From Sierra Leone to New Mexico: Putting Media Justice in an International Context
by Ambrose James
Ambrose James is currently a Communications Fellow working with the Albuquerque, NM-based Media Literacy Project. He is on a four- month placement through the Community Solution Program, a professional development program for the best and brightest global community leaders working in Transparency & Accountability, Tolerance/Conflict Resolution, Environmental Issues, and Women’s Issues. The CSP is a Program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State and implemented by IREX. Ambrose is Sierra Leone Country Director for Search for Common Ground.
Working with Media Literacy Project for the past seven weeks on issues of media justice in the US has given me the opportunity to reflect on the situation in my home, Sierra Leone. Compared to Sierra Leone, media infrastructure in the US is very developed, and what has struck me the most here is the consistent call for media justice—especially for the rural poor and people of color. It seems to me that with the superior infrastructure and the diverse media tools in this country, everyone should be able to have access to and afford the different media channels. However, I have found out that this is not true. As the days go by, I have reflected deeply on the importance of pursuing campaigns on media justice here and at home. An informed electorate, engaged communities and a sophisticated workforce are desirable outcomes for my country, however our immediate media justice objective is to establish a comprehensive information infrastructure that connects every individual in a society in order to make these outcomes a reality.
In the small West African country of Sierra Leone, the media infrastructure is weak, urban based and biased, but with a potential for growth. Access to media opportunities is not a priority for the 5 million people in my country and is not considered a “right” by the majority of citizens or by the government.
The literacy rate in my country is 35.1%. This low literacy rate is why there is such heavy reliance on the radio, with 85% of people listening to radio as their main source of information and only 11 percent reading newspapers. However, even with the heavy reliance on radio by the majority of the population, accessing public information and formatting continues to be a very serious challenge. For instance:
• As of June 2011, Sierra Leone had 40,480 internet users, comprising less than 1% of the population
• Only 16% of the population have access to national TV
• Satellite TV is only affordable to a few thousand people
• Mobile phone communication is expensive and services are erratic and, most importantly,
• There is currently no law to require that the government make information public to its citizens. Therefore there is not incentive for the government to expand infrastructure.
Because access to media is not framed in a rights approach and not a priority for our government, millions of people miss out on knowledge that could change their reality for the better simply through awareness. The injustice is that access to this information, that could literally save lives, is a privilege of some and not all of the people of my country.
Unlike the US where campaigns exists for affordable Internet and cell phone ownership, civil society in Sierra Leone has been struggling for more than eight years on a Freedom of Information bill. This bill would allow citizens to access information for the public good and strengthen them to make informed choices and critique government operations and policies. For us, this is the first step before even talking or thinking about affordability.
One of the reasons for increased growth in knowledge in the US and other developed countries is the right to affordably access information and media. That is why campaign and advocacy groups such as Media Literacy Project continue to pressure their governments and corporations to ensure everyone has access to these rights. It is only when citizens have equal opportunities and access to information that they begin to realize their potential and make meaningful contributions to society.
I feel discouraged as to how far our government and citizens of Sierra Leone are from even internalizing the concept of media justice, because the lack of it will continue to be an obstacle to our growth and development as a nation. With my current engagement in these campaigns in the US, I surely have an idea of what the future issues will be and this provides a perfect opportunity to work with other media justice groups in Sierra Leone to begin flagging them as early as possible and strengthen our media foundation as we move forward.