Why CTV News and Journalists for Human Rights are here. Meet Christo and Princess, two of the reporters working at the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation, the nation's only television station. I'll be working with reporters, producers and presenters here as well as conducting seminars on how to use television effectively as a medium for reporting on human rights issues. (CTV/Ethan Faber)
All flights into Sierra Leone’s main airport land late at night. The nine-and-a-half-hour plane ride from Europe with a stop in neighbouring Liberia before you finally land in the capital city of Freetown is only the beginning of an ordeal that is not for the faint of heart. The airstrip was left behind by the British military when the country gained independence in the early 1960s and the new government decided it might as well make it the official national airport. What the government decided to overlook is the fact that Freetown, a city of 1.5 million people where all passengers are headed, is on the other side of a river delta that makes up West Africa’s largest natural harbour.
Getting from the airport to the speedboat dock is a blur of suspicious questions from border guards, money changing hands, luggage being carried off in all directions, the cramming of as many passengers as possible into a dilapidated van, the driver cranking the engine for several minutes before it starts and the smell of sweat. This is the introduction to Sierra Leone that every traveller, from residents returning home, to NGO workers, to foreign business investors, must endure. And your journey is only just beginning.
As the van finally starts moving, you immediately notice two things. There is no actual road and there are no lights. In fact, there’s no electricity at all. You lurch along a narrow dirt track in the pitch black. Small huts off to the side are lit by candles or gas lamps and you can just make out the silhouettes of people cooking meals over small fires. Remember, this is the main route from a country’s only international airport to its capital city. Once you reach the water, you wait for half an hour in tropical heat before climbing onto a boat with about a dozen other passengers. You grab a lifejacket, the engine roars and you’re off into the darkness for a bumpy, high-speed ride where capsizing seems a distinct possibility.
My guide, a young local woman, clutches my hand. For a minute, I think she’s trying to reassure me that all is well, then I look at her face and realize she’s the one who’s terrified. You try to remind yourself this is supposed to be the safest option for airport transfer, considering the fact that a helicopter service was suspended a couple of years ago when the old Sikorsky crashed, killing everyone onboard. When you contemplate the possibility of a rescue, should the waves win this fight, you notice there are no other boats on the water. Finally, you arrive on the other side at a dock tucked beneath a crumbling bridge, grab your luggage and begin to look for a taxi. Trouble is, there’s no parking lot, just a small patch of dirt where dozens of cars and trucks jostle for position.
Then it sinks in. There are no rules here. There is no system. You’re on your own. After a few more hours in Freetown, you discover this is how pretty much everyone here must live – on their own, without basic infrastructure, without much of anything.
If there is a sign of hope in all this, it comes on my first trip to SLBC, Sierra Leone’s only television network, where a young reporter is working on a story for the noon newscast. His story is a good one: the main road to Freetown’s university has been closed this morning without warning by a construction project. Drivers and students are fuming and this reporter knows he has an issue that will hit close to home with his viewers. He also tells me the information officer at the government ministry responsible for the roads is not answering his phone.
And here’s where he really brightens my day, because this young reporter, working in this relatively new democracy where a free press is only just beginning to find its legs, promises me he will say on the air that his requests to speak to someone in charge are being ignored. The exposure of problems affecting the community and the pursuit of accountability are some of the journalistic fundamentals that CTV News and Journalists for Human Rights are here to teach, and it’s wonderful to discover some reporters here are already embarking on a journey that will be much more difficult than my unforgettable trip into town.