Political Coverage Will Help Determine Strength of Sierra Leone’s First Public TV Network

Feb 82011

At the moment, the Sierra Leone People’s Party is the official opposition in Parliament. The ruling All People’s Congress won the 2007 election by a narrow margin and the next national election is slated for some time in 2012. By all accounts, this next election will be a touchstone for democracy, continued development and peace in Sierra Leone.

The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation, as an independent, balanced and fair public service broadcaster, will lead the coverage of the campaign and the elections. The national elections will be the true testing ground for the independence and strength of this newly-minted public broadcaster. The pressure will be great… and it will take resiliency and dedication to ensure the public has the necessary information to make an informed choice when the polls open in 2012.

But 2012 is a long way off… You might think so, but in Sierra Leone, politics is an everyday/everywhere occurrence. Politics dominates almost every discussion, every newspaper and usually leads any electronic broadcast. Politicians dominate the press – many own newspapers or drive editorial content.

Right now, the news is dominated by the voices of 19 candidates vying for the leadership of the Sierra Leone People’s Party. Sixteen men and three women have thrown their hat into the ring – along with their 50 million Leone Party contribution. And, it’s time to hear from the candidates courtesy of SLBC, Sierra Leone’s first public broadcast radio and TV network.

Beginning on February 7th and running every evening till March 3rd, SLBC will conduct hour-long interviews with each candidate. In an attempt to ensure fairness, equality and consistency, I’ve worked with the producer of the show, Albert Momoh, to develop a format that will hopefully form the basis of all political interview programs leading up to the election campaign. At the last minute, the Sierra Leone People’s Party Chair refused to accept SLBC host Sam Valcarcel, so instead, the newly appointed Head of News and Current Affairs, Joseph Kapua, will be hosting the interviews. Again, we’re hoping to develop models of best practice to institute in 2012.

This series of SLPP leadership candidate interviews will be based on ten common, “required,” questions dealing with issues of national concern. The candidates will have several days to consider their responses and will have one minute to respond to each – in succession. Following the required questions, there will be a free-form interview which the host will lead. We’ve developed 40 other questions on issues of national unity, agriculture, development, youth, women, the environment, governance, health, the economy, and so on.

The ten “required” questions have been culled from a very informal poll I conducted on the streets, in shared taxis, on buses, street corners, shops and markets. “If you could ask questions of the potential leader of the SLPP, what would you ask?” The resulting answers were varied and remarkably astute. “When will we have consistent light (electricity)?” “How will you end corruption?” “How can you protect women?” “What will you do about traffic?”

These, and several other questions submitted by UN governance consultants, government advisors, civil society groups and NGOs are included in the show’s agenda.

Once the interviews are over, it will be possible to re-edit a program where each candidate’s responses to specific questions are played back-to-back and audiences will be able to evaluate each candidate on their responses to the same question, (comparing apples to apples, as they say).

Until now, political interviews have been unstructured, unscripted and are usually forums for political rhetoric, empty promises, swaggering, skirting or shirking responsibility and dodging issues of public concern. Using the new format, SLBC can ensure the public has the information necessary to make informed decisions. SLBC owes it to the listening and viewing public – after all, that’s why the national public service broadcaster exists.