What are the challenges of democratic communication in developing countries? What can be learned from print journalism in Sierra Leone? This article from Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies analyses the conditions of the newspaper industry in Sierra Leone since the end of civil war. It highlights key difficulties including a lack of financial, technological and human resources. Resource constraints affect every level of society, however; the challenges facing the press must be viewed within the broader social context. Despite its difficulties, the press in Sierra Leone is emerging as an important watchdog.
Sierra Leone has a strong broadcasting tradition. Its vibrant press is beginning to re-emerge with the return of displaced citizens and media professionals following the conflict. Radio is the most important medium of communication to which almost all citizens have access. Newspapers are also essential to the creation of a democratic public sphere, despite enjoying a much smaller audience. However, the press in Sierra Leone suffers from a number of difficulties that impede its development, and conditions for journalism remain problematic. Key challenges include:
- Legal constraints: Critics argue that the criminalisation of seditious libel is contrary to the constitutional right to freedom of expression and may be used to suppress dissent. However, proponents argue that it is essential to ensure objective, responsible and professional journalism.
- Operational challenges: These include low levels of advertising revenue and income from sales; distribution problems (such as reliance on street vendors who demand a large share of the profits); a lack of basic technology, materials and equipment (including printing presses, tape recorders, cameras); electricity shortages; a lack of skills; and low salaries among journalists.
- Unethical practices: Some journalists who are not paid a living wage resort to blackmail, which may involve demanding money to cover an event or story or requesting payment to keep information secret. This leads to a loss of public confidence and reduces press legitimacy in holding government to account.
A number of opportunities for the press can also be noted in Sierra Leone, however. These include:
- A professionalising network: Formal training opportunities are opening up for journalists, including a university degree programme introduced in 2002.
- Contribution to the emergence of a democratic public sphere: Systematic exposure of corruption is particularly important.
The challenges facing the newspaper industry in Sierra Leone cannot be viewed in isolation and must be considered within the broader social, economic and political context. Considerations for policymakers include the following:
- The quality of the press is an important indicator of how other governance and civil society institutions are functioning.
- The structural problems facing journalists are linked to poverty.
- Despite significant constraints, journalists are emerging as an important watchdog of official power. A new generation of trained journalists should be better able to fulfil this watchdog role.