West Africa: Governments restrict media amid Ebola outbreak (CPJ)

| May 4, 2015

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On the first Saturday of November 2014, Sierra Leonian broadcaster David Tam Baryoh switched on the microphone for his weekly show on Freetown’s independent radio station, Citizen FM. He had no idea that airing a piece which criticized the government’s handling of Ebola would land him in jail for 11 days.

His program, Monologue, broadcasts more than just Mr. Baryoh’s voice. It also includes interviews and call-ins from listeners. According to local journalists, the program’s criticism of Sierra Leone’s President, Ernest Bai Koroma, may have led to Mr. Baryoh’s arrest. Mr. Baryoh interviewed an opposition party spokesman who criticized the government’s handling of the Ebola outbreak.

After the show aired, police officers arrested Mr. Baryoh at his office without a warrant. Kelvin Lewis is president of Sierra Leone’s Association of Journalists. According to Mr. Lewis, police later showed Mr. Baryoh an order signed by the President that accused the broadcaster of incitement.

According to a report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, “Africa[n] [print and audio-visual] media … should be encouraged to provide accurate and fact-based accounts on [Ebola]. They should cover progress made to reverse its spread and impact.”

While the media should report accurately and avoid stereotyping Africa as a place of disease and despair, Guinean, Liberian and Sierra Leonean journalists who spoke to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists said that focusing only on the good news of progress against Ebola is not enough.

Sierra Leone has low literacy rates and newspapers are expensive. Thus, according to a journalist who wished to remain anonymous, radio is a vital source of information. The journalist adds, “People love independent media because we raise questions [about subjects] that affect them.”

Anjali Manivannan works for the Media Foundation for West Africa. She says that community radio stations play a key role by providing a way for trusted community leaders to speak directly to people in the region.

Ms. Manivannan says that when respected fellow citizens talk about Ebola – its symptoms, prevention, and containment methods – they may be more effective than state officials. She adds, “Trust in government … is weak.”

Mustapha Dumbuya is a radio journalist in Sierra Leone. He believes that a robust, independent press should ask questions and hold governments to account. Yet, as Mr. Baryoh’s experience illustrates, even raising such questions on the airwaves can carry a price in the current environment.

Mr. Dumbuya says that the lesson for other journalists in Sierra Leone is clear – self-censor or run the risk of arrest.

Mr. Baryoh says no charges have been filed against him. But he must report weekly to the police, who have confiscated his passport. He says, “If you don’t have your passport, you are not free.”

Mr. Baryoh is reluctant to speculate on the record about what he might have said that drew such a swift reprisal from the President. But his absence from the airwaves means that one fewer voice in Sierra Leone is raising critical questions and voicing citizens’ concerns.

To read the article on which this story is based, Amid Ebola outbreak, West African governments try to isolate media, go to: https://www.cpj.org/2015/04/attacks-on-the-press-amid-ebola-outbreak-west-africa-isolate-media.php

Photo: A man walks past a burial report including known Ebola cases at the Western area emergency response center in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on December 16, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner