World Press Freedom Day

01 May 2009

Sierra Leone taking huge strides towards free media

UN radio reporter in action
Freetown, Sierra Leone - In a significant step towards free media, Sierra Leone is preparing for an independent public-service radio to replace the government-run broadcast service.  

In March 2009, the country’s government approved draft legislation that creates the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). The following month, both major parties - the governing All Peoples’ Congress (APC) and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) - endorsed the public broadcasting reform. Once the bill is passed by Parliament, Sierra Leone will be on its way toward free access to information.

“This will be a major milestone not just for Sierra Leone, but for all of Africa,” says William Orme, United Nations Media Development Advisor in Sierra Leone. “There are few instances of a government voluntarily relinquishing control of its official mouthpiece and allowing an independently-run broadcast service to take its place.”

During the conflict between 1991 and 2002, the widespread destruction of infrastructure included that of public information systems, and experienced media practitioners were among many who fled the country.

In 2000, UN Radio was established by the UN peacekeeping mission, and became Sierra Leone’s largest broadcaster, reaching 90 percent of the country with round-the-clock programming, and cited in listener surveys as their most trusted source for local news. The SLBC is designed to play a similar role, but under national, rather than international, control. It will be overseen by a board of independent trustees representing all regions, social sectors and civil society, including private sector and media representatives. The governing structures and mission statement for the new corporation were based on guidelines for public service broadcasting defined by the country’s Independent Media Commission, as well as public broadcasting principles endorsed by the African Union and UNESCO.

A free-flow of information is critical to building confidence, managing rumours and consolidating peace dividends in post-conflict situations. As such, the UN has prioritised support to strengthening the media sector in Sierra Leone.

UN Radio news reporter
Ahead of the presidential and legislative elections in 2007, for instance, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) worked with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, supported training of journalists in electoral reporting and the development of a Media Code of Conduct where the major national media institutions agreed to exercise self-restraint and accepted monitoring of their performance by an independent panel.

The creation of the SLBC is timely. Party-operated radio stations accused of exacerbating violent inter-party clashes during March 2009, were subsequently suspended by the government. “We are all aware of the dangerously destabilizing impact of partisan and ethnic radio outlets in many parts of Africa over the past decade. Creating an independent broadcaster where all voices can be heard removes the rationale for partisan radio and offers a much superior alternative”, Orme says.

The World Press Freedom Day 2009, which is celebrated on May 3rd, highlights the media’s capacity to foster dialogue, understanding and reconciliation.

Background:

The UN’s mandate in Sierra Leone Security Council Resolution 1620  (August 2005) includes support for democratic institutions generally, and independent radio specifically, to help the country develop its own “independent and capable public radio” as an integral part of its mission to promote a national “culture of peace, dialogue and participation.”

UN Radio will close in September 2009, after nine years of operation. Should the proposed transition from a traditional state broadcaster (Sierra Leone Broadcasting System) to an independent public broadcasting corporation (SLBC) be approved by Parliament and signed into law, the UN has pledged to support this new democratic institution with technical support, transitional aid from the UN Peacebuilding Fund, and all the assets and infrastructure of UN Radio.

The UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone  (UNIPSIL) supports democratic institutions through capacity-building, technical support, and financial assistance, in coordination with the Government and the donor community.

For more on media freedom in Sierra Leone, watch Part Two of the Al-Jazeera International programme, the Listening Post, broadcast 17 April 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-gwtyfmhQM&feature=PlayList&p=6A10A77CA1EBE139&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=11

Part One of the programme can be found at: http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/listeningpost/2009/04/200941791952341626.html

Contact Information

For more information, please contact:

William Orme, Media Development Advisor
UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL)
Freetown, Sierra Leone
william.orme@undp.org Tel: + 232 (0) 76-66-2616