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Visiting Culture Radio, Sierra Leone’s “attack dog”

On Wednesday evening I talked to Theophilus Gbenda, Project Coordinator for Culture Radio, a community radio station in Freetown. Culture Radio proudly displays its Rastafarian identity with the red, green and gold lettering on the metal gate of the house that serves as its headquarters.
Culture Radio has a pan-African, black consciousness focus, Gbenda explained. Its mission is propagating a message of peace and love.
“We think if we love each other, there will be automatic peace. And we also believe in the tenant that there will be no peace without justice. And so we really focus on promoting an enlightened society.”
Gbenda strongly believes in the importance of free speech.
“We live in a country where the majority of our people have lost confidence in the judiciary, they have lost confidence in the police, they have lost confidence in even the governance system,” he said. “So they now turn to us journalists.”
Gbenda described the station, which frequently opens the airwaves to callers, as “the voice of the voiceless.” People often line up outside the station to come in and express their grievances over the airwaves, and the station lets people call in and speak. Gbenda believes this provides an important service for Sierra Leone. By allowing people to let out their anger at the systems that have failed them, Gbenda hopes the station can reduce violence in society.
“We are just coming up from a bloody civil war that left thousands of people killed,” he said. “Most of the factors that led to the war are still very much with us. We are sitting on a time bomb that could explode any time if nothing is done to right the wrongs.”
Culture Radio has always had a problem with the authorities, Gbenda said, and he thinks this is because of its critical message.
“Because we expose the ails in society, the government doesn’t like us, obviously,” he said. “They always want to work with journalists…who can lie in bed with them.”
The climate of intimidation, bribery and repression that journalists in Sierra Leone have to live with, has led to Gbenda being detained three times, he said.
Gbenda said he was first detained after he let a guest on the radio accuse the former vice president, Chief Sam Sumana, of stealing his land. Gbenda was arrested, apparently, because he failed to get Sumana’s side of the story, though according to him he tried and failed to get in touch with the former vice president, (who happens to be Gbenda’s uncle). The second incident revolved around a satirical article he posted on WhatsApp during the Ebola crisis that suggested the personal doctor of President Koroma and the vice president had contracted the virus. The third incident was after he called in to question the results of the 2012 presidential elections.
Each time, Gbenda said he was detained for a few days, there was no formal charge or trial. In jail, he talked to the criminals there and heard their stories and perspectives, which he later told on the radio.
Despite his experiences, Gbenda said he is not afraid of being imprisoned. He thinks journalists who want to be critical of the government must be prepared for it.
“The political climate doesn’t favor radical journalism,” he said. “The more you try to be critical they brand you as anti-government.”
The right of Culture Radio to speak freely and criticize the authorities is not diminished by a less admirable thing I heard from Gbenda. During the Ebola crisis, Culture Radio spread the idea that Ebola was a man-made disease, and challenged the government to prove otherwise.
I groaned inside when Gbenda said this. I’m sure the people at Culture Radio believed in it at the time, but journalists have an ethical obligation to verify rumors like this before spreading them.
But it’s important to remember that freedom of expression must include the freedom to express false or ugly ideas. The First Amendment to the United States constitution allows wide freedom of speech to journalists and ordinary people by allowing speech that’s unpleasant, false or even reprehensible. This is the only way to have true freedom of speech, including the freedom to be critical of anyone and anything, such as government authorities.
Gbenda describes Culture Radio as an “attack dog” station. This is what Sierra Leone needs. If the default response from the powerful to speech they don’t like is intimidation and detention, a society has lost a piece of its freedom of expression, and along with it, its soul.

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