Edward Fitzpatrick, RWU director of media and public relations, a New England First Amendment Coalition and Common Cause Rhode Island board member, and a former Providence Journal columnist:
Amid the mounting pressure of a looming presidential election, they receive phone calls from high-ranking party officials. They receive bribe offers. They receive threats.
But they remain independent, refusing to serve as mouthpieces for the feuding campaign camps, refusing to take the cash that other journalists readily pocket, refusing to be anything other than members of a vibrant, free press.
Certainly, we here in the United States are becoming increasingly familiar with the pitfalls of a partisan media landscape and the bully tactics of politicians with a bully pulpit. But the members of the Independent Radio Network in Sierra Leone provide an inspirational example of what it means to be a journalist – of what it means to provide the fresh air of unfiltered fact and timely information in an environment long polluted by corruption and political intimidation.
Topher Hamblett, a Barrington resident who is the founder and president of The Foundation for West Africa, was in Sierra Leone from Feb. 26 to March 9 to visit the independent radio stations that his foundation supports and to monitor the first round of that West African nation’s presidential election. The final round of the election took place on Saturday, March 31.
“It’s very tense over there,” Hamblett said. “There has been some violence in recent weeks – much of it among stalwart supporters of the political parties. A sure sign things are heating up is when people’s cars start getting burned.”
Keep in mind that this is a nation still recovering from a civil war that killed more than 50,000 people before it ended in 2002. This is a nation still reeling from an Ebola outbreak claim nearly 4,000 lives. This is a nation where a mudslide in the capital of Freetown killed at least 400 people just last year.
“There is a real concern about the country descending into chaos and widespread violence,” Hamblett said. “So all the radio stations have been really promoting peaceful conduct in the election.”
Between 60 and 70 percent of the country cannot read, he said, so radio broadcasts are a crucial source of information.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of independent media in Sierra Leone and neighboring countries,” Hamblett said. “Historically, information has moved by word of mouth, and the amount of rumor mongering that goes on is incredible.”
Through intimidation and graft, political parties have long exerted control over the nation’s newspapers and radio stations. But the Foundation for West Africa has helped to build the Independent Radio Network, which has grown to include 40 radio stations.
Hamblett – who works as director of advocacy for Save the Bay and whose late father, Stephen Hamblett, was publisher of The Providence Journal – served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone from 1985 to 1987. He launched the Foundation for West Africa in 2005, and this year marks the culmination of much of the foundation’s work.
When a first round of elections took place in Sierra Leone on March 7, the Independent Radio Network conducted the first-ever nationwide radio broadcast of election results, using satellite technology donated by the foundation. Also, the foundation helped to equip reporters and citizens with an “Elections Powerhouse” app that provides up-to-date news and election results on cell phones.
“In an election, it is very important that people have a source of information they can really rely on, and that is what the Independent Radio Network does,” Hamblett said. “They fiercely guard their independence and take great pride in it.”
While it lacks the equivalent of the First Amendment, Sierra Leone does have laws protecting free speech. But the court system is subject to political influence, and politicians are accustomed to getting their way with the media.
“The IRN stations are unique in the media landscape in clinging to their independence, and that is why they are so popular. People love them,” Hamblett said. “In an environment where most media are very slanted, the Independent Radio Network is really the go-to source of news and information for everybody, whether for elections or dealing with Ebola.”
In the years ahead, the Foundation for West Africa plans to help provide professional training for journalists, technicians and producers, and it wants to install solar panels to power radio stations in rural areas of Sierra Leone.
Reflecting on the state of the media in the United States, Hamblett said he’s concerned about the vast amount of rumor and misinformation flying around, especially on social media, but he said he’s also heartened by the level of aggressive watchdog reporting taking place.
“A truly independent, robust media is essential to the health of a democracy, and that is clearly the case here in the United States and over there in Sierra Leone,” Hamblett said. “I think it’s a universal truth: Democracies need an independent media to be healthy.”