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The more things change...

By Isaac Massaquoi

Every news editor hates what journalists call a slow news day. It generally refers to a day when nothing newsworthy is happening. As an editor with a deadline to produce a news bulletin for radio or television or fill many pages in your newspaper, a slow news day is a real nightmare.

In Sierra Leone, a slow news day could look like this in practice: you arrive at some radio station on a Sunday at about 2pm to produce the news for broadcast six hours later and you find an empty folder. And as all editors would do, you begin to search all over the place for some scraps to build on. Your nightmare increases as you find out that IB Kargbo is out of the country so any hastily arranged interview about the operation of the fibre optic cables is impossible; Alpha Kanu uncharacteristically turns down your request for an interview on the possibility of the APC winning a landslide in 2012; or indeed that Ernest Koroma is the greatest president ever to rule Sierra Leone; Musa Tamba Sam refuses to reply to the latest attack on his party leader by Mohamed Bangura of the UDM; Pastor Balogun Macauley would speak no more about his bogus job placement scheme because he realizes now that his continuous manipulation of airtime on 98.1 for a non-existent project has been discovered; Al-Sankoh Conteh has not issued a press release about one of those subjects that are totally unconnected with his mandate and indeed Charles Mambu’s phone is out of coverage area – may be thanks to the erratic network connections we are trying to get used to as NATCOM turns the other way. What the hell is happening?

This is a difficult situation for any news editor to be confronted with. This is where people who’ve mastered the art of survival show off their skills or rookies come of age. This situation will also test the preparedness and professionalism of the newsroom and its staff. I don’t know what happens in a broadcast organisation that has no newsroom like the SLBC. I suppose there is no example of such to learn from. I will be glad to withdraw my statement if someone named me some.

I have been through this many times in my days as news editor at SLBS (note the difference) and I still can’t say I have mastered the art of surviving a slow news day without a scare. These days listening to the news on radio stations or watching it on TV or even going through newspapers, you get the feeling there’s no slow news day, considering the narrow news agenda they operate. The TV would normally have some presidential event that takes up a disproportionate amount of time, then a few ministers, and then some political support group and finally church organisations will get a mention. These are all cold event-driven routine manoeuvres called news broadcast, no hard investigative stuff, no analysis.

There’s a sense in which watching the news on TV leaves people with a sense of déjà vu. The greatest danger to any broadcast station’s continued relevance to its audience is when programming becomes stilted and predictable; in essence the audience expects nothing new; also when programming is deliberately skewed to achieve political or commercial benefits. The station can stay on air but they will only be serving their masters and friends.

Now let me return to surviving a slow news day. One of the issues we always fell back on was sanitation in Freetown. It was, and remains, a vexed issue. So when people say the more things change, the more they remain the same, this is a clear example. Like street-trading, our politicians either have no clue or have so politicised the issues that they can’t really act. If any good reporter decides to do a story on garbage taking over Freetown everyday, he can do it.

In the last ten years, there’s never been a day when garbage was completely cleared from places like Model Junction, Lewis Street – Dundas Street junction and indeed that one hundred-meter long street beside Youyi Building near the FSSG wall? By the way what’s the name of that street? It’s a question I have been trying to answer for a long time. I have asked City Council people; I have asked elderly folks hoping they will help but as you can see, I still don’t have the answer – that’s why I am still asking. To make things worse on that street, a glorified scrap yard is now in place just beside the rubbish.

What we did about ten years ago was to ask this question: How can this be allowed to happen? Youyi Building houses about ten government ministries and many other agencies. So we can say much of government business is done inside that building. Next to it is the Freetown Secondary School for Girls (FSSG), one of the oldest schools in this country with a great history of excellence. It may have fallen off the cliff a bit recently but a good school FSSG remains. The unbelievable mound of rubbish and scrap metals is piled up between these two important institutions. I can ask the same question again after nearly ten years: How can this be allowed to happen? Do you now understand why some of us find it difficult to be excited about political speech-making, sloganeering and even change of governments?

If you take a careful look at how governments treat those very important issues like sanitation, you soon realize that they really can’t be bothered. All they do is grandstand around a few projects that make no sense and as a consequence capture state power. There are many rented apartments in Freetown with no toilets. And this business of just carrying on as if nothing is wrong is what many people can’t understand.

So let’s imagine that some very important foreign delegation is due to hold a very important meeting with a government minister at Youyi Building. (I say foreign because locals are now used to what I am about to describe). And ahead of the meeting they are taken on some tour of the city. Then the tour takes the delegation past the ruling APC office, turning into that un-named street at the top that has turned into an open scrap yard with that huge mound of rubbish. It will be difficult for any tour guide to answer the question I asked earlier, (how could this be allowed to happen, not least here?) if it’s asked by one of the visitors who out of revulsion or mischief decides to unsettle his hosts. Let’s also imagine that for some strange reason this foreign delegation has none of those usual trappings like motorcycle out-riders and those half a dozen sleek jeeps with no license plates. All you have are two ordinary jeeps that middle class people including NGO workers in Sierra Leone drive around the country.

Once inside Youyi Building after having been waved in by a man with a table tennis bat who sometimes abandons his post for a cookery spot nearby, you decide to park your cars near the bust of former president Siaka Stevens. Almost half a dozen menacing young men will approach your vehicle to direct you to a parking area even though it’s clearly marked out; they will then offer to clean your car while you are having your meeting and you know what that means. Be careful not to be rude to them because you could find your tyres deflated or your side mirrors gone when you return. Our visitors, probably not used to this aggressive survival tactic, will be horrified especially with all they know from reading the internet about young people in Sierra Leone.

As you walk towards the main entrance, cast your eyes to the far end of your right hand and you will see about two dozens of these young people hanging around, waiting for their own cars to come through and in the meantime they make do with some marijuana in the open. At the entrance, you will be mobbed by disabled people on clutches who we agree live in a society that has only begun to note their special circumstances, but have nonetheless decided to make begging their only means of survival. They really can be threatening sometimes. Yes the circumstances are not the same, but consider the story of Oscar Pistorious to his counterparts at the entrance of Youyi Building and try and account for the difference in hope and belief.

Prepare to be late for your meeting because you have to spend time waiting for your turn on the only lift which has been broken now for weeks. Apart from the workers and their guests, hundreds of other people visit Youyi Building daily without appointment for only God knows what. The lift itself is old and like the Liberian-registered Weasua flight used to do, it keeps you praying for your life until you land. The lift breaks down now and again and some ministers have had to operate their offices from small tables on the ground floor or at home because they cannot climb the stairs.

These are some of the issues we worked on during those slow news days about ten years ago. Looking back now, I think these were good materials we ought to have been dealing with much more frequently. The really important issues are those we treat casually. A nation cannot allow a facility like Youyi Building to be treated like that. I can assure you that I was called to ministers’ offices several times to be told I was making things up to embarrass the government or that I was an unreconstructed opposition operative parading as a professional journalist. Those people in opposition at the time that I was accused of serving are now in government and they too are accusing journalists of being opposition supporters just because they disagree with them.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. How true!