Radio as a platform for democratic discourse in Sierra Leone


Sierra Leone - Photo by Peter C Andersen

Sierra Leone – Photo by Peter C Andersen

Radio is a popular parameter to measure the existence of participatory democracy in contemporary Africa. Radio serves as a platform for wider debates on state governance.  Both state and non-state actors use radio as a sphere to discuss decision-making processes by informing the public and mobilising public opinions on key issues pertaining to national security, public elections, service delivery mechanisms, transparency and accountability in all sectors of management etc.There are serious problems confronting the democratic performance of the stations registered as not for profit. Major problems are the weak governance system, the politics of sustainability, and inadequate plurality of ownership and diversity of programmes.   Also there is inadequate legal framework to regulate the operations of most stations registered as not for profit.  

Some members of the public now perceive radio stations as agent of power to manipulate public opinion in favor of those with money; whilst others are worried about the way radio stations are using emerging communication technologies to represent public opinion on national issues. Some NGOs have hijacked community radio stations tactically. The main variables argue in this paper include the diversity of citizens’ access to radio programmes, the opportunity to express independent opinions, protection of journalists reporting politics and the level of confidence to express critical opinions.  A qualitative perception survey is the means of investigating and measuring these variables using political economy of mass media and public sphere as the main theories for analysis.


This paper discusses radio’s position in Sierra Leone’s democracy in the 21st century. It argues about citizens’ access, the opportunity for individuals to express critical views on governance, the protection of journalists and the level of public confidence in radio programs pertaining to advocacy for social accountability and social change.

A perception survey was done to understand the situation of radio ownership, sustainability and accountability especially for the stations registered as not for profit.  In this end the principal objective is to highlight the problems confronting the performance of radio in articulating participatory democracy; key among other challenges is the inadequate legal framework for the ownership, sustainability and accountability of radio stations registered as not for profit.


Sierra Leone is among the states in Africa where radio was established by the Colonial Administration in the 1930s to disseminate information to the public about governance (Cole, 1995). According to Cole the first development in the history of broadcasting in Sierra Leone took place in 1936 when the Plymouth Committee was set up by the British government ‘to consider and recommend what steps could usefully be taken to accelerate the provision of broadcasting services in the colonies and to coordinate such services with the work of the BBC.
Radio was under state control and monopoly for several years in Sierra Leone because government considered the broadcast spectrum to be national resources, which must be controlled by the state in the interest of all. Plurality in ownership became noticeable after the rebel war when the Independent Media Commission was established by the government in 2000 (Sowa, 2013).

Diversity in content format, voices and issues emerged during and after the insurgency in Sierra Leone. Private stations like the Kiss 104 FM was established in Bo, this was followed by community and religious stations which were established for empowering by raising awareness among war affected communities and to foster the process of peace building through information and mediation (

During the interregnum of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) from 1997 to 1998, the British government assisted the people of Sierra Leone with a radio station, Radio Democracy FM 98.1, which became an alternative media for the public because of the junta control of the state broadcaster, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service FM 99.9 (Rogers, 2001). According to Rogers and Kabbah, Radio Democracy 98.1 was set up with support from DFID, which provided the transmitters, reel-to-reel tape recorders, a utility vehicle, and an outside broadcast van. It also provided a larger quantity of consumables such as audio cassettes, tapes and stationary. The FM 98.1 brave patriots Joe Williams (Dr. Julius Spencer), Abdul Karim Sesay, (Mr. Allie Bangura), Yeabu Dumbuya (Miss Hannah Fullah) and many others including stringers and reporters of radio democracy, who were not so visible, for being part of that great initiative.
Radio Democracy FM 98.1 was in this sense designed to broadcast programme to bolster the resilience of Sierra Leoneans and to sustain their confidence in the constitutionally elected government (Kabbah, 2010).

In 2001 the United Nations Peace Mission in Sierra Leone also established Radio UN FM 103.0 to accelerate peace building agenda and to reintegrate people after the war. It was used as a platform to raise awareness about the roles and contributions of different actors involved in peace building. In this way it became a tool for behavioral and social change in a post conflict context. This fostered the disarmament and demobilization of ex-combatants across the country and increased mass participation of citizens in public elections from 2002 to 2007 (http//

During this period through advocacy led by non-governmental organizations, several community radio stations were established to foster communication on rural innovations and community empowerment in a decentralized framework. Some of these NGOs are Search For Common Ground/Talking Drum Studio (SFCG), Open Society Initiative West Africa (OSIWA), Radio Netherlands INFORMOTRAC, Center for Media Education and Technology (CMET) and Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD).

Other players like the Thompson Foundation also had assisted in training of journalists for professional broadcasting. The Cotton Tree News (CTN) was also established by Foundation Hinrondelle in partnership with Fourah Bay College to train journalists on dialogue based programming and do news production that was relayed by most community stations. The BBC Media Action is also operating in the context of capacity building by promoting dialogue on socio-economic issues and mentoring community radio broadcasters and stations.


According to McQuail, (1992) a public sphere is an independent platform to articulate state policies by all actors in governance. It requires diverse access, participation and protection of opinions. In this theory radio is an indicator of an active or a passive public sphere propounded by Herbamas in (Curran, 2000).

In Sierra Leone radio was used to sensitize public about the Special Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the two approaches used as transitional justice mechanisms. It was a platform for civil society and the government. These institutions existed at a very sensitive period in the nation’s peace building history. The public needed to know the purpose and operations of each of these systems and the wider implication on sustainable peace. More so they were designed for a mass participation of citizenry in the process and to ensure national ownership and confidence building.

When the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper was designed in 2004 community radios were used by Action Aid International and its partners to popularize the PRSP framework and timelines set for the objectives and to solicit community response to emerging issues in the implementation process.

Based on the use of radio as a platform, civic activism became visible in the fight against corruption for example in the area of Community Development Fund for diamond mining communities and the use of school fee subsidy provided by Ministry of Education (

The Independent Radio Network was formed in 2002 to report the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Based on professional commitment, the Independent Radio Network (IRN) has impacted seriously on public elections; as a result, it was funded by donors in 2004 to cover the local council elections. This network was also instrumental in 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections, 2008 local council elections and 2012 multi-tier elections.

In 2007 also, political parties were authorized by the Independent Media Commission (IMC) to operate radio stations in a community context. The opposition at that time, the All peoples Congress (APC) was first to be authorized after serious consultation with the UNSRG based on the justification that the SLBS was not a level platform for discourse of state governance. The APC “Wi Yone” Radio was perceived as a political tool transmitting malicious propaganda and hates messages even though it was used to mobilize voters, and contributed to voter registration and education which are considered as part of what gave APC victory. It was in the heat of the run- off elections between the ruling party, at that time, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) and the APC when the Unity Radio of SLPP started transmission.

The Unity Radio was also accused of transmitting malicious and hates messages despite the efforts made by the IMC in terms of training to improve on their programming by articulating issues professionally and promoting social cohesion.
Unfortunately, these stations were shot down because of the constant political attacks; hate speech and failing to adhere to the IMC media codes of practice the ( The action of government was justified in terms of protecting national security, public safety and public morality even though some members of the public criticized the procedure government used. The UN Mission in Sierra Leone in 2010 gave the UN Radio to the people of Sierra Leone and it was incorporated into the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation.

Looking at the way radio has developed and impacted on decision-making in Sierra Leone it is very important to discuss how radio is now positioned in national governance.  Radio is now more of an agent than a platform. As agent it serves the interest of the powers that be instead of the majority (Hennessey, 1990). This is very crucial because most voters and some potential voters cannot read and write or may not even afford newspapers. Thus radio is the widely used medium for democratic discourse in Sierra Leone.


In which ways can broadcasting benefit the Sierra Leone society both politically and economically? This answer leads us to understanding the structures and power play in the broadcast market (Street, 2001) as far materialism is concerned. Radio owners are becoming very powerful in Sierra Leone being indicator of media freedom. Freedom in broadcasting, by contrast, was defined through the idea that the radio spectrum was a scarce public good whose use had to be protected for the good of all. Broadcasting is generally more heavily regulated than the press in most democracies. This seems to be true whatever the type of political systems, although, of course, the degree of latitude allowed in each case varies considerably (McQuail 1992: 107)

Some people perceive radio as mere agent of politicians and not a platform to express critical opinions. Some feel threatened after expressing genuine opinions on radio about governance. A case in point is the leader of the United Democratic Movement (UDM), Mohamed Bangura was on air complaining being intimidated by the police for his party’s opinion expressed about the Inspector General of Police.  Looking at McQuail’s position on media performance argument, there are critical issues confronting the use of radio as a platform for democratic discourse in Sierra Leone, they are the weak governance systems of most the stations registered as not for profit stations but are merely operating for profit. An ideal governing system of all community radio stations requires a representative and competent board, visible administrative structure and a constitution to guarantee community ownership and accountability.

Survey informs me that most of the boards of not for profit stations are not representative or inclusive, no criteria are set to change members or include  more members, no minutes of board meetings, actions or decisions etc pertaining to sustainability and accountability of the stations. The administrative structures in most cases are not transparent because of the lack of competent boards to oversee the recruitment processes. Managers assume ownership and determine their board members who can counter sign checks for cash withdrawal. Worst in this case is when implementing NGOs like the NMJD’s Director is now the Board Chairman of Eastern Radio enjoying uncountable powers like to hire and fire.
The constitution, which should document the terms of reference for all actors in most cases, does not exist and in some cases they are wrongly written. This has given way for managers to enjoy impunity (Sowa, 2013).

The ownership of some of the stations operating as not for profit is very crucial in Sierra Leone. One case in point is Radio Democracy FM 98.1which is registered as a commercial station (Sowa, 2013) but receives and implements donor funds as a not for profit station without proper accountability because of no transparent governance system. When have they ever advertised management positions for Radio Democracy FM 98.1 since inception in 1998? Who knows the members of the board and the criteria to be a member and how long has each member stayed?

The politics of sustainability is also crucial; this is why airtime in most cases is not available to community people without money or those far from the powers that be. In fact in some cases this is the reason for NGOs manipulating ownership through managers’ collaboration based on memorandum of understanding. Corporate entities in some cases provide fuel to some community stations, which in effect stops communities from criticising them for the abuse of corporate social responsibility.

In addition, there is inadequate legal framework to own and operate radio stations as not for profit. The SLBC Act 2010 was only for the SLBS to be transformed to a public service broadcaster. There is fragmentation in this framework because the best practice requires A SIERRA LEONE BROADCASTING ACT like in the case of South Africa which can address the challenges on ownership, sustainability and accountability of all broadcasters- public, community, religious and commercial. This law can address the circumstance of Eastern Radio, Radio Democracy FM 98.1 and several community radio stations.

Another observation is radio has become a court room prosecuting and defending public officials and politicians. No surprise about this in terms of understanding the political economy of mass media. He who pays the piper calls the tune. In fact most broadcasters in this sense assume to be representing or commanding public opinion.

Digital audio broadcasting in the 21st century has given much room for broadcasters to manipulate public opinion. This is evident in the use of short message service (SMS texts), phone-in calls etc in radio programmes pertaining to national dialogue. Politicians pay texters to support to their opinions in radio programmes. Ethical short coming is another challenge. Much is to be desired in terms of privacy, accuracy and the right to reply in respect of the programmes aired.

Interviews were done to understand the governance of some the stations registered as not for profit. Key areas of investigation are indicated in the table below:


Assessment Dimension for this presentation






 Has the station a comprehensive constitution that guides its operation?



Were the board’s members constitutionally elected in an AGM that was open to all community members?



 Does Station management prepares and submits regular operational reports to board?



Have the station a budget, finance policy and procedures that guide its financial conduct?



Has the station programme and editorial policies, which are adhered to?



Does the station use local professionals and civil society when dealing with issues of significance to the communities?



 Can citizens use the radio to express independent opinion?



The protection of journalists, is it ensure?



Is the information on decision-making independent?


Radio Moa, FM 105. 5 Kailahun was established on the 5th December 2003 as a communication platform for farmers and traders and for sensitization and to protect the victims of torture, for example sexually assaulted women and girls. The station manager, Mr. Foday Lansana Sajuma said the radio initiative was funded by USAID and the Christopher Foundation as a component of the ‘NA WI POT’ project which targeted Koinadudgu, Kailahun and Kono districts in the republic of Sierra Leone. Radio Moa has a constitution which needs to be reviewed in order to ensure gender representation and community sustainable support. The board members were selected per chiefdom and each chiefdom was asked to give monthly support of Le 50,000.00 for running the station. The contributions were not effective but board members still demanded seating fees that could not be made available.

The station has independent editorial policy that guarantees citizen’s access and participation in programmes. However more airtime is given to funded programs because the station needs power supply and money for maintenance and even to pay staff.

This is why the manager seeks funds from NGOs and takes the radio to the people in open meetings and solicits community support. In fact some donate cups of rice but this is only in the harvest season.  On most   occasions the station may be off air because lack of money for maintenance and to run the station. There is need to mobilize community support and to reconstitute the board and review the constitution.

Eastern Radio Kenema FM 101.9/ FM 96.5/95.6 is registered as not for profit station.  The General Station manager is Ahmed G Kallon, who explained that the radio was established on 25 May 2005 to foster social mobilization on education, peace and community advocacy. The initiative of having a community radio in the Eastern region was pioneered by the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD) a local NGO working with communities and state actors to ensure accountability in the extractive industries and youth empowerment.

He said there is a constitution which provides that the NMJD will ever maintain the position of chairing since they pioneered the founding of the station. The Chairman directly oversees the payment of staff, recruitment and even transfer of personnel.

When asked why each district may not be given a radio now that there are three frequencies in use. He replied that the Director (NMJD) prefers a centralized form of operation. Conseqquently access and participation is constrained and people still lack the sense of ownership. When asked about financial support and accountability, he said he reports to the Director who informs the other stakeholders. He further stated that there is need to review the constitution, the board and administrative structure to ensure more independence and sustainability.

The Radio Modcar, FM 94. 8 Moyamba is a not for profit station.

The manager is Mr. Alpha Lalugba who informed me that the radio was established on 14th February 2005 for the purpose of raising awareness about child’s rights issues and protection. In addition the radio programmes should also include advocacy for socially marginalized groups in the Moyamba community. His opinion on the essence of radio in rural communities is community empowerment through information and knowledge sharing. The initiative of establishing this advocacy tool was pioneered by Plan International a leading nongovernmental organization working on child related issues in the district.

There is no board for now. He said the board was removed because the station aired reports about Plan International, the implementing partner pertaining to misusing of bulgur meant for the kids.  The kids used the radio for Plan to account. The community thinks no one should hold Plan accountable because of funding projects in Moyamba district. The manager was sacked and he was replaced by an acting manager. He does not report to any board for now and he seeks funds to sustain the station. This has affected the quality of programming and community engagement. He demands urgent action to improve the performance of the radio.

Radio Wanjei FM 101.1 Pujehun is a community station registered as not for profit station. The station manager is Mr. Anthony Deen who reported that the station was established in December 2006. The implementing organization was the Community Radio Network- CORNET with funds from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa- OSIWA. The mission of the radio covers raising awareness on the need for community participation in rural innovations.

He said Melvin Rogers resigned as station manager because he contested for a party symbol for the 2012 parliamentary elections. This was to enhance wider access and participation of the public. However he reported that the community is not aware of its stake in running the station. He thus requests for training of board members for effective participation. He said that there is need to address the challenges pertaining to programming. In this respect some prominent radio programs have been highlighted for application of political economy.

“Night life”

It is one of the popular programmes where issues are put forward for public discussions. It started at Radio UN FM 103.0 by DJ Base and from there to SLBS and now at the African Young Voices Radio. This programme is done in Krio and at night with phone-in and exchange of text messages. It provides in-depth analysis on current affairs pertaining to national security, measures of fighting corruption and so on. It mobilizes youth towards consciousness. However this programme is not institutionalized but individualized as noted from the movement of the main producer from one station to another. Another observation is that sensitive issues are not properly anchored to achieve advocacy goals in democracy.

 “Good morning Salone” is a widely listened programme at FM 98.1 Radio Democracy as observed from phone calls and exchange of text messages. At the same time it is observed that both sate and non-state actors participate in this progrmme. It is where for instance Mohamed Bangura urged the IG to resign. It is a medium where policy initiatives and court actions are reported independently. The journalists probe issues thoroughly for public to make informed decisions.

However, the station is biased in articulating democratic issues including the status of its own governance. It has never attempted to investigate or discuss the non transparency of its ownership and accountability which has impacted negatively on progrmmaing and sustainability. The capacity to research also and to editorialize issues thematically and independently is another short coming. For instance the issue of change from Freedom of Information Bill to Right to Access information Law has not been set as agenda for discussions.

“Monologue the good governance programme” even though a misnomer based on the expression, the MONOLOGUE is a useful informative tool on state governance as observed over the years. It provides highlights on the issues making news relating to governance, social justice and political accountability. However, it became suspicious as an agent of power and not a level platform in circumstances like defending the Vice President when mentioned in the timber gate, the advocacy to withdraw the Afri-Radio License and the defense of former Deputy Minister of Education, Mamoud Tarawally who is on trial for rape allegation. Few days ago, he interviewed Hon Ibrahim Bundu of the APC on the Bill to amend the section 79 of the 1991 Constitution, which provides the competence of the position of the Speaker without asking him about the existence of the Constitution Review Committee and its relevance in a democratic argument.


The analysis of both theoretical applications for understanding radio performance in promoting democratic culture in Sierra Leone shows problematic scenarios on accountability, ownership and sustainability, which demand a broadcasting law for international best practice. Media coverage of politics differs between countries and political systems. This simple observation contains some important lessons learnt in Sierra Leone to be compared to Liberia and South Africa in a post conflict context. The first is the assumption that, however this coverage differs, it is about the same thing: creating a narrative of the political process, bound by the genre conventions, and moulded by the frames, which journalism deploys to represent or command public opinion.


There is urgent need to review the status of all stations operating as not for profit to address the problem of ownership, sustainability and accountability.

The Independent Media Commission should recommend to the Attorney General to draft the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Act to properly regulate the broadcast sphere.

It is also recommended that journalists be trained on programming to increase diversity in format and content.

To repeal the criminal libel law to protect free speech as part of a democratic culture.


Cole, B (1995) Mass Media, Freedom and Democracy in Sierra Leone, Premier Publishing House Freetown

Curran, J (2000) Rethinking Media and Democracy, in J. Curran and M..Gurevitch eds) Mass Media and Society, 3rd edn, London:  Arnold pp120-54

Hennessey, P. (1990). Whitehall, London: Fontana.

Kabbah, A (2010)  Coming back from the brink in Sierra Leone: EPP Book Services La- Gahan

McQuail, D. (1992)   Media Performance, London: Sage.

McQuail, D. (1994)   Mass Communication Theory, 3rd ed. London: Sage.

Rogers, J (2001) Anarchy in Sierra Leone: Mount Everest Publishing House

Sowa, F (2013) The Problems of and Prospects for Efficient Media Management in Sierra Leone, unpublished M.Phil Thesis

Street, J (2001)  Mass Media, Politics and Democracy. Palgrave.









© 2013, HNDOLO TONYA MUSA ESQ.. All rights reserved. – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime Africa content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted.

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