Interview with Christopher Springate - Transcript

Born in Hong Kong, Christopher spent much of his childhood abroad. After studying languages and journalism in Cambridge, London and Paris, he married a Berlin teacher (two sons). A journalist since 1991, he became DW-TV’s English-language political correspondent in October 1999.


Latest tracks by Philzenberger Latest tracks by Philzenberger


Interviewer: Deutsche Welle is now cooperating with UNIPSIL (United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone) in Sierra Leone and they are trying to convert the former UN Radio Station into a public service radio broadcasting station. How is Deutsche Welle supporting this project?

Christopher Springate:
Let me give you a little bit on how this project emerged. At the End of 2009 the government of Sierra Leone passed a law, transforming the former state broadcaster SLBS (Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service) into a public service broadcaster. Now called SLBC (Sierra Leone Broadcasting Cooperation). This law was passed right at the end of 2009. Deutsche Welle Akademie had already been contacted during the cause of 2009, both by SLBS, the former state broadcaster which was pretty much a government mouthpiece and also by the UN in Sierre Leone, UNIPSIL. With view to getting us involved in assisting this former government mouthpiece in becoming a fully fledged public service broadcaster. Not something you can do over night.
I travelled to Freetown in November 2009 to establish contact with the director general and his team. I spent five very interesting days. Two of them travelling around with the director general and getting to know the station and see what their problem is, what they needed and what their goals are. Deutsche Welle Akademie has a fairly large and longterm project, one of our flagship projects aimed at helping SLBC become a truly, neutral,  independent public service broadcaster. Which gonna be a real up-hill-battle. It’s something that gonna take years. We have a three year project at the moment. Which is started this year 2010 and runs through the end of 2012 and probably will be extended beyond that. But at the moment that’s all we have. We have funding from Germany’s Economic Cooperation and Development Aid Ministry for those three years, to do a number of things; train the management, train the journalist, train the technicians and so on, in as many disciplines and in as many areas as they wish for. We gonna be in Sierra Leone each year about four to five times doing this. UNIPSIL is still heavily involved in this project and the UN used to be involved in this project, because the UN used to have United Nations Radio in Free Town, which is now setting up a radio that covers the entire nation. In post conflict countries is something the UN does in all it’s peacebuilding mission now, since it felt that access to quality information is a core element of stabilising and democratising a country. Now that UN radio station had national coverage and was pretty much the most popular radio station in Sierra Leone, but UN radio stations are by definition transitory, as the peacebuilding mission winds down. So one of the things that they will close down is the UN radio station. For the first time ever in UN history, there was an agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the UN, that UN radio would become part -  would merge with the former government mouthpiece. There’s quite a history behin that. In February 2009 there was a by-election in Sierra Leone. And there party-political violence and it was stoked by the two big parties radio stations. A case of hate-radio if you want. And the UN, all the European embassies and the American embassy sat down with the two big parties and said: What are we gonna do? An one of the deals that they struck was this: They would close down these tow party radio stations. But the opposition in Sierra Leone was saying, that they won’t have a voice. So the other part of the deal was, SLBS - the government mouthpiece will become independent, will become a public service broadcaster. And the UN said they will merge UN radio into that body. So that happened and that’s the deal that’s behind the SLBC law, which was passed in December 2009. The law took a long while to get passed. The Un helped write it, but there were Sierra Leonian politics then inserted into bits and pieces which the UN didn’t like. It’s a deal and like any political deal it’s a compromise. But it’s there now and on paper Sierra Leone has a public service broadcaster. UN radio closed in April 2010. SLBC was formally launched on 15th June 2010. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was keen to come and open the new station, together with the president Sierra Leone. So there’s a lot of political energy of political energy beeing invested in this. Both on the Sierra Leoninian side and on the UN side. What we have now is the people of UN radio and it’s equipment have moved too the site of the former SLBS – now SLBC, and now are working on creating a merged broadcaster with a merged set of programs. There was a lot of conflict surrounding that and there’s ill feeling between people who came form UN Radio and are now part of SLBC, or will be part of SLBC, and old SLBS people. There’s quite a lot of ill feeling, that’s gonna take a lot of work to forge them into a functioning and fully fledged public service broadcaster.

I: You talked about the independence of public service broadcasters? What is the main obstacle to that goal? I guess financing is a big problem?

S: Financing is one problem. At the moment it is difficult to come by really secure information, but to my knowledge, much of the SLBC’s financing comes from the UN, at least until November. In the long term, funding is a crucial aspect of SLBC’s stability, because the government and parliament in Sierra Leone haven’t started discussing next years budget, that will come hopefully in autumn or fairly soon. But there’s no idea yet as to what sum of money SLBC will continue to receiving from the state, from the government. So people are rather nervous at SLBC at the moment, because they just don’t know where their money is gonna come from. Sierra Leone is the world third poorest country, so whatever subsity come from the state, it probably won’t be enough. So the UN is assisting SLBC and thinking about where it can get revenue from. It needs to charge more for their advertising for instance. It does have one or two quite useful assets. For instance SLBC owns Leicester Peak. Leicester Peak is a hill. The tallest hill in Freetown and on it you have ten to fifteen transmitters. For instance BBC rents a frequency which broadcasts from Leicester Peak and pays SLBC something like 22 thousand Dollars a year. That may be an old figure. All the mobile phone companies have their equipment up on Leicester Peak. They all pay SLBC money for that. So that’s a quite big asset. There’s also a SLBC transmitter in the second largest town in Sierra Leone which is Bo. So there will be ways of generating extra revenue.
Another key question for SLBC, which they’re dealing with right now, is how many people do they need? UN Radio worked with about 30 to 35 people and covered the nation with a pretty much all day program. SLBS had 280 people. Obviously also producing a television program and television is more television is more personal intensive then radio. But there’s pressure from the UN, which is focusing more on the radio side of things to reduce those 280 a quite a bit. The figure her heard last was 160 people. That’s a very crucial element of SLBC’s future funding. Because if you have to many people, you have to pay them all. And there’s another aspect of that, if you don’t pay them enough money, they take bribes, for instance from political parties. And that’s very very common in Sierra Leone, as I said the World third poorest country. So if you’re able to uncover other sources of revenue, then you’re more then likely to accept. At the moment it’s quite common for ministers to take journalists with them on trips. They get food, transport and probably a little bit of remuneration for covering this minister’s trip to wherever and covering whatever she or he is doing. It’ll be instrumental in helping SLBC’s journalists to become independent. To pay them a good salary. The salaries have increased since SLBS became SLBC but it’s still at a very low level. You can pay them better salaries, if you don’t have so many staff. If you don’t have so many staff, then also your part of the budget, that you paying in salaries is smaller. So that’s a very crucial question at the moment for SLBC. Obviously, there are a lots of people at SLBC, who belong to the former SLBS, who a very worried whether their gonna have a job next week, next month. And they are all hanging around and trying to get the new directors general ear and make sure that he is not to ruthless in cutting down the numbers. So there’s a social aspect to that as well.

I: Let’s talk about the training that you provide in Sierra Leone. When you talk abou journalistic training, what is it exactly that you are doing. Is it peace-jorunalism?

S: Well, peace-journalism or conflict-sensitive journalism is very complex. And too complex at the moment to put on the agenda at SLBC. It’s a very heterogeneous group. There are some journalists there who are really quite good and have skills and knowledge. Who just need to be helped, channelled a bit. Giving some orientation. And then we came across one journalist who didn’t really know how to use a computer mouse. That shows you, what differences we’re faced with. What I decided was, that we needed to start with the basics and that everybody was singing from the same hymn sheet basically and on the same level. So we started three weeks ago, at the beginning of October with a news-journalism workshop. We decide to focus first on radio. We gonna do the same training for TV early next year. The basic aim to start with news journalism is just to improve SLBC’s news operation and try to make it more modern and raise its standards. And my feeling is, that SLBC needs to get its news operation sorted, organized and improved its quality and its content, before we get to more complex things, like for instance conflict-sensitive journalism or feature making. Obviously a lot of people there and elsewhere in Africa always hear BBC’s wonderful packages or Voice of Americas packages or Deutsche Welle packages and think: “oh, I’d love to do that, with nice natural sound and protagonists and wonderful clips and music. A sort of Gesamtkunstwerk, one would say in German”. But that’s a very complex skill to be able to do that well. We pushed that into the next year (2011). We’ll get going on that, what I would call magazine journalism, in 2011 and try and make sure that the basics of magazin-journalism is in place. So news journalism is the first. We also had first management training workshop, which rather well. The problem is that a the moment it’s unclear who the station’s future management is going to be. So we had to get started for all sorts of reasons but at the moment we’re not sure if training the right people. I have a feeling that we were talking closely to SLBC and the UN and also a man from the Knight Foundation, which is in the United State and founds such projects as well. And what they do is, they send fellows and imbed them within organizations. So SLBC has a Knight fellow. So talking to all those people, we chose people to go on the management training that we sought are very likely to be taken on, fairly soon. Management training is something that will on going in the background.  As far as journalism is concerned, we started with news journalism for radio. We’ll continue with news journalims for TV early next year. Always with a technical aspect, we have a technician with us, to help them acquire skills in digital editing. And next year, the hope is to begin with online journalism and investigative journalism. In die SLBC law, there is mentioned a SLBC website. They have to create a website. So, I’m told, that by spring of next year the website will be up and running. At the moment I have to say, I’m a bit sceptical about that. The plan is, that if that website is up and running, that we’ll provide some online training and we also start with some investigative journalism. We gonna start with that relatively early, because that also is a very complex item and it’s not something you can just train people for two weeks. So we’re starting with investigative journalism in 2011 and we will continuing it in 2012 and perhaps beyond. What I also like to do is to start some political journalism next year. We may have to seek further funds for that. 2012 there’s a presidential election in Sierra Leone. The entire NGO and embassy community in Freetown is very keen to see a successful election in 2012, both in terms of political stability and in terms of it’s fairness, which of course in terms of media means balanced coverage of that election. That’s gonna be a tall order, quite simply because although the current government has put a law in place, which makes SLBC on paper an independent broadcaster, they still have their fingers deep into that station. Just as governments over the world will try to influence public service broadcaster. In Sierra Leone it’s still happening on a quite considerable scale in the background. It’s gonna be quite a challenge to help SLBC on that path towards full independence by 2012.

I: What vision do you have of SLBC, in the whole context of peacebuilding? How can it support the whole peacebuilding process and what is the role of a radio station within this kind of post conflict context?

S: Let me first say, the UN’s interest, and that’s why Secretary General Ban Ki Moon came to the launch of SLBC, the UN’s interest in Sierra Leone in general is very big, because there’s something quite unique about the way peace was achieved in Sierra Leone. There was a very large peacekeeping force, 17.000 UN troops, who however were not allowed to use Chapter 7 powers, which is something that handicaps the UN military operations in general, but that has to do with the Security Council. And here’s the thing that’s unique to Sierra Leone: At the same time there was a small elite force of British troops in Sierra Leone. I think just 500. An through a quirk of history, they were able to decapitate the rebel movement with a short sharp strike and that pretty much ended the civil war in Sierra Leone. And it’s that is combination of large UN force not able to be aggressive, with a small very aggressive elite force from a country, who’s decision making mechanisms are faster then the UN’s. That combination is fairly unique and it seems it was that combination that ended the civil war in Sierra Leone so quickly. Following on from that, you then had a classic peacebuilding mission, governed by the UN or controlled by the UN in which the UN Radio establishing good quality balanced information for the country within a few month. The UN seems to think that that is a crucial element of peacebuilding and stabilizing a country providing quality information for it’s information for its population and also establishing a level playing ground for politics. So that’s part of the classic UN approach in peacebuilding. But the new element, in terms of peacebuilding and the media, is to not jut winding down the UN Radio and leaving a gap, but integrating the UN Radio into a public service broadcaster for the country. Also helping that country come away from the tradition of state broadcasters as government mouthpieces. So this is completely new territory. It’s never been done before. Having had a very successful pacification of the country, the new thing is can we also successfully leave a legacy of balanced journalism behind. Rather then just wind down the UN Radio and hope for the best. So this is uncharted territory and this is the main reason why that the UN is so involved, because they are very keen for this to be a success. If it is a success, it can be a model for other similar situations in post conflict countries.

I: How does the program right now look like? Because apparently you have a vision what it should look like in 2-3 years, but what is the radio station right now sending? And in what language? Is it only English or is it also Temne and Mende?

S: SLBC’s main language is English but they also broadcast a lot of Creo, Temne, Mende all the ethnic languages. Which is one of its unique selling points. It’s the only broadcaster in the country, that has such a broad language service. That’s very important. Also because it’s mainly the elite in Freetown who speak decent English and who can understand a lot of English. Most people, even the elite on the street, will speak Creo or whatever language is their local language. Just doing things in English will not be enough and Creo is the crucial other language, that will have an important role to play.
What they’re broadcasting now is kind of a potpourri of ex-UN Radio programs and ex-SLBS radio programs. Some of the ex-UN Radio programs are fairly close to having an international  standard. They can be racy, they can be pacy. They have a fairly broad verity of issues, which try to be issues-centred rather then government centred. Then you have some of the ex-SLBS which can be frankly very boring and very stodgy and dusty. One has to remember that this country has been through eleven years of civil war. Being a journalist was sometimes risking your live in this country, so very little has happened to develop Sierra Leonian journalism in this time. So it’s perhaps not such a surprise that some of the programming is in quite bad state or is very out of date. There just has been no input into the countries journalism for such a long time. There are some new programs already ad on the old SLBS. One of them is called Viewfinder. This as a decision by the old director general, which was brought in by the president, but was full of energy. His first interpretation of being a public service broadcaster was that the SLBC needed to take more the peoples perspective on issues. This new program Viewfinder basically is searching for burning issues, and sends out cameraman and a reporter and they go an visit perhaps a hospital and find out how the new scheme for free maternal healthcare is working. They will have people of responsibility in that program, perhaps a politician, perhaps a minister, but it is centred on ordinary people and what they feel about the issue. So there are new ideas springing up. And there are also one or two quite popular programs in Creo, which increasingly prominent elements of SLBC programming. At the moment it’s still a bit of a potpourri between ex-SLBS and ex-UN Radio programming. I think we need to give the station a chance to sort itself out. On the first of October 2010, the new director general assumed its post. So they’re right at the beginning and there already have quite ambitious plans. And we help them to fulfil those plans, advice them when they need advice, and train them when they need training.


Last Updated (Tuesday, 08 February 2011 06:58)