

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The entrance to the Bo hospital. The policy of washing hands before entering started during the Ebola crisis

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We interviewed these guys for a story on motorbike taxi riders in Bo

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Through the window on the way back

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Tony Blair

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This morning (with no prior notice) I went with my colleague to the Sierra Leone port to cover a visit by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was pouring, and we and lots of other journalists basically spent the morning chasing after his “entourage” trying to snap pictures, not get soaked, and overhear while he talked to people from his charity, all without knowing what they were talking about or what exactly the visit was about. Finally he gave a two minute press conference (my colleague asked the first question!), and it was over.

Googling it later, I found this article about his charity the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), which does a lot of work in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa. Like this article says, people seemed really happy he was there — people took selfies “with” him even though he was just barely in the frame. I remembered that while he was PM, Sierra Leone was going through a horrible period in its civil war, and Britain staged a successful military intervention that went a long way toward ending the war. It’s so interesting how leaders are perceived differently around the world — it’s undeniable that Sierra Leoneans have good reason to like him, even if there are so many reasons to, well, not like him (the Bush years, Iraq etc)…

Here are the main quotes from the two-minute press conference:

“I’ve had a connection to Sierra Leone obviously for many, many years. It goes back to my childhood but also the time I was Prime Minister. I believe in the country, I know it’s been through really difficult times with the Ebola, but we’re recovering, we’re getting back on our feet again, and I’m very optimistic.”

“Our contribution is really working with the government delivering its priorities, whether it’s in roads or power generation or health care…For many years we’ve been discussing the importance of the port and the importance of getting a really first-class port for the country, because that makes the economy move. So what it very exciting is to see today that things are really happening here and the investment that’s being made.”