Commonwealth Alumnus Dr Idrissa Mamoud Tarawallie discusses the expansion of journalism and accessible media in Sierra Leone, and his work engaging Sierra Leoneans in the 2018 general election, creating a national dialogue during pre-elections, and supporting the conduct of Sierra Leone’s first Citizen’s Manifesto.
Globally, radio is the most widely consumed communications medium. It plays a critical role in reaching wide and diverse audiences, sharing information, and raising awareness of key national and international issues, irrespective of the educational level of its listener or the physical constraints of their location. According to UNESCO, radio reaches over 95 percent of virtually every segment of the world’s population. In low income countries, recent data on the proportion of households with a radio show that, in many countries, more than 75 percent of households have a radio.
With such a diverse audience, radio is positioned to develop and share content representing a range of issues, perspectives, and experiences core to its audience. In this way, radio is not just a platform for listening, but a platform through which people can be heard.
As Country Director for BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone, Idrissa is keenly aware of the important role radio and other communications platforms can have in raising public awareness and engaging the public in issues that affect them.
“When I was growing up as a child, there was just one outlet, the national broadcaster, it was then called the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service… Following the civil war in 2002, there’s been a huge growth in media in the country, ushered in by what has been referred to as the ‘FM Era’, with frequency modulation-based (FM) radio stations springing up, particularly in the capital city, Freetown, and other towns and cities across Sierra Leone. Today we have more than 100 registered local FM radio stations, more than 50 newspapers.
“And it means increased engagement between the state and citizens. But, beyond that engagement, [it] also shines a light on issues around transparency and accountability, while providing a platform for dialogue.”
Idrissa is the first Sierra Leonean Country Director for BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone, something he believes is of great importance in understanding the cultural and political context in which media communications are delivered and audience needs. Since 2006, BBC Media Action has supported media development in Sierra Leone.
As Country Director, Idrissa leads the business development and programme management of the country office, working with local and UK-based colleagues to support the delivery of development interventions and programmes using popular media channels in Sierra Leone. With internet penetration in the country still limited, it is estimated that over 70 percent of Sierra Leoneans consume news and information via radio, and with more than 100 popular radio stations, it remains the most viable means to reach the population.
Radio programmes for key messages
From the office studio in Freetown, Idrissa oversees the production and broadcast of national programmes on important governance and health issues, working with over 60 partner radio stations across the country. At present, two national programmes are broadcast: Tawa Fo Welbodi, which translates as ‘Determined for Health’, and Wae Gyal Pekin Tinap, which translates as ‘When a girl child stands’. Tawa Fo Welbodi is a malaria awareness programme funded by Comic Relief and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) which aims to increase uptake of malaria services and accountability in the overall health sector. Wae Gyal Pekin Tinap is a weekly girls’ empowerment programme which gives a voice to adolescent girls through their experience and voices, rather than those of adults.
As well as delivering national radio programmes, Idrissa and his team support community radio stations (radio stations either partly owned by the community or owned by an individual within the community who wants the radio station to serve a community interest) in producing good quality content as a means of ensuring pockets of trusted media outlets across Sierra Leone.
This includes working with radio stations to understand the skills and capacity of their staff and contributors, whether they have adequate equipment to produce quality content, and the extent to which they understand the needs of their audience and therefore the content that needs to be produced.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, radio became a critical medium to communicate key messages with the public on how to stay safe. Idrissa and his team developed COVID-specific programming and delivered lifeline training to partner radio stations on how to appropriately respond to the pandemic. Where programmes could not be broadcast by the stations themselves, they were pre-recorded, and MP3 files sent to stations for messaging to reach as many people as possible.
For Idrissa, the end listener and the information they receive is of critical importance.
“…whilst we support different strand of actors, the ultimate aim is our audience… First, they have a voice. Second, there are increasing pockets of trusted public interest media produced and broadcast across the country.”
Journalism: voice in the digital sphere
Over the last five years, Idrissa has observed a growth in the use of digital media amongst ordinary citizens and an increase in citizens’ journalism, with more and more people voicing their thoughts and opinions through digital channels, particularly in relation to political and governance matters.
“How empowering that is in the situation where some 20, maybe 30 years ago, where people only received information, but we cannot engage with the sources of information. So, the media has provided a platform for an informed citizen way, but also an engaged citizen way, in which they were able to question governments much more easily.”
Whilst Idrissa sees this as a positive change in public engagement with politics and governance, it also brings new challenges. With more people feeling empowered to share their political opinions and views via media channels, not all communications are in the national interest and instead media channels are being used to broadcast political, economic, and commercial agendas which can be damaging.
“… all of that raises questions about how all of this new-found freedom can contribute to national development or undermine national governance and social cohesion.”
Fake news, and mis & disinformation
With so much growth in the use of media and journalism and such a wide audience, ensuring the responsible use of media has become a key focus in Idrissa’s work. He currently leads on the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) funded programme, Protecting Independent Media for Effective Development (PRIMED) in Sierra Leone, which aims to strengthen journalism, build capacity in media institutions, and support media regulation in the country. As part of PRIMED, Idrissa and colleagues provide support and analysis of the legal regulation of media broadcasting, working with the country’s Independent Media Council (IMC) to develop and roll out a media code of conduct and complaint mechanism to effectively monitor and manage breaches and violations of the media corp.
As part of this work, Idrissa has overseen the development of capacity training for local radio media outlets, working with a team of mentors to provide guidance and support to radio stations across the country on how to produce high quality and trustworthy public interest media.
“A good number of journalists in these community radio stations, especially outside Freetown, are volunteers. And some of them are not trained and qualified, some of them are secondary school graduates.”
Mis and disinformation and fake news are growing concerns globally and the need for awareness training and capacity building has been identified at the producer (journalists, media organisations) and consumer levels. In response to this, training has been provided to citizens on how to stay safe on the internet, identify trusted media sources, and spot fake news. Journalists have also been provided with capacity development training to help them identify the challenges in reporting accurate information and be responsible in their broadcasts.
At the organisational level, Idrissa and his team are in the process of developing a strategy on combatting mis and disinformation. As part of this, he is working with the IMC and Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) to develop a comprehensive code of conduct and code of practice for journalists in Sierra Leone.
Working on a free, fair, and transparent election
Supporting meaningful engagement between state and citizens has been central to Idrissa’s career. Following his Commonwealth Scholarship to complete a PhD in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London, in 2018, Idrissa was appointed Consortium Team Leader for FCDO funded project, Standing Together for Free, Fair and Peaceful Election – Sierra Leone , which sought to support long-term change and engage partners to enhance the integrity and credibility at all stages of the 2018 electoral cycle in Sierra Leone.
In this role, he was responsible for providing leadership and programmatic planning to the biggest pre-election’s civil society consortium in Sierra Leone in support of a free, fair, and transparent election. The consortium consisted of seven partners, including two international partners, Search for Common Ground, and Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), and five Sierra Leonean civil society organisations: 50/50 Women’s group, Campaign for Good Governance (CGG), Independent Radio Network (IRN), Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), and National Elections Watch (NEW).
As the consortium’s central hub, Idrissa quickly became the public representative of civil society engagement. In the run-up to the 2018 election, he delivered daily political analysis for television and radio programmes and encouraged the public to engage in the electoral process by participating in national and constructive dialogues on policies.
This led to what Idrissa feels is one of his biggest achievements and proudest moment as a Commonwealth Scholar. Drawing on his academic background in governance, he led and supported the development of Sierra Leone’s first Citizen’s Manifesto, which became the centre point for political dialogue during the 2018 general elections.
“… when you have a country such as Sierra Leone, which is still largely under-developed, everything is going to become an emergency. Water supply is a problem, electricity is not reliable, the roads are broken, the school system, the health system, all in crisis and require urgent attention and investment…
“So I suggest to them, do you know what we need to do? Better than waiting for the politicians to come to us, why not start developing a manifesto and call it a citizen’s manifesto. Why not go across the country, consult with citizens and ask them what their priorities are?”
Working with consortium partner organisation, the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), tools were developed to support a nationwide consultation for citizens to identify the national and district level priorities they felt politicians needed to address and ask for their commitment and accountability. In producing a platform for Sierra Leoneans to share their concerns and be heard in the political process, Idrissa created a national dialogue.
Following the work of the Consortium under his leadership, 2018 also saw the first presidential debate, attended by over 10,000 people and with an estimated television and radio audience of more than 10 million Sierra Leonean both in country and across the diaspora tuning in to hear politicians speak to the priorities they had put forward.
Whilst ongoing assessment of the Citizens Manifesto and its impact has not been undertaken for several reasons, including funding and mobilisation of groups, Idrissa is hopeful it has shown the important role civil society can play in governance.
“The legacy is, we left a mark that it’s possible you can bring in political actors beyond our tribal and our regional divisions to talk about substance. So, we can talk about real issues…
“There are commitments which politicians have made. There is a Citizen’s Manifesto which they’ve committed to at a district and at national level. It’s a roadmap… That is the biggest legacy.”
A commitment to a national dialogue
Following the impact of his work in Sierra Leone, Idrissa has worked in Nigeria and Rwanda, sharing his experiences with fellow country officers to provide tools to support the development of independent and trustworthy electoral processes in these countries. In 2019, he led a review of the 2015-2019 Strategic Plan of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) of Sierra Leone, as part of an EU project supporting electoral processes, and developed the 2020-2024 Strategic Plan. The new plan sets out a new roadmap for the conduction of election and referenda in Sierra Leone.
Looking to the future, Idrissa is keen to continue in his role at BBC Media Action, as well as taking up a teaching and research role for a postgraduate course on Diplomacy and International Development at Fourah Bay College – University of Sierra Leone, which allows him to share his academic and practitioner experience with students.
About his commitment to his work, Idrissa says “… my commitment to ensure I make my contribution to national development is unwavering. I think, for me, that is the biggest thing. How can I continue to be useful? How can I continue to be meaningful to people, to young people, people who have aspirations?”
Idrissa Mamoud Tarawallie is 2009 Commonwealth Scholar from Sierra Leone. He studied for an MA International Development, Politics and Governance at the University of Manchester. In 2013, he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to complete a PhD in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London.