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.

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