Author Archives: Damon van der Linde

JHR Workshop Series Brings Rights Media to the Forefront During Sierra Leone Elections

JHR Election Workshop Series participants attend a discussion session with National Electoral Commission Outreach Coordinator Christopher Jones

For eight weeks, 17 journalists from various newspaper and radio media outlets attended the 2012 Human Rights Election Workshop Series, hosted by jhr and sponsored by UNIPSIL – the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone. The goal was increase their knowledge of human rights reporting during the 2012 General Elections, the third since the end of the civil war.

Forty-seven stories were produced by workshop series participants. There was a wide range of approaches to human rights reporting during the elections.

Some of the stories looked specifically at how human rights would be impacted during the election period. One subject that received significant attention was the access – or lack of access – to a tactile ballot system that would allow voting for the visually impaired. This year, those who could not see the ballots would require the use of a confidant. Workshop participants interviewed politicians, the National Elections Commission, disability rights groups and of course those with visual impairments to bring this human rights concern to the public forum.

There can be no doubt of the significant amount of tension felt going into these these elections. It was the third since the end of a devastating eleven-year civil war. Past elections have been marred by violence both during and outside of wartime. Reporters at the Journalists for Human Rights Workshop Series took on the responsibility of creating stories that focused on issues-based journalism, as opposed to inflammatory partisan propaganda.

The overall lesson plan was to build a strong foundation of human rights reporting in local media during the elections. The lessons covered human rights topics, as well as general election reporting techniques to build stronger stories.

The Sierra Leone Red Cross Society also hosted a two-part session on emergency first-aid and reporting safety to better equip those working on the sometimes risky front lines of journalism.

The result was a peaceful election, and a greater coverage of human rights issues in the media. The election was hailed as being, for the most part, free, fair, and transparent. Journalists throughout the country contributed to this success by holding politicians responsible for improving the lives of citizens they hoped would elect them into office, and make promises to improve human rights in their constituencies. Hopefully this milestone in the country’s history will lead to a greater awareness and action for human rights in the next five years.

 

JHR Present Sierra Leone Human Rights Reporting Awards

December 10 was International Human Rights Day, and jhr celebrated by presenting awards for the best human rights stories produced in Sierra Leone. The stories were produced by journalists during an eight-week reporting workshop focused around the 2012 general elections. These stories contributed to a peaceful and transparent election, and heightened the awareness of human rights during this crucial period.

It was a difficult decision for the panel of judges from jhr, UNIPSIL and the Independent Media Commission. In the end, there could only be four – two from print and two from electronic media.

International Human Rights Day with (from left to right) jhr Sierra Leone Country Director Yeama Thompson, award-winners Sallieu Sesay, Lansana Mansaray, Mariama Bah, and Hassan Bangura, and UNIPSIL Secretary General, Jens Anders Toyberg-Frandzen.

Read the stories here:

Hassan Bangura of Salone Times Newspaper – A Call for Equal Representation of People with Disabilities in Government

Sallieu Sesay of the Torchlight Newspaper – Sallieu Sesay – Ahead of the November 17th Polls, Blind Feel Neglected 

Listen to the Stories here:

Lansana Mansaray of Skyy FM – Lansana Mansaray – Violence and Security for Women During the Election

Mariama Bah of Cotton Tree News – Mariama Bah – The Rights of Blind Voters

A Call for Equal Representation of People with Disabilities in Government

By Hassan Bangura

In the build-up to November 17 elections in Sierra Leone, persons with disabilities demanded to be included in the government of their country. They claim to have been marginalised by previous governments, by not being given the opportunity to serve their country in positions where they can make an impact. This, they say,  is a violation of their human rights as it is in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). Article 21 of the UDHR states that: every citizen has the right to take part in the government of their country directly or through freely chosen representatives, right to equal access to public service in their country; the right to participate in periodic and genuine elections.

Teddy Foday-Musa, the Director of the advocacy group, Disability Sierra Leone (DiSil), says he is very disappointed that the issues they have raised with the National Electoral Commission (NEC) have not been addressed.

“I am very disappointed that after having a series of meetings with NEC about providing people with disabilities with the necessities that will enable them to have equal participation in the elections like other Sierra Leoneans, they have failed to do that,” he said.

Foday-Musa said the NEC kept raising their hopes of providing blind people with tactile ballot system until the eleventh hour when they were informed that they will not be able to provide that.

“That is a violation of the rights of these people to vote independently, as the constitution of this country provides for secret ballots,” he said.

Foday-Musa said even the deaf and dumb have been deprived of their rights to voter education throughout the voter education process.

“ I have never witnessed where sign language has been used to communicate to the deaf and dumb about the voting process,” he said.

However, the plight of persons with disabilities was not neglected by the NEC only, even the political parties themselves had their own share of the responsibility. According to Foday-Musa, “the political parties have also disappointed the disabled, especially the blind. We have seen all the parties launching their manifestoes in a bid to sell their intended programmes for the country if elected, but unfortunately none of them deem it necessary to provide copies of those documents in Braille. In a way, it seems like they don’t care if the blind know what their intentions are. That is bad enough.”

In their manifestoes, both the All Peoples Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) did not mention how they are going to address the issues facing people with disabilities in the country. When asked about their plans for the disabled and their demand for seat on five cabinet positions – a call by Vandy Konneh of Disability Rights Movement (DRIM) – the young generation leader of the SLPP, Ibrahim Bangura said their party was ready to do more.

“Our party as a national organization is poised towards empowering the disabled rather than just dishing out cabinet positions. If we have people with disabilities whom we know are capable to occupy and execute the duties of any office we shall make sure we give them that opportunity,” he said.

Bangura revealed that their party has awarded symbols to a considerable number of persons with disabilities and they are ready to provide more opportunities for them in their government should they win the elections.

On the other hand, the national coordinator for the All Peoples Congress (APC), Balogun Koroma, revealed that their party has always been an all-inclusive party.

“We are known for encouraging all people as the name of our party suggests,” he said. Koroma further revealed that their party is the first party to have a disabled person as Member of Parliament. He said in the coming elections their party has awarded symbols to a number of persons with disabilities. The irony, however, is that the only disabled person to become Member of Parliament, Julius Kofi, did not succeed in securing the party symbol for the November polls. Koroma said it was due to the primary elections that he lost.

Although the major political parties and other civil society organizations have made promises and commitments to see to it that persons with disabilities are well represented in society, the reality is that there is still a lot to be done. A blind law student atFourahBayCollege, Malcolm Kpana, has urged politicians in the next government to make more efforts to solve the issues faced by disabled people.

“It will not only help the disabled but also the country, as it will only increase the badly needed human capital all of these parties are promising to build,” he said.

Kpana suggests that governments should make it possible for disabled people to acquire free and quality education to help them play their own part in the development of the country.

The streets, especially in the administrative centres, are still filled with persons with disabilities of different sorts roaming helplessly, begging for alms to survive. It is the opinion of many organizations championing the cause of the disabled that these people can be better catered for in society if they have people who are like them and knows what it feels like to be disabled to represent them in governance.

Ahead of the 17th November Polls… The Blind Feel Neglected by NEC

By Sallieu Sesay

56 years old Pa Abu Bangura, who is a blind beggar along Siaka Stevens Street in Freetown, said that as a blind man, he has no knowledge about the 2012 elections. “I do not know about anything that is going on in this election, how and who not to vote for”.

Pa Bangura further stated that during the previous elections, he knew how to vote because as blind people they were taught how to vote.

Article 9 of the UN Convention on Persons with Disability states that “persons with disability have the right to access information and communications on national issues.” The Convention also made provision for disable persons to take part in elections either to vote and to be voted for.

Augustine Kabbah is the Director of the Sierra Leone Union of Disability (SLUDI). He said the National Electoral Commission NEC has failed in ensuring that they are provided the necessary assistance in terms of devices and services that will ensure that people with disability exercise their rights to vote. “The Commission has also failed to design Braille voter education materials and involved sign language interpreters during their sensitization so that the deaf and dumb disable people could understand the voting process and be able to exercise their rights.”

But what has the National Electoral Commission (NEC) being doing to educate disable voters? Albert Massaquoi is the Chief of External Relations who revealed that the Commission is having difficulties to provide voter education materials for the general voting populace. “We are currently in a situation where we are not up to the task of providing voter education or voting materials for people with disability. Even normal materials for the elections, the Commission is finding it difficult to have them now,” he continued.

Henry Sheku, Communication Officer for the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone maintained that the issue of disable people accessing voting materials is a concern for them. “We are aware of the concerns raised by disable people and we are currently engaged with NEC on this because the Commission will be pleased to see that people with any form of disability are able to exercise their rights to vote,” he asserted.

Massaquoi of NEC disclosed that during the 2007 elections, NEC provided tactile ballots for blind people to be able to vote as a pilot phase but in this year’s elections they are not going to do so. “The Public Elections Act of 2012 does not have any provision for use tactile ballot system which blind people use to vote.”

Part four of the 2011 Disability Act of Sierra Leone Sub Section 29 states that, “The National Electoral Commission shall ensure that during the elections, polling stations are made accessible to persons with disability and shall provide such persons with the necessary assistive devices and services to facilitate the exercise of their right to vote.”

As the disability Act of 2011 calls on NEC to make necessary materials and assistance that will aid people with any form of disability to exercise their right to vote, the2012 election act failed to make provision for this.

But what is the government’s reaction towards this? Steven Gaouja is the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs. He said that the government through his Ministry views this as an unfortunate situation. “We are sad about this as elections are around the corner and NEC cannot do anything about it though the 2011 Disability Act makes provision for that,”  Minister Gaouja said adding that they cannot do anything thing about it now.

When commenting on the multitier elections, Pa Bangura said he was not aware, “I am airing through this interview that I don’t know because I am a blind man always walking along the street.”

As elections are few days away, disable people are encouraged to vote but are not sensitized and the question they are asking is whether or not their votes will be void due to the fact that they don’t know the process and tactile ballots are not provided by NEC this time around.

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JHR Leading Workshop Series on Human Rights Reporting in Sierra Leone for 2012 Elections

In less than two months, Sierra Leoneans will head to the polls for the third time since the end of a civil war. The country has been peaceful for just over a decade, and though the past two elections have been relatively free of civil unrest or violence, some worrying political events of the past year are causing concern whether 2012 will be a peaceful one.

The media plays a significant role disseminating and communicating information to the public throughout the election process. It can help to facilitate peaceful and transparent elections, but it can also be a tool for inciting violence and discrimination, jeopardising human rights.

The media are also able to use elections as an opportunity to hold politicians accountable for the promises made during the campaigning period. After all, the results of these votes will affect the entire country for the next five years.

On September 12, 2012, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to assist in the preparation and conduct of the elections. They call the elections a “key benchmark” for peace consolidation in the West African country, extending  the mandate of the UNIPSIL, as the United Nations presence in the country is known, until the end of March 2013, in part, to assist the Government in the run-up to a “potentially transformational event.”

In this meeting, the Security Council emphasised the the important and positive role that the media can play through accurate and balanced reporting, and called on practitioners to remain committed to providing professional, independent, and factual coverage and to promoting public education and dialogue during the electoral period.

In the lead-up to the November 17, 2012 polls, Journalists for Human Rights is receiving support from the UNIPSIL – the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone- and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to host an eight week workshop series for Sierra Leonean journalists.

Beginning on October 11, journalists from media houses across Freetown will study and report on a variety of human rights concerns that emerge during the election period. Topics covered will include election timelines, human rights issues, election legislation, story-gathering techniques, and safety considerations. Participants will produce three human rights election stories each, for publication or broadcast at media houses. The workshop series will conclude with an awards ceremony, coinciding with International Human Rights Day on December 10, 2012.

Though it is natural for a certain amount of tension to exist in the lead-up to such a momentous event, this application of democracy has great potential to encourage  politicians to commit to improving human rights in their constituencies.

To learn more about jhr’s work in Sierra Leone during the 2012 Presidential Elections, visit http://www.jhr.ca/en/sled.php.

Sierra-Leone-cultural-dance-troupe

Sierra Leone’s National Dance Troupe Fights to Return to Glory Days

I went along with my colleague at Cotton Tree News, Kevin Lamdo, to produce his program entitled “My Visit,” where he highlights the everyday life of different groups of people in Sierra Leone. The show has featured everyone from Paramount Chiefs to scrap metal collectors.

This week, the program went to the Aberdeen Cultural Village, the official centre for arts in Sierra Leone. Despite being located inside the city, it lives up to the title of “Village.” Generations of families live here, growing small crops and raising livestock. Chickens squawk running in between bathing children while pots of rice simmer on open fires.

This is the home of Sierra Leone’s National Dance Troupe, who tell me they are happy to be making a living doing what they love, even though their salaries barely allow them to make ends meet.

I visited the village in the morning and for hours they practiced singing, dancing, acrobatics and playing drums – traditional Sierra Leonean music from around the country. But, they tell me, they often can’t afford to maintain their costumes and repair their instruments.

For a time, the troupe performed everywhere from Canadato China. In 1963, the National Danced Troupe was founded by John Joseph Akar, a Sierra Leonean entertainer and repeat guest on the Merv Griffin Show. Under Akar’s leadership, the troupe was invited to the United States to perform at the New York World Fair, at the Negro Arts festival in Dakar, Senegal and went on a four-month tour of Europe.

Today, little seems to be invested in promoting the culture of a country that is best known around the world in popular culture primarily for blood diamonds and civil war.

The Troupe still entertains at foreign diplomatic events and, performs for state functions – including last year’s 50th Anniversary celebrations of the country’s independence. But this kind prestige didn’t last. Several corrupt governments and an 11-year civil war left little room in the government budget for the Ministry of Tourism and Culture,

Lansana Kelfala has been a musician with the dance troupe since 1963, and for a while, he says he felt the pride of traveling the world representing his newly-independent country.

“We used to travel, perform and get paid all the time. Now we can go two or three years without going anywhere,” said Kelfala. “We want the government to give us more help and we want the people to support us so we don’t starve.”

Sierra Leone is Still Waiting for a Freedom of Information Law

Though the government of Sierra Leone has been making very public displays of initiatives that aim to promote transparency, since even before the current government came into power in 2007, there have been discussions about if and how to go about creating a Freedom of Information (FOI) Law.

Generally speaking, the purpose of FOI legislation is to legally require governments to release documents to journalists and other concerned members of the public. At the moment, Liberia is the only West African country with an FOI law, while South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda are the only others on the continent.

Sierra Leone currently has a bill in Parliament for the creation of an FOI Law. After it was first drafted, it was twice discussed in cabinet, was then moved to parliament, where it was discussed by the legislative committee on Communication and Information. It is yet to be passed.

The Sierra Leone FOI Bill was first proposed in 2005 by the Society for Democratic Initiatives in cooperation with the London-based human rights organization, Article 19. In 2008, Sierra Leone’s Information and Communication Minister, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo signed a commitment which agreed to pass the Bill into law.

Now, more than three years later at the Commonwealth Forum on Media and Development in Sierra Leone, Kargbo said that he hopes the bill will pass in the next six months.

“It has been delayed, but when parliament resumes the bill will be passed,” said Kargbo.

The government has been promoting its initiatives which they say aim to improve transparency of their operations. One example is the recently completed Government of Sierra Leone Online Mining Repository System, which publishes information on financial transactions between the government and mining companies. Though some see it as a step in the right direction in terms of increasing transparency in one of Sierra Leone’s biggest industries, it is not a replacement for real Freedom of Information legislation.

“As much as the system is promised to address issues of corruption, I don’t think it will holistically address the problem when there is the tendency for the officials of the ministry to only upload information that is in their own interest and not crucial information that the public will want to know about,” said Mohammed Konneh, Secretary General of the Association of Journalists on Mining and Extractives. “Without the [Freedom of Information] law, the system will not work well more so the people that are responsible to run the system will in some cases will be afraid to put certain information that the government considers confidential.”

The draft for the bill argues that FOI laws are not only as crucial to participatory democracy, accountability and good governance, but also as a fundamental human right, protected under international and constitutional law.

To view the 2005 draft of the bill, visit http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/analysis/sierra-leone.foi.05.pdf

Community Radio Puts Local News First

The people of Port Loko, Sierra Leone used to get news about their town from radio stations in the capital even though they had their own community radio station.

In November 2011, I left my home in Freetown to teach a workshop at Radio Bankasoka, a community radio station in Port Loko, which is the administrative center for all the chiefdoms in the district, an important trading hub between Guinea and Sierra Leone, and a part of the country’s growing mining sector. At the same time, this small town is in many ways quite unassuming. It has a population of slightly over 20,000, one bank, no supermarket, no local newspaper and just one radio station.

Radio Bankasoka has been in operation for just over four years and it would be an understatement to say it is modestly equipped. It has a transmitter, a generator, an antenna, CD player, a mixing board, a soundproof announcer’s studio and a couple of microphones. They have no computers, no audio recorders, and full-time employees.

As a community radio station, what they do have is a group of dedicated volunteers who manage the station, DJ, and broadcast syndicated programs. What was missing at the station was any sort of locally-produced news content. It was a community radio station that wasn’t covering what was happening in the community.  This was because in addition to not having the funds to hire a news team of professional journalist, there were no training opportunities to improve the skills of those who were willing to volunteer their time.

Abdul Kareem Dumbuya, the public relations officer at the University of Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College, was born in Port Loko and is a member of the committee that has managed to scrape the funds together to keep Radio Bankasoka in operation these years. He approached a reporter from Cotton Tree News, Mustapha Dumbuya (no family relation, but also originating from Port Loko), to help him create a news training program to begin covering what was happening in the community, from the community.

As I was working at Cotton Tree News as a Radio Media Trainer with jhr, I found myself lucky enough to be invited to help facilitate this news reporting workshop.

The workshop was only three days long meaning it had to be intensive and focused. Of  course we knew that with a long-weekend of training, limited equipment and unpaid staff, it would be a challenge to leave a fully-functioning news program, but this would be a start and hopefully leave with something simple and sustainable.

The first day of the news training workshop was held in Port Loko’s Human Rights Library. Twenty seven people showed up for the workshop, many of whom are teachers, but also students, farmers, traders and others looking to help build their community through its radio station.

The first two days of the workshop were in-class work that aimed to build basic reporting skills like finding the elements of a news story, how to conduct and interview, and where to find story ideas. On the second day, participants went into the field to collect stories, bring them back and write them.

Then, at 8am on Saturday, December 14, Radio Bankasoka aired its first newscast, in English, Krio, Temne and Limba. Although the station still have a long way to go, both in terms of training, as well as access to equipment, the news program has continued thanks to the members of the board, and dedicated volunteers.

Today, the people of Port Loko no longer have to tune into a station in Freetown to hear news about their town.

The Road from Here

The road from the Sierra Leonean town of Kenema to the Liberian border is not the smoothest ride in the country, but it may be one of the more interesting ones.

The road is an unpaved dirt trail that winds eighty kilometres though the thick jungle and swampy lowlands of the Gola Rainforest. I left early in the morning on the back of a motorcycle with my bag strapped behind me. This is probably the fastest way to travel this road, as bikes are able to skirt the many deep puddles that could easily swallow up an ill-equipped vehicle. Even so, the journey still took more than six hours to navigate.   

At sunrise a thin, silky mist rose over the red earth, weaving its way between the tall grass and tree trunks. Past the Gola Rainforest National Park are acres of palm plantations, harvested commercially for their oil. Aside from opportunities in agriculture, tourism and a few non-governmental organizations, jobs here are limited. The road passes through villages where people mainly subside on sustenance farming and raising livestock, leading some to find other enterprising methods of making a living.

When returning from the border back to Kenema, I was this time fortunate enough to get a ride in a jeep owned by a local NGO that operated both in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Deep in the jungle, we came across a massive tree that had fallen across the road.

There would be no way around it, and turning around was not a desirable option. It was then that we noticed four young men standing in the midst of the leaves and branches. They had axes and seemed to be in the process of clearing the pass. I got out of the car, and offered my assistance – but they refused my help.

I then noticed that the fallen tree seemed to have been cut into pieces much earlier in the day, with the branches and trunk actually dragged back into the road to block the path of traffic and exact a small fee. They had done the work – even if it was hours ago – and they wanted to be paid for their service. After all, if it wasn’t for them, the tree would still be there and vehicles would have little option than to turn back. Our driver paid and the branches were dragged from the road so we could continue on our bumpy way.

 When the dry season comes around, most transport headed this direction will take another road from a different town, which involves a ferry crossing that closes when the rains push the river too high. Then, those who live in the village will struggle to find new ways to get through another six months, any way they can.

Wiring Sierra Leone!

Sierra Leone has just been connected to its first high-speed fibre optic internet cable. With it come promises of economic and social development in a post-conflict nation with a heavy reliance on foreign aid.

Sierra Leone was passed over by several West African high-speed cable projects while in the midst of a devastating eleven-year civil war. The war ended in 2002, leaving the economy and infrastructure in ruins.

Sierra Leone’s Information Minister I.B. Kargbo says that as a post-conflict nation relying on foreign aid dollars, local business is suffering without a modern connection to the outside world.

“It was not an unwillingness on our part to be part of the process but because at the time the country was simply unstable for that purpose,” said Kargbo. “In terms of investment, it has affected the business community. We would have loved to see Internet and other aspects of telecommunications in the rural areas, in the schools and the universities.”

The Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable arrived in Freetown on October 10. It links twenty-three countries down the Atlantic coast from France to South Africa.

This 22 million euro project is funded by the World Bank. Country director Vijay Pillai says high-speed projects elsewhere have led to improvements in business, finance and governance.

“Evidence from several countries has been that providing broadband internet increases economic productivity, and I think that will clearly generate more revenues for the government, it will generate more investments for the private sector, so it is a way of boosting economic growth of the country,” said Pillai.

For now, Internet connection in Sierra Leone is slow, unreliable and expensive. Pillai says the cost averages 10 times that of East Africa and 25 times that of the United States.

Ian Perry owns a video-editing business from his one-room shop in Freetown. He says it can take him hours to download a single piece of music for his projects.

“I can’t spend the whole day trying to get just a little bit of information from the Internet. That is not possible,” said Perry. “It’s like, the faster the service, the more money we will make.”

The cable will not become operational at least until February of 2012, when all the countries are connected.

Amnesty International recently released a report on Sierra Leone’s Free Healthcare Program. Health Policy Coordinator Rajat Kosla says poor Internet connection has hurt the program because clinics are constantly running out of drugs because they use an online procurement system.

“In Sierra Leone, in the given circumstances, it’s a struggle, and it is a struggle that is leading to constant stock-outs and requisitions not being made in the right manner.”

Information Minister Kargbo says outside of Freetown it may take years before the service reaches the country’s even poorer rural interior.

“Connecting the facility to the rest of the country, that is a historic development. It will continue on and on and on. But of course we want to be very certain that we meet our 2015 Millennium Development Goals. Whether it is possible is to be seen.”