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Information Minister and Radio Democracy controversy; blow-by-blow account and its implications

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Radio Democracy has been at the centre of controversy in recent weeks. Mass resignations have left the station shaken to the core, with a new administration taking over. These days they feature in the news as much as they report it.

The station, commonly known by its frequency number “98.1”, is part of the country’s collective conscience because of its popular breakfast show, “Gud Morning Salone.”

This week, the station made the headlines once again in a controversy over a recorded interview by the US Ambassador to Sierra Leone on the one hand and the Information Minister, Mr Chernor Mba, on the other. There were a myriad of issues, including possible production sabotage and allegations of deliberate shutdown of the station, even if it was temporary. Given how controversial the matter is and its potential impact on media professionalism, and media independence, DUBAWA decided to look into the controversy by engaging all the key players involved.

The plot

On Wednesday morning of August 16, Radio Democracy was at the centre of another storm. Pro-opposition blogger Tunde Scott claimed on his Facebook wall that the new Minister of Information and Civic Education, Chernor Bah, “bulldozed” his way to the station to respond to comments made in an interview by the US Ambassador about the Millenium Challenge Corporation.

Information Minister and Radio Democracy controversy; blow-by-blow account and its implications

The recorded interview with Ambassador David Reimer has since gone viral on WhatsApp.  Ambassador Reimer spoke about a range of issues, including the credibility of the election and how that could affect Sierra Leone’s MCC grant.

Right in the middle of the interview, reports suggest the Information minister, Mr Chernor Mba, bulldozed his way into the studio but was disallowed to go on air. In the process, the radio signal went off from its Leiceterpeak site.

Wednesday’s program was moderated by Kapkindi Jamiru and Musa Kamara. Jamiru has been the Consultant Station Manager since the resignation of Asmaa James.

DUBAWA’s investigation

There were multiple claims and controversies in this plot which have gone viral, so DUBAWA reached out to all the parties named to get their sides. The researcher also explored the possible implication of this controversy on the media industry.

  1. Did the Minister bulldoze his way into the studio?

DUBAWA asked Mr Bah whether he was invited, and he said, “Yes, I was invited to 98.1.”

The Station Manager, Jamiru, also confirmed to DUBAWA that he was invited. However, his co-presenter, Musa Kamara, said there was no agreement to invite the minister to respond to the MCC story because it had yet to be aired.

“We had a long debate yesterday about this, and some suggested that we get the ministry’s response, but my point was, how can we invite someone to respond to an issue that we had not aired? Late at night, the producer Micheal Sambola told me the minister will be coming, and I told him we had no agreement. I called Jamiru in the morning, and he told me the same. I made my point. I came and met the Minister here very early in the morning,” Kamara said.

Based on this, Scott’s Facebook post that the minister bulldozed his way into the studio is MISLEADING. Even though there was controversy on whether the Minister should be invited, he was invited by the producer anyway.

  1.  Production sabotage or mix-up?

Wednesday’s controversy was interesting because, around 8 am, the radio’s offsite instalment went off the air while all this was happening at the station’s New England studio. The radio signal was off the air for more than 30 minutes, so the program had to end abruptly.

The US Ambassador’s interview was being aired when the station went off. A Facebook live of the program can also confirm that. It is not clear yet how the station went off.

Speaking to DUBAWA on this issue, Mr Kamara alluded to a possible case of production sabotage, claiming that someone at the station had shared the material with a government official even before it was aired.

“We only played the teaser. We did not play the full material, so why was he there to respond, and how did he get access to the material? To my surprise, the full interview had already gone viral even before we aired it. And someone from here must have shared it because every staff has access to the folder.”

  1. Was the Minister stopped from going on air?

On whether the Minister was stopped from going on air by other auxiliary producers, Musa told DUBAWA the Minister was not allowed to enter because there was no consensus to include him in the day’s production. He added that Mr Bah may have been invited overnight. 

However, Mr Bah denied claiming he was prevented from entering the studio. He told DUBAWA,

“I don’t know what you mean by “I was not allowed on air, sir. I waited to be called in for my segment when the station went off-air.”

When asked further on the claim that he was not on the schedule and that was why he wasn’t allowed, he simply said: “Fake News”.

Station Manager, Jamiru also said the Minister did not go on-air because the plan had changed.

“We changed our plan. We now decided to do an exclusive program tomorrow just on this,” Jamiru said.

Midway into the programme, however, Jamiru said they were in the process of ushering the Minister into the studio when the radio just went off, pointing to a possible production mix-up.

  1. Why did Radio Democracy go off-air?

It is not uncommon for radio stations to go off-air from Leicester Peak. Much of the problem is related to the power supply. However, what is strange in this case is the timing.

Leicester Peak is the site of transmission where technical equipment is installed. The location houses some of the most important communication installations in the country, from TV and Radio towers to major telecommunication infrastructure.

Radio Democracy is part of a number of radio stations that enjoy a power supply arrangement with telecom giant Africell. Africa Young Voices Radio, Capital Radio and others are all part of that arrangement.

DUBWA contacted John Konteh, Marketing and Communications Manager at Africell, and asked whether anything was wrong with their installation.

Konteh said yes, “It was a general technical problem.”

He said other partner stations, including Africell’s radio station, Afri Radio, had been struggling all day because of the problem.

DJ MacRay, the Manager at AYV Radio, said his station did not go off on the day of the incident at Radio 98.1. He said it is possible that some radios will go off and others will stay on.

“We are all connected to the Africell generator, so when the generator is faulty, we will all suffer. However, we all have our separate main grid connections, so if there is electricity we can still run without the generator,” Mc Ray told DUBAWA.

On Thursday, when the Minister finally came on-air at 98.1 to address the MCC issue, he denied rumours that the station was deliberately shut down to stop the interview from being aired.

“That will never happen, not when President Bio is President, not when I am the Minister of Information. We believe in free speech and democracy, and we will continue to advance that for the people of this country,” Bah said.

Possible Consequences?

In a bid to understand how this controversy will impact the media industry, DUBAWA contacted the Head of the Broadcast Journalism Department at Limkokwing University, Hassan Kamara, who said there is a grave consequence that could have followed the series of events that happened.

He said the fact that the audio was leaked before it was aired is an ethical red flag that could put Musa and other colleagues in danger. Radio Democracy used its Thursday edition of the ‘Gud Morning Salone’ program to announce an investigation into how the full interview with Ambassador Reimer was leaked before it was aired.

Kamara said the mass resignations last month were a sign of a crisis of confidence in the institution’s integrity.

One serious issue he highlighted regarding the Wednesday incident is: “Betrayal of trust of individual reporters that take strenuous efforts to do human-interest stories.

He said the incident would have had security implications if it was not managed properly.

“This was a risk to vulnerable workers at the station, assuming the Minister took along his armed personnel ready to apply any means necessary to please him. That would have happened at the detriment of the workers,” the media tutor said.

Kamara said in his professional opinion, the incidents in the last few weeks, including Wednesday’s controversy, provoked some very serious questions for the public institution.

He asked: “​​Can radio democracy maintain the long-term reputation of ‘The true voice of the people’? Are Sierra Leoneans guaranteed of Radio Democracy’s role in being a public service institution?”

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