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FREETOWN, Mar 19 2009 (IPS) - Sierra Leone’s vice president, Samuel Sam-Sumana, on Mar. 13 ordered an indefinite ban on radio stations owned by the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) and its main rival, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP).
This comes in the wake of a wave of politically-motivated clashes between rival party militants across the country these past two weeks. The situation has deteriorated so much so that by-elections in Gendema, a remote town bordering Liberia, had to be put on hold.
The APC-owned Rising Sun FM 88.8 and opposition-controlled Radio Unity 94.9 were registered in the run up to the 2007 elections. There’s been no let up in the volume of inciting messages being broadcast since they first went on air.
“This is assuming frightening proportions,” Information and Communication minister, Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, told IPS. “We cannot allow this to continue because it will destroy the hard-earned peace and stability we now enjoy.”
Many pundits believe the radio wars helped to bring the APC to power after 15 years in the political wilderness. During the 2007 election campaign the radio platform was used to mobilise grassroots support for the APC and to discredit the then ruling SLPP. Now the opposition is employing the same strategy to stage a political comeback.
“I don’t see anything wrong with our broadcasts. We are simply putting the APC government on its toes and creating awareness among our members,” claimed Jacob Jusu-Saffa, the secretary general of the SLPP.
But the ruling party has accused the opposition station of preaching hatred, tribalism and violence.
“One of their programmes, Inside the Papers, is simply used to ridicule anything meaningful that the government does. This, in no small measure, drives away investors and creates a platform for civil unrest,” charged Victor Foe, the APC secretary general.
Even before the banning of the two radio stations, there have been public calls, especially from ruling party sympathisers, to take them off the air. Comparisons have been drawn with the role that radio stations played in the Rwandan genocide.
But the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has been quick to condemn the clampdown.
“It is not the job of the vice president to ban radio stations. We have the Independent Media Commission (IMC), which is the regulatory body for the media, and so we condemn the action and call for an unconditional lifting of the ban,” said SLAJ president, Umaru Fofana.
He described it as a bad omen for the country’s fledgling democracy and an attempt to muzzle freedom of speech. The journalist body has indicated that it will be engaging the authorities to lift the ban.
The constitution of the IMC allows for a ban to be slapped on a media house only after a thorough investigation of alleged misconduct and breach of the media code of ethics. It makes provision for the government to ban a radio station in the case of a national emergency or a state of war but it does require that the IMC do a thorough investigation before such action is taken.
Civil society too has joined the fray. Charles Mambu of the Coalition of Civil Society Organisations has also condemned the ban.
“This move to ban the two radio stations is a reversal of our democratic gains. It is unjustified and unacceptable. We will press for an urgent reversal of that decision.”
This is the second time that Radio Unity has been taken off air. Last year the government claimed the opposition mouthpiece was not properly registered and temporarily closed it down. Its headquarters have also been vandalised. Radio Unity resumed broadcasts after the government caved in to pressure from civil society groups and the media fraternity.
Notwithstanding the democratic posture of rights activists and civil society, there are many who support the move to shut down the two radio stations.
Margaret Sesay who lost five members of her family during the war opined: “I don’t want another war. Already, I am an impoverished widow looking after four children. A fresh war would only kill me.”
Political analyst, George Thomas, too expressed fears of a return to civil war. “If these two radio stations are not banned, the country may well slip back to chaos and civil strife. There is no doubt that they are calling their supporters to arms and are helping to split the country apart.”
Sierra Leone fought a bloody civil war from 1991 to 2002 leaving the country’s infrastructure in ruins and the economy paralysed. More than 50,000 people were killed, thousands amputated and a quarter million of the population displaced. The process of reconciliation has been painfully slow and difficult and the radio wars have exacerbated tensions in a country that is still highly polarised along ethnic and regional lines.
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