Media: A war in Africa provides opportunity for homegrown talent

Local journalists are providing most of the coverage of the crisis in Sierra Leone.
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The Independent Culture
THE WAR in Sierra Leone has taken a heavy toll on journalists but in four weeks of fighting in the capital, Freetown, African correspondents have for the first time provided the most widely seen coverage of a major story on their own continent.

After the death on 10 January of Myles Tierney, a US producer for Associated Press Television News, and the shooting of his Canadian colleague, Ian Stewart, one French and one Spanish journalist were abducted last week by rebels. The dangerous situation - in which at one point the BBC, which walks a tightrope in Sierra Leone, was being urged to broadcast a pro- rebel communique - has left many correspondents wary of travelling to the small West African country.

At least 3,000 people have died in the conflict, including an Indian nun escaping rebel capture and a Sierra Leonean radio journalist. One BBC Africa Service stringer, Lansana Fofana, has gone into hiding and two Sierra Leoneans working for local media, Jenne Cole and Mohammed Kamara, are reportedly hostages of the rebels.

Throughout the first three weeks of fighting, the only television pictures beamed around the world by the BBC, CNN and others were sent by two Reuters television journalists, Jeff Koinange and Clotaire Achi, respectively Kenyan and Ivoirian.

The Independent and other daily newspapers use photographs by Seyllou Diallo, 34, of Agence France Presse's main bureau in Senegal.

Koinange, the producer, and Achi, the cameraman, who were in the same ill-fated convoy as Tierney and Stewart, said that they stayed on "to keep the story in the news, for Myles's sake". Apart from a couple of reports - by a crew sent in on a lightning visit - BBC television used Koinange and Achi's footage, scripted and voiced in London, as is standard with agency material.

The BBC World Service has a strong presence in Sierra Leone. The Africa Service is the main source of information for soldiers of the Nigerian- led Ecomog - and almost certainly for the rebels, too. Along with his FN30 rifle, virtually every soldier has a small FM radio.

So when two journalists, Javier Espinosa of El Mundo, and Patrick Saint- Paul of Le Figaro, were abducted in eastern Freetown last Monday, their captors decided to make use of the BBC. They released Saint-Paul with the message that Espinosa would remain in their hands until BBC Focus on Africa reported that the rebels were not responsible for mutilating civilians and were in control of Rukupa, where the journalists were abducted.

Jeff Phillips, editor of news and current affairs at Bush House, said: "We would absolutely never respond to that sort of pressure. In the event, Patrick did not contact us. We learnt of the rebels' demand only when our Madrid bureau was flooded with calls after Patrick's story was published." Espinosa was released last Wednesday after the Spanish foreign office intervened.

Last October, a former BBC World Service journalist, Hilton Fyel, was sentenced to death in Freetown for his role in backing the military junta that controlled Sierra Leone from May 1997 to February 1998. On death row, he was released from jail by the rebels when they entered Freetown earlier this month. His whereabouts are not known.

Nor is that of Fofana, one of two BBC Africa Service stringers in Freetown. He spent 13 days hiding from rebels in a ceiling in Kissy, in the east of the capital, before emerging briefly to file a report and then disappearing again.

The Paris-based group Reporters Sans Frontieres last week appealed to Liberia and Burkina Faso, whose leaders are both implicated in backing the rebels - to allow journalists to work freely in Sierra Leone. African journalists take enormous risks to report news for African-based media and radio organisations such as the BBC World Service and Radio France International.

Koinange and Achi, based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, do not run the same kinds of risks as stringers who live in the countries they report on and live with the consequences of what they report. But their triumph is that they have, in the last three weeks, broken through one of the "glass ceilings" of journalism.

When it comes to big stories for domestic audiences, most European and US-based news rooms prefer to "send" rather than use African talent. "I do not think the London news-room realises we are black," said Koinange. They will soon. He and Achi have been invited to head office this week.