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University based media fosters objective reporting in Sierra Leone

Fifteen years of United Nations Peacekeeping, involving over 17,000 international peacekeepers, has come to an end this week in Sierra Leone. It’s an important milestone in a country that is eager to move beyond its post-conflict identity.

Sierra Leone is a country of youth, with a national median age of just 19. It also has the worst youth unemployment rate in Africa, estimated at 60% by the United Nations Development Program. Many of these young citizens are vulnerable to political manipulation and the region’s growing narcotics trade. In addition, education levels are low, feeding a literacy rate for adults of 43%, one of the lowest in the world.

Against this backdrop, Cotton Tree News (CTN), a radio production and broadcast studio based in Sierra Leone, has identified an effective strategy for engaging donors, university support, and community buy-in to create a sustainable youth journalism program. CTN cultivates future employment opportunities for young people while empowering them to participate in restoring stability and justice in Sierra Leone.

For the country as a whole, CTN is providing professional, unbiased, and relevant reporting and has set a new standard for broadcast journalism. This in turn has raised expectations for fact-based reporting that is accessible to citizens. By training youth and proving the tools to take on the tough issues, it has also succeeded in creating a breeding ground for a new generation of broadcast journalists that will be expected to continue long into the future. The success of CTN is important because it suggests one of the critical roles youth media can play: shifting the balance of power in a community and giving young people a stake in their future.

About Cotton Tree News (CTN)

The Swiss non-profit organization Fondation Hirondelle has built a reputation in Africa, Europe and Asia for its independent media in conflict or crisis zones, from East Timor to Kosovo, West Africa and the troubled Great Lakes region of central Africa. Present in neighboring Liberia during that country’s 14-year civil war, Fondation Hirondelle watched as violence spread in Sierra Leone, feeding on propaganda, misinformation and manipulation of the broadcast media. Approached by both international donors and the United Nations (UN), Fondation Hirondelle proposed a project in Sierra Leone that would be a departure from previous media models.

From the outset, Fondation Hirondelle wanted to build a project that would have a lasting impact on individual journalists, and as a result, raise the overall standard of journalism. In a country where the post war period has seen a proliferation of commercial and community radios, Fondation Hirondelle faced a distinct challenge: how to give citizens access to unbiased and independent news without distorting the local media landscape.

Through discussions with local actors, journalists and donors about what was missing from available media outlets and training programs, Hirondelle created CTN. CTN was designed to utilize production facilities within the Mass Communications Department at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. The physical location and academic environment of the studio enabled CTN to test a dual approach to the production and broadcast of high quality news and hands-on mentorship-style journalism.

In February 2007, CTN broadcast its first news bulletin over the UN peacekeeping radio and the university radio, Radio Mount Aureol. UN Radio was already a trusted source of information; the population came to rely on it during the war as Radio UNAMSIL (the name of the first Peacekeeping operation). Named after the indigenous tree found at the center of many towns and villages that still serves as a gathering place for people to exchange information, CTN quickly gained a reputation as the most credible, professional source of news in the country.

There are countless examples of how the force of effective journalism—from ground-breaking news articles to hard-hitting human interest stories and campaign reporting—can affect decision-making in both public and private spheres. In a fragile, impoverished country such as Sierra Leone, providing independent, unbiased news and information and opening up dialogue between citizens and government is key to re-building trust, transparency and participatory governance.

The Apprenticeship Model in Cotton Tree News (CTN)

Youth media projects that are built around a model of “apprenticeship” allow young media practitioners to benefit from daily mentorship and feedback. Mentorship comes from editors, senior staff and colleagues, as more experienced producers and journalists are paired with novice reporters and journalism students. At CTN it was found that the mentorship relationships in the newsroom fostered competent, responsible journalism through inquiry, peer feedback, criticism and cooperation. By understanding and adopting a code of ethical conduct, young journalists accept the benefits and the responsibility of the profession created through the relationship with the listener. Hirondelle has also learned that mentoring young journalists must include transmitting an understanding and belief in the underlying principles of independent media.

The apprenticeship model is particularly important in Sierra Leone because the mentor relationship reinforces a culture of professionalism in an environment where journalism is not seen as a real profession. In many African countries, journalists work without salary and are expected to fend for themselves by soliciting payment (sometimes from interviewees) or, in countries where a large number of NGOs are present, by attending media workshops or press conferences. CTN has stood out from other media in Sierra Leone by paying a core staff of reporters and producers fair wages and offering incentives (and, later, employment) to talented volunteer staff.

Forming Partnerships, Planning for sustainability

The difficulty of long-term mentoring of young people, in the context of media production, is that it requires a significant investment of time and money.  When support from European donors to Fondation Hirondelle for the project diminished in 2011, CTN and the University of Sierra Leone were faced with some difficult questions about the future of the program. Without funds to maintain the technical infrastructure, satellite links to partner radios broke down and limited generator-powered electricity at the Fourah Bay College studios and newsroom reduced on-air hours.

Hirondelle decided to take a new approach to raising support for Cotton Tree News by addresses the acute and urgent need for programming for women and children not just in Sierra Leone but also in Mali and Guinea where they had launched media in 2013. The Ford Foundation came on board to support a media project that would produce and broadcast weekly features and discussion programming as well as journalism training on coverage of sensitive topics.

As a result CTN is once again broadcasting across its community radio network, and is in the process of planning for a year long effort aimed at supporting the constitutional review process, carrying out civic education over the airwaves, producing live radio events at community radios, and covering the constitutional referendum and the period following the vote. Through the production and broadcasting of news, civic education and debate, and by providing interactive programming nationally, the project aims to ensure that citizens and civil society understand how the constitution impacts their lives and grasp the issues at stake and that they have the space needed to take part in developing the new constitution.

Best Practices for Youth Media Organizations in Post-Conflict Situations

Compensate staff whenever possible. In a fragile political or socio-economic context, bad journalistic habits can be seen as the result of lack of regular pay. In Sierra Leone, more often than not, journalists are paid when they go to a workshop or, worse, when they conduct and publish an interview (in which case the interview subject pays). Such payments are considered part of the compensation package for the media.

At best, when there is pressure to produce news for little compensation, there is little fact checking or critical argument. Articles and reports lack imagination and are full of jargon. At worst, newspapers and radios owned by political parties or political individuals become tools for propaganda, and in many cases, promulgate hate.

By paying staff, media organizations can free their airwaves of political influence.

Keep your mission clear and work with likeminded partners Hirondelle and Fourah Bay College are now able to build on seven years of partnership, a collaboration that now has less to do with funding and more with a shared belief in the importance of objective journalism and a solid commitment to the CTN project.

Remember that funding can come from a number of sources. For instance, CTN has developed as a journalism training resource for local and international NGOs, providing an income stream that can help cover operational costs. The University of Sierra Leone recognizes the value of the project as part of it’s pedagogical mandate, and as a result pays all staff salaries, an important ‘buy in’ that will be key to CTN’s sustainability.

Next Steps

Throughout most of the developing world, radio remains the best means to reach the greatest number of people: it is over FM and shortwave that people are educated, informed, and entertained. These are young countries, and unless projects are designed with youth in mind they will fall short of their potential. A professional youth-centered media will build a relationship of trust with the listener and will be seen and accepted as an agent of change. In order to foster access to quality, independent information, the best strategies involve long-term mentoring relationships and strategic partnerships.

Radio made by and for youth can give voice to marginalized young populations, providing a space for dialogue about the most pressing or sensitive issues. By focusing on youth, media-strengthening partnerships can have a lasting impact on the lives of young people and can, in the end, transform the overall media landscape.

Anne Bennett, Hirondelle USA Executive Director

This article included material from a case study by the author that appeared in Youth Media Reporter in 2009.