Q&A with Theophilus Gbenda, journalistic “attack dog” at Freetown’s Rastafarian radio station

Theophilus Gbenda is a journalist at Culture Radio, a community radio station in central Freetown. In this interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, Gbenda talked about the three times he was arrested by the authorities for things he said, what this means for the state of journalism in Sierra Leone, and how a Rastafarian radio station can help lower the national blood pressure.

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Theophilus Gbenda at his desk at Culture Radio

My name is Theophilus Gbenda. I am the Project Coordinator of Culture Radio F104.5, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Culture Radio is a Rastafarian-based radio station, and so we bank on the pan-African ideology. The main objective of the radio station is to promote our culture and to also promote black consciousness so people will become proud of who they are, and don’t feel inferior when they see other races. We say we are all created in the image and likeness of the most high God, and so we should see ourselves as one. The key message we propagate is the message of peace and love, because we think if we love each other there will be automatic peace. We also believe that there will be no peace without justice, and so we really focus on promoting an enlightened society, because we believe when the people are well-informed about things happening around them, they will be in a better position to make informed decisions.

We ensure that all our programs are people-friendly, to the extent that for each and every program, we either open the phone line to get feedback from the public, or we allow them to send text messages. And we are actually the voice of the voiceless. That is why many people refer to the station as the people’s station.

Our station has kind of become a complaint center where people come in and out to bring in complaints about things happening with them at their workplace, at their schools, at the colleges, at home and all of that. If you come here in the afternoon, you will see a lot of people coming to just bring up issues to us.

How a Rastafarian radio station can help a traumatized nation…

You know, we live in a country where the majority of our people have lost confidence in the judiciary, they have lost confidence in the police, they have lost confidence in even the governance system. So they now turn to us journalists and the civil society. And for us at Culture Radio, all we want to achieve is to give voice to the people. By doing so we will be able to reduce the anger level. Given the economic situation in the country you will find that most people are very much disgruntled, they are disenchanted, they are very much disappointed, because they were expecting much from the current government., but what they are experiencing right now is the opposite.

Taking into consideration the fact that we are just coming up from a bloody civil war that left thousands of people killed, and the fact that most of the factors that led to the war are still very much with us, we are sitting on a time bomb that could explode any time if nothing is done to right the wrongs permeating the society.

And one way we think we can do it as a media institution is to allow people to express their grievances over the media. Once they do that, that automatically reduces the chances of them going violent.

And in the process of doing that, because we expose the ails in society, the government doesn’t seem to like us. Obviously, because they always want to work with journalists who they can play ball with, journalists who can lie in bed with them and all of that. But because we pride ourselves as being the people’s station, we cannot afford to be compromised or neutralized. Attempts have been made over the years to get us neutralized through bribes, through intimidation, through some other forms, but we have so far refused to be cowed or to be neutralized.

So for me personally, as the man doing the most critical program in the station, called Burning Issues, I have always had problems with the authorities one way or the other.

The three times he was arrested…

The first problem I had was with the former Vice President of the Republic. There was an issue between him and one ordinary citizen whose land the former Vice President forcefully took form him. And so the guy came here and complained, and I tried to get the side of the Vice President. He happens to be my uncle. But of course, because I’m the type of journalist who doesn’t go to authorities, since he became Vice President I never went to see him. But of course I have his contact line, so when that issue came up, I sent him a text message — he did not get back to me. I called him several days — he did not say anything to me. The other text I sent was the direct issue – I explained the entire issue to him just to get him to respond and he refused.

So I went ahead. I hosted the guy, the complainant here. He said a lot of things about what transpired between him and the Vice President, and the Vice President took offence, even though I had tried to get his side.

So because I went ahead with the interview, he became angry and said I allowed the guy to say so many things about him that he considered personal. I said, “But I tried to contact you, you did not cooperate.”

And so automatically he reported me to the IMC [Independent Media Commission], and by the time the IMC was to take action, the police were already preparing for my arrest. I was supposed to be at the IMC at 4 o clock to face the complaint committee, but then the police sent me a letter that I should be at the CID at 3 o clock. So I went to the IMC, I told them, “This is the situation – you have called me to be here at 4 and the police say I should be with them at 3. What is your advice?” And then they told me, “Theo, you have to go to the police.”

So I went to the police, and by the time I got there a detention order had already been prepared for me and signed, even before obtaining a statement from me. All because it had to do with the Vice President, the number two man in the country.

So I was locked up for three days – two days actually and on the third day I was released. I wasn’t charged to court, and so it was just a matter between me and the Vice President, using the police to get me intimidated.

The second one [incident] had to do with a satirical piece I floated in my WhatsApp group. I have one of the most popular WhatsApp groups in the country, it’s named after my program. The group is called Burning Issues Forum. That group is comprised of a number of top people in society – lawyers, doctors, journalists, civil society actors, university students and so on and so forth.

So I posted during the height of the Ebola that one of the doctors who was in the center of things, Doctor Russel – it was just, like I said, a satirical piece – that Doctor Russel “tasted” Ebola. Right? Tasted, T-A-S-T-E-D. They took it for “tested,” T-E-S-T-E-D.

Why I said “tasted” is because all the medical doctors who died passed through his hands. And so the rumor was all over the place that Doctor Russel has also contracted the virus. So I said with my satirical piece – which I did not mention on radio, but my social media group – that Doctor Russel has “tasted” Ebola.

It was just a joke to give an indication that, you know, he has been in the center of it and that the medical doctors who died passed through him and that his name is all over the place that he has tested positive for Ebola.

They took it out of proportion and then he went to the police because he happened to be one of the personal doctors of the President and also the Vice President then. And so they were looking at the implication of the doctor of the President being associated with Ebola. So that is why they took it out of context.

This one too, the police called me and I responded, they said they wanted to see me at the CID [Criminal Investigations Department] on Friday. So I said, well I would rather come on Monday, because their tactic is when they get ahold of you on Friday then you don’t expect to be released until Monday. So I said I will not go there, I will wait for Monday and I will go there. And on Monday I went there. Again by the time I went there they had already prepared a detention order for me. So by the time they finished taking my statement, the detention order was already in place, and I got to know that because I saw it in one of the books, signed with my name there and everything.

Then for the third one, it had to do with an analysis I did on the controversial nature of the last elections. I referred to it as a stolen mandate because the indications were clear that the president did not win genuinely and that the whole election process was skewed in his favor. According to the results he obtained 58 percent of the total vote, and by the time of the holding of the election, the country was under a state of emergency, which means the election was held under a state of emergency, which means people going to vote had to go through soldiers and police officers holding guns. And as soon as they finished voting you were asked to go directly to your house and then the result was not announced until the evening hours, between 5,6,7 o clock. Almost immediately they were preparing to swear in the president. Why the rush? In Zambia the opposition cried foul and there was concern over the electoral result, they said they have put on hold the inauguration of the president there. But here it was a different ball game. By the time people even came out to say, “No, we disagree,” they were already swearing in the president. So I refer to it all as a stolen mandate.

Because I said that, they arrested me and detained me for three days. But you know, I always see being detained as a privilege, because as a journalist you should be prepared for that. The way this country is now, journalists should come out clearly to say, “We are not afraid of your intimidation.” You can beat us, you can keep us in custody, no problem. As long as we are able to do our job without fear or favor.

On the state of journalism in Sierra Leone…

So that’s exactly the kind of category of journalist I belong. We have journalists in the country who are no longer serving their real purpose. They have actually become the bedfellows of the government. And so they cannot write anything critical or say anything critical about the government. You have some other journalists like us, who are attack dogs. We actually hammer the issues, we come out tough on the issues, we don’t care what the consequences are.

So that’s the kind of journalism I am practicing. It’s a difficult thing to do because we have a situation that I would call media poverty. The media landscape is thriving as a matter of fact, but the journalists, who are the actual reporters, who go out to get the news, who are wallowing in a state of poverty. And even the media institutions are also thriving in poverty.

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Newspapers for sale in downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone

If you look at the newspapers, you see what I would call media capture. Most of the newspapers, they rely almost entirely on advertisements to keep their day to day running in place.

For us at Culture Radio we don’t accept all types of advertisement because we believe adverts have the potential neutralizing our editorial standpoint. And so we are running as an NGO and we are having some kind of support from outside the country. For example we are having support from Germany, a group called Bread for the World. Bread for the World in Germany is funding us – like for every three years they give us 250,000 Euros. So that is what we use for staff salary, for the day to day operations of the cause, of the institution, and some other things. So for this alone we don’t have any business running after the same advertisement other radio stations who are not fortunate to be getting such sponsorship. So by that way we are able to come out strong on the issues.

The political climate does not favor radical journalism. You either get arrested or get beaten or get killed or whatever. So you should be prepared for any of those. Secondly, you should avoid going for their money. If you want to be a critical journalist then don’t go for their money. When you go for their money it’s like going to the devil. Saying, “I want money, I want power, I want a child,” the devil gives you conditions. In the same way, if you go for politicians’ money, they always have the tendency of getting back at you if you go the other way.

Here in Sierra Leone journalists operate under a difficult situation because the moment you tend to be critical, they brand you as being anti-government or journalists belonging to the opposition party. So sometimes when we try to be radical or critical, this is how they brand us, that, ‘Oh, this is an SLPP [Sierra Leone People’s Party] journalist.’

How were you treated when they detained you?

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Well I was treated humanely as a matter of fact – the only thing was that my freedom was seized. I was detained amongst other common criminals. For me that was just an experience to listen to those suspects to know what actually took them there and how they are being treated and all of that. They were happy having a journalist amongst them for just two days and at least they knew I would be able to take across their message, and I did that when I came back from the cell – I passed on their message.

And the first time you were detained, you didn’t go through the IMC or the courts – you weren’t charged with anything. So essentially you were illegally detained?

I would say so, because I was not charged. If there was anything criminal, I was supposed to have been charged. But you know, they didn’t charge me for the three times I was detained.

The police are under pressure. Not that they always want to arrest journalists. But sometimes a minister will just sit in his office and call the police officer, “Gentleman, I want you to arrest this journalist for doing this and that and that, and then the journalist gets arrested. So sometimes the police, because they are not independent, because they are vulnerable, they work by the dictates of the politicians. And that I find to be very much unfortunate.

They detain journalists because those journalists are not dancing to their tune. For me, that is the most critical reason why they want to detain journalists. Journalists who are dancing to their tune have no problem. You see them going around with jeeps, you see them going around with…you know? Flashy stuff and all of that. But for us, we are actually sacrificing everything because we want to give people the very best. And where this country is right now, journalists are actually supposed to speak out even louder.

During the civil war, a number of journalists were killed, a number of journalists were targeted. So if we journalists should sit by and see things going wrong and we don’t walk about those issues, then we are not only doing a disservice to the nation, we are also jeopardizing our own safety in the long run, should anything happen, like it happened the last time. You know, they were looking for journalists. We don’t want to be in that situation anymore. That is why we are now actors, instead of being just reporters.

For us at Culture Radio, because of our NGO look of things, we don’t limit our work behind the mic. We organize workshops. In other words, we target the issues before they become news. Because we don’t take pleasure in always reporting negative things. The unfortunate thing is that in our country right now, evil has dominated good. You find out that journalists have more negative things to write about than good things. So for us journalists who are on the critical side, our notebooks are always full with issues to deal with.

I’ve been learning that the authorities don’t even necessarily have to use the libel laws to intimidate journalists.

Oh yes of course, of course — the libel laws are just there as reference. They are just there as reference. But with or without them – for me, I’m not afraid of the libel laws. All you need to do, do your job professionally. Just do your job to the best of your ability, and be mindful of the pitfalls and make sure you don’t fall into their trap.

So is it common that they would just arrest a journalist without a reason or formal charge?

Yes, of course. It’s common. Recently one deputy minister arrested a journalist because the journalist asked him a critical question. And even yesterday a journalist was arrested. He was invited to the house of Parliament, and then the Parliamentarians ordered him arrested by the police, and he was released on bail – just yesterday.

You mentioned people have tried to bribe you – what’s the story behind that?

Well for the last election, there was a plan to bribe me for the sum of 50 million Leones, plus a Jeep, so that I’d actually be on the side of the ruling party. But then I refused, I rejected the bribe. I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in that.’

During that election, key journalists were bought. The fourth person they were going to buy was me, but I said, ‘No I’m sorry.’

What effect does it have on your work as a journalist if you’re always facing these threats and intimidation?

For me, like I said earlier, being detained for example, bring detained is a privilege for me. So I don’t get bothered with that actually. Because if you say you’re going to take that too personally, then you might as well just leave the job. Because even when I’m doing my program, people who are not even in my studio are the ones raising concern for my safety. But I don’t get myself worried about that.

Links to all my published pieces in Awoko

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The following are links to all the pieces I wrote for Awoko newspaper (though one or two of them never ended up online). In the first section are the daily columns I wrote, and in the second section the news and feature stories. Pieces in bold are ones I’m especially happy with. I’ve also put notes under some of them to explain or expand on things, partly for those curious and partly so I don’t forget.

Columns:

Three firsts in Freetown
My first impressions of Freetown, when I was still a bit overwhelmed by everything

Elections in Lunsar, part 1
Part one of my account of a reporting trip to Lunsar, north of Freetown. I went on this trip with two of my colleagues just a few days after I arrived. After I wrote this, my colleagues — partly joking but also serious — called me out for heavily quoting and paraphrasing them in the column, and basically broadcasting to the world everything they’d said. Worryingly, in the next few days other colleagues at Awoko, some I was just meeting for the first time, told me they were hesitant to answer my questions about things in Sierra Leone because they didn’t want to end up in a column. Luckily, everyone’s caution disappeared before too long. Using conversations as fodder for writing might kind of a creepy thing to do…but it’s definitely a journalistic thing to do, too!

Elections in Lunsar, part 2

On talking about American police killings with Sierra Leoneans
Soon after I arrived in Sierra Leone, international news carried stories of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille by police, followed by the murder of several cops. It was interesting to hear reactions to these incidents from Sierra Leoneans

Belief in black magic is the only thing that gives it power
I wrote a blog post explaining more about how this column came about. For a few days after I sat in on a trial for a case of ritual murder for black magic, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was most disturbed by the fact that such a tragedy wouldn’t have happened without the strong belief in black magic common in Sierra Leone. This month, two suspects in the case were sentenced to death by hanging. According to Amnesty International, Sierra Leone hasn’t executed anyone before this for ten years. An ominous quote from this article: “I have called on the Director of Prisons to clean the gallows so that we will not be found wanting when the situation arises.” You can read some interesting local reactions to the verdict here. I think the way the media covered this case says a lot about how entrenched belief in black magic is here. News articles would mention that it was a ritual murder, but not make a big deal about it, almost as if it was a normal cause of murder like robbery or jealousy. Of course, people believe all kinds of things around the world, many of them more outlandish than black magic (see: Scientology). But I’m still fascinated and disturbed by how apparently widespread these beliefs are in Sierra Leone.

I don’t know how to write about Africa
As I wrote in a blog post, this column was inspired by a piece in the Humanosphere which mentions the great essay “How to write about Africa.

No easy solutions in Freetown or Seattle for people living in squalor
This was a response to this column from Awoko writer Beny Sam. I compared the situations in Freetown in Seattle when it comes to solutions for homelessness

Does Sierra Leone really need oil?
I wrote this after my first visit to Parliament. It was surprising to see MPs so excited about oil drilling. My knee-jerk reaction was to think this is a bad idea, and though I tried to back up the column with some research, I realize it’s a complicated issue and moral question. Of course the human species needs to stop extracting more oil, but if any country should get the chance to drill for oil to better its economy, surely Sierra Leone should. I can see both sides of the argument

Exploring Freetown

Being vegetarian in Sierra Leone
The inevitable column. For more about being vegetarian in Sierra Leone, check out the blog post I wrote about it

Repeal Salone’s criminal libel laws
The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists has long called for a repeal of Sierra Leone’s draconian libel laws. I thought I’d use my column to add to these voices. I wrote more about this in another blog post

Paramount Chieftaincy must be made more democratic
Sierra Leone is partly governed by 149 regional Paramount Chiefs. Though these positions are elected, it doesn’t seem particularly fair. Candidates must come from a ruling family that can be traced back to before independence when the system was created. Also in some areas, women are barred from the position

China’s role in Sierra Leone deserves more scrutiny, less blind praise
Some of my colleagues weren’t happy about this piece. I wrote more about how it came about on this blog. The piece seemed to have gotten a response, as well. Like so many issues I wrote columns about, China’s role in Sierra Leone is clearly a complicated and deep subject, and I’d only feel really confident writing a column about it if I got to study it extensively. Still, I think it’s important to turn a critical eye toward China’s actions in Sierra Leone, something the papers didn’t seem to be doing much of

Witnessing Salone’s medical crisis
A column I wrote after reporting on a young girl who needed treatment abroad for a back injury. I wrote more about this and other stories I wrote about healthcare in Sierra Leone in this blog post.

Salone government just received millions. Why not invest in Tacugama Sanctuary?

America’s presidential election could be a catastrophe for Salone and the world
This column came about after watching a lot of CNN’s coverage of the 2016 election, which, along with the Olympics, was always playing on the TV in the Awoko newsroom. I had plenty of discussions with colleagues about the election and our thoughts on it as we watched the RNC, DNC and all the coverage and commentary on them and their aftermath. It was disheartening to see CNN’s terrible coverage broadcast around the world

A walk to the hospital

There’s more rotten than just chicken
A shipping container full of chicken imported from Brazil, which had become spoiled in transit, was poured into a dump in Freetown. Shockingly, tons of people flocked to the dump to dig up the rotten chicken from the mud and trash to take home and either eat or sell to others to eat. So many came that police came and fired rubber bullets to control the crowd. It was disappointing to see the disparaging attitudes some columnists and media coverage took to the story, with several articles scornful of the people who came to take the chicken home. The column came from thinking about what it would take for people to be desperate enough to see spoiled, muddy chicken as worth rescuing from a dump

A visit to Kroo Bay slum
More about my visit to one of Freetown’s roughly 60 slums in this blog post. You can also watch a video I shot while walking out of the slum.

Exploring West Freetown (but not the touristy parts)

Do we need to settle for incremental change?
This came out of thinking about politics and the 2016 election, as well a the many times I thought about whether I should be deeply pessimistic or cautiously optimistic about things in Sierra Leone. Maybe Sierra Leone is incrementally moving toward success — or maybe it needs and deserves immediate improvements in key areas that shoud have been improved ong ago. Two ways of looking at things — maybe both are right to some extent

Happy 18th birthday, Awoko Newspaper!
More on this happy occasion

Gender injustice is a problem on the world’s conscience
I got to see a really good talk by Zainab Bangura, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. A Sierra Leonean, she’s traveled around the world in her UN job. On the day of the talk, several newspapers ran articles speculating on whether she’ll run for president again. If she won, she’d be Sierra Leone’s first female president, and the pieces noted the timeliness of the US coming close to electing its own first female leader as well

From one rainy city to another

Bureaucracy is more than just a nuisance — it hurts journalism
I wrote this after some frustrating experiences with bureaucracy. My colleagues said they also frequently had to deal with this

Beguiled by the Krio language
More on the fascinating and delightful Krio language, including some samples you can listen to, here

Police shooting of protesters in Kabala is a shameful blight on their record
A Sierra Leonean guy living in Ontario sent me an email after I wrote this column. Here’s some of what he said:

As a young person, I am sickened and appalled at the death of innocent civilians, especially at the hands of officers whose duty is to serve and protect the citizens. There is no justification for using firearms in a post-war nation that is still trying to surpass those dark days of the civil war. Here in Canada, I can’t remember the police ever using more than pepper spray on any demonstration in the past 15 years. I hope there will be an unbiased investigation into these shootings and hope such incidents are not repeated in the future. I wish the police were better trained and better educated.

Visiting Culture Radio, Sierra Leone’s “attack dog”
I interviewed Theophilus Gbenda, host of a Rastafarian radio station in Freetown, about his experiences being imprisoned and threatened for things he said on air, as well as his thoughts (pessimistic) on the state of journalism in Sierra Leone

The bias of my camera
Before I came to Sierra Leone, I vaguely remembered reading something about how camera equipment is biased against dark skin, but taking lots of pictures of people that never seemed to turn out right made me realize just how true it is.

What will it take to end FGM in Sierra Leone?
At first I didn’t want to write a column about female genital mutilation (FGM), which is shockingly prevalent in Sierra Leone. It just seemed like a difficult and probably pointless undertaking to try to write a persuasive column on it. But after reading about the tragic case of a girl in rural Sierra Leone who died after undergoing the procedure — and an apparent attempt to cover up her death — I thought it would be wrong not to say something. I’m strongly opposed to cultural relativism when it comes to issues like these, so there’s a bunch of that in the column

On travelling to supposedly risky places like Sierra Leone
In response to this great article from Aeon, which lays out how perceptions of how risky it is to travel somewhere are usually based more on prejudice than good evidence. As I mention in the column, the health precautions I was advised to take before I left made Sierra Leone seem a lot more dangerous than I think it is

Looking forward to my trip upcountry

Trip to Bo, part 1
This three-part column is about my second trip upcountry outside of Freetown, this time to Sierra Leone’s second largest city, Bo

Trip to Bo, part 2: All about recycling

Trip to Bo, part 3: Okada drivers

What Sierra Leone can teach the United States about religious tolerance
Sierra Leone is mostly Muslim — between 60 and 78 percent according to Wikipedia, with the rest following Christianity or indigenous beliefs (or probably both, as traditional beliefs are common among people who also consider themselves Muslim or Christian). Sierra Leone is also known for its religious tolerance and lack of religious tension. It seemed to be while I was there that though people are very religious, and every public event opens with prayers, people don’t seem to mix religion with politics, identity or daily life too much — or at least that’s how it seemed. This column is about that, as well as the time I went with one of my colleagues to a Bible study session held at her church. A Sierra Leonean who has been living in the United States for ten years wrote me an email in response to this column. Here’s what he wrote about religious tolerance in Sierra Leone:

One of the things that I am proud of my country is the religious tolerance, something that is absent in many parts of the world including the Middle East as you mentioned in your recent blog. There are some parts in the U.S as well where religious intolerance is very high especially at this time of elections, making it difficult for some of our fellow Americans to practice their religion.
When I arrive in the U.S, I was shocked to see on the news people being killed for having a different faith and it was difficult to discuss this experience with other people. Well, you can now understand why many of us from Sierra Leone find it difficult to understand any senseless sectarian war whether it is in Nigeria, the Middle East, or some part of the world.  As you know in the U.S, many Americans perceive Africa to be a huge country (Sarah Palin is good example of such shameful ignorance) and the portrayal of the continent is mostly based on negative stereotype. So when I told some of my college mates that our religious tolerance in Sierra Leone is far better than the U.S, you can conclude about their reactions, and they quickly points to Nigeria or C.A.R, which are two countries out of fifty-four or so and their conflicts are far more complicated than religious base.

Saying goodbye
I tried to convey my thanks and all the ways my experience in Sierra Leone affected me in one column. It was an impossible task, and as you can tell from the piece, I don’t think my thoughts were organized enough to write a good piece. I’m sure it will take months and years to really process all the ways I’ve learned and been changed by this experience

A tribute to Mr. John
I was shocked and saddened to learn that one of my colleagues passed away the day I left — Awoko deputy editor and veteran Sierra Leone journalist Samuel John, who everyone called Mr. John. My colleagues asked me to write a tribute. Read the many touching tributes written to him from colleagues and other Sierra Leonean journalists here. Reading them makes me wish I’d gotten to know him more and learn from his years of experience. Rest in peace Mr. John

News and feature stories:

Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria speaks at State House
My first news piece, on the Sierra Leone diplomat who was kidnapped in Nigeria and released. It was one of my first press conferences, and my first taste of how things in Sierra Leone would be different in terms of politics and the press

DJ Cleff alleged murder…LAC refuses to testify
More about this here

Diana Konomanyi testifies in bigamy case

Salone is ready for a common tariff across West Africa

US Embassy donates $800,000 USD worth of supplies to 34 Military Hospital
More on this and the below two stories here

With new $138 million energy project, World Bank breaks record in supporting Salone

World Bank Country manager discusses natural resources and record breaking aid

Second amendment to petroleum agreement approved in Parliament
More on oil and Parliament here

Clerk accused of stealing from lawyers
My colleague laughed at my headline for this piece, and I agree

NEC Chair release books on elections in Sierra Leone
This was a lesson in how journalism is often practiced in Sierra Leone. A former elections official with years of experience was writing a book on election in Sierra Leone. I wanted to ask him about his perspectives on elections in general in the country, while my colleague just wanted me to do a plain story on the launch of the books. It was a bit frustrating, but I ended up doing both stories — the one I really wanted to do is below

Elections official reflects on democracy in Sierra Leone

Road around chimpanzee sanctuary needs fixing

“No support is too much”: Civil society employee donates to Ebola orphanage
I was happy with how this story turned out — more on the experience of reporting it here

Tacugama Sanctuary a refuge for orphaned chimpanzees

Seaweed is overtaking Lumley beach, driving away tourism
Here’s what that looked like:
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Wheelchair-bound girl needs treatment abroad
Reporting this sad story inspired me to try and do more reporting on Sierra Leone’s medical crisis. More on this here

Tacugama Sanctuary educates local people to help save chimpanzees
More on my visit to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary here

Connaught Hospital needs staff, beds and funds, according to matron
It was hard to get this interview, and I don’t think it was as revealing as it could have been. More on that saga here. Here’s something from an email sent to me from a Sierra Leonean who has been living in the United States for ten years:

I have just started my master’s degree in Public Health and from your stay in the country and visit to Connaught Hospital or recent visit to Bo hospital, you can see that accessing quality healthcare is a monumental challenge.

Ministries of Defense, Fisheries and Health and Sanitation rated highly
The same press conference where I saw the president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma

Parliament denies allegation of misuse of public funds
An odd and troubling situation which made me think about how much is really going on under the surface in Sierra Leone. A colleague of mine said it would certainly be plausible for Parliament to embezzle funds…but in this particular case the accuser didn’t give enough evidence.

Montessori preschool will open in September
I and other journalists visited the site of a new Montessori preschool in Freetown, and were given a demonstration on how the educational model works, by a US trained educator originally from Sierra Leone

“The world has failed to invest in the human capital of its women”- Zainab Bangura

Real Power Systems brings dead batteries to life

Another declaration for SLPP Secretary General
I went to a press conference at the headquarters of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, the rival party to the ruling All People’s Congress, where they were announcing a new candidate

Officials celebrate Ebola vaccine trials
This press conference was held at one of Freetown’s more luxurious hotels in the west end of town, and there were a lot of American officials there. At the conference, they told about the struggle and eventual success in creating the Ebola vaccine. Though it hasn’t gone through all the necessary levels of approval and testing, Sierra Leone has stores of Ebola vaccine that basically work, in the event of another outbreak

With more floods expected in Freetown, slum dwellers fear relocation
More on my visit to Kroo Bay slum here. After what seemed like endless delays and misunderstandings, I finally got an interview with the Sierra Leone Environmental Protection Agency for the piece

Outcry over tax increase on imported beer
Sierra Leone recently implemented a high tax on imported beer, which is proving unpopular, as people prefer the foreign beers to the domestic product, which can be inconsistent

With water sachets flooding the market, Bo turns to recycling
One of the stories I wrote about recycling after the trip I took to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city. More context for this and the next two stories (and pictures) in this bog post I wrote about my trip to Bo

Bo recycling plant transforms plastic water sachets into pavestones

Kakua Chiefdom struggles to collect local taxes and pay employees

Tony Blair visits the Sierra Leone Port
For this story, my colleague, I and a bunch of other Sierra Leonean journalists basically chased around Tony Blair at the Sierra Leone Port in the pouring rain, not entirely sure wht was going on. More on this here

Port Authority modernize to help in foreign investment

No yellow fever vaccines for adults
With yellow fever outbreaks in Angola and central Africa, I and my colleague health reporter Ade Campbell learned that Sierra Leone doesn’t have enough yellow fever vaccines to distribute to adults

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.

Awoko turns 18, and unbelievably, I’m halfway through my internship

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Awoko newspaper celebrated its 18th birthday on August 10. And it just so happens that the 9th, the day before, marked the exact mid point of my time here in Sierra Leone. I can’t believe it’s gone by so fast. As of today I have just four weeks and two days left before I fly to Morocco for a week of travel, and then back home to Seattle.

I can’t deny it’s sometimes been challenging and frustrating here, but overall it’s been an amazing experience. Just being in Sierra Leone is such an eye opening life experience in itself. But being able to see and understand how things work in Sierra Leone — a country unique in so many ways, but similar to so many around the world in the traumas it’s experienced and the need for development — through the lens of journalism is just the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m convinced that every American should at least visit sub-Saharan Africa (and the Middle East), and preferably not in vacation mode. When Americans remember that Africa exists at all, it’s usually in the context of so many stereotypes. If people understood what it’s actually like here — and in so much of the world — our discourse as a country and relationship to the world would be so much richer and more reality-based.

Anyway, my ramblings aside, Awoko newspaper deserves a lot of credit for thriving as a rare independent newspaper for 18 years in Sierra Leone, through civil war and the ebola crisis, the threat of harsh libel laws, and an environment for journalists way more difficult than what most American journalists have to deal with.

Congratulations Awoko, and here’s to many more years!

I wrote a column for the occasion, if you’re curious. I wanted to interview a lot more members of the staff about what they like best about their newspaper, but as is typical of journalism, I was struck with a deadline and I had to just turn it in with only one interview. The next day my colleague asked why he was the only one quoted. Sorry Ophaniel!

Awoko newspaper turned 18 years old on Wednesday, which was celebrated in the office with food and a huge cooler full of ginger beer. “It’s like a boy who’s all grown up,” one of the staff said. As it happens, Tuesday this week marked the midpoint of my time here in Sierra Leone. I’ve been here five weeks, and I have five more weeks to go. Working at Awoko has been an awesome way to spend five weeks in Sierra Leone, and I’m looking forward to the rest.

Early in my internship, I asked one of my colleagues what makes Awoko newspaper different from the other roughly 100 other newspapers in Freetown. He told me Awoko speaks for itself  read Awoko, and then read how the others cover the same stories, and it’s plain to see, he said.

Full piece: Happy 18th birthday, Awoko Newspaper!

Sierra Leone’s harsh libel laws

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This story in Awoko newspaper inspired me to write a column against Sierra Leone’s criminal libel law the next day. On the right, Awoko editor in chief Kelvin Lewis, also the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, is at a detention center where a journalist was released after a weekend in jail

Sierra Leone’s libel laws are always mentioned in world press freedom rankings as a major reason why the country has such a mediocre score.

There are two types of libel laws on the books, and for years journalists here have been calling to an end to the one that makes seditious libel a criminal offence. As far as I understand (and I could be a little off as I’m not a law person), this law makes it easy for journalists to be put in jail for “libel” — and libel is easy to prove. In practice seditious libel can mean writing something a government official doesn’t like. The ridiculous justification is that it’s libel because it would put the government in contempt of the public. And even worse, according to one commentator I read, truth is not a defense (I know it isn’t a bulletproof defense in the US either, but it does help). In fact, the greater the truth, the bigger the libel, because it would put the government even more in contempt of the people.

This law dates back to around 1700 and it’s essentially a remnant of the libel law Britain used to have back then,  designed to protect powerful people from criticism. Sierra Leone’s version was modified slightly into the Public Order Act of 1965, which is what journalists here want reformed.

I don’t want to delve into the legal details, but the effect, my colleagues told me, is that journalists are often detained over a weekend after committing “libel,” the idea being that this will teach them a lesson. And it can be worse. A man was jailed last year for implying on the social networking site WhatsApp that the president had killed someone, and for calling him a “wounded beast.” Imagine if anyone who made some unsubstantiated comment comment about Obama on Facebook or Twitter, or even talked about people killed by drone strikes, was immediately imprisoned. In 2013, two editors were arrested for comparing President Koroma to a rat.

My colleagues say that journalists here want the criminal libel law to be changed to a civil one (like in the United States), so that the penalties would be fines instead of jail.

During the four weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen at least two statements from the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) in newspapers calling for a change in the Public Order Act, and a few op-eds saying the same. So the column I wrote isn’t anything new, but I thought I should use my platform to add to the voices calling for an end to the law.

I always knew I would eventually do this column, but what prompted it was a story the previous day about a journalist who was detained over the weekend for asking a question a government official was not fond of. He was also randomly held on bail 20 times higher than normal. Awoko editor-in-chief Kelvin Lewis, who is also president of SLAJ, can be seen in a photo picking him up at the detention center. You can read a speech Lewis gave on World Press Freedom Day earlier this year here.

Here’s my column:

A Sierra Leonean journalist was detained last weekend because he asked a question a government official didn’t like. As Awoko reported on Tuesday, journalist Sam Lahai asked the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, “how Mr. Sengu Koroma’s work as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs relates to the running of the Kenema District Council to the extent of summoning the Kenema City Council’s Chief Administrator…to his house, and threatening them with police arrest if they fail to obey.” For this, he was held in a detention center for two days and released under a bail amount 20 times higher than the normal maximum bail, according to lawyers.

As much as I and my journalism classmates back in the United States worry about the future of the field we want to enter, and sometimes gripe about the challenges of getting enough experience, we’re some of the luckiest journalists in the world.

I know this because, unlike my colleagues at Awoko, us American journalism students don’t have to work under the shadow of Sierra Leone’s cruel criminal libel laws, which should have no place in a modern democracy. These 300-year-old laws were introduced to Sierra Leone by the British, but they’ve long since been repealed in Britain. The versions of them that survived in the United States, another former British colony, have since been transformed into something far more protective of freedom of the press.

You can read the rest here.

 

Extra! Read all about…press conferences in Freetown

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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.

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Said press conference. The man seated in the center is from one of the country’s largest TV news stations. As you can see, there are people with DSLRs filming everyone who speaks — I saw that at another press conference as well

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.

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State House press conference. The seated man on the far right is the Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, who was kidnapped, and then released not long before the press conference. You can read my coverage here if you’re curious

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?”

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The West African economic union press conference on a common tariff was held in the Santano House in Freetown, which is a Catholic space

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?

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Introduction to Awoko Newspaper

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View from a window in the Awoko office

My colleagues at Awoko say there are about 100 newspapers in Freetown, and they’re proud to work for the best. They say this is self evident — just compare how Awoko and the other newspapers in the country cover the same stories. Awoko is totally independent, so it differs from the papers that favor a political party, or the Sierra Leone Daily Mail, which is government run.

The Awoko office is located in the city center of Freetown, opposite a Christian school. On the same street are several of the makeshift, shack-like dwellings with tin roofs that are ubiquitous in Freetown. From the balcony of the Awoko office you can see the bustle of the street, and the nearby electrical utility building marred by black scorch marks from a fire.

Anyway, I started my first day at Awoko on July 7. The newsroom has at least 10 editorial staff members (and I’m probably forgetting someone), along with many more supporting staffers. They work in a second-floor room outfitted with several computers and printers, a TV and some big desks. There are always copies of some of Awoko’s many competitors lying around.

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A not great photo of the Awoko newsroom I took on my first day

Editor in chief Kelvin Lewis is also the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists. He introduced me to the Awoko staff members with a deadpan joke about each of them.

I’ve been coming in to the office for less than a week now, bus it’s usually a similar routine every day. Several staff members meet just before 9 am to look over mock-ups of the next day’s paper for any mistakes or things to change — these are first drafts of the paper to be officially circulated the next day.

Then, I usually go with one of the reporters on an assignment. So far I’ve been to three press conferences, including one at the state house, and to a murder trial. More on all of those in another post. This is not a nine-to-five office, and I’m not sure whether or not that’s normal for Sierra Leone. But people continue working in the office well past 7 pm, and sometimes later.

I’m the 7th intern from the University of Washington that Awoko has had — the partnership started in 2007, I believe, and has had one or two years missed (most notably 2015, when the university wouldn’t send anyone for fear of ebola).

The staff are just awesome — they’re serious about their craft, and they’ve been incredibly welcoming, friendly, helpful and accommodating of my silly questions. They’re always quick with a joke or quip. And I’m happy to say  I’ve been assigned serious, real work right away — the staff assume I’m up to the task, and expect nothing less, which is perfect.

I’m looking forward to the next nine weeks!

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Today’s issue of Awoko (top) and yesterday’s (bottom), though it’s actually more like “tomorrow’s” and today’s. Each contains one of my columns, and the bottom headline is for a story I wrote, covering a press conference at the state house.