A few weeks back I attended a meeting organized by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) where they were discussing conditions of service for media persons. As one of the women speakers took the podium she criticized, among other things, the poor treatment of female journalists by their male counterparts and their virtual invisibility in the newsroom. Some cheered, others booed.
I have heard versions of this story from a number of women. Aisata, a freelancer at The Exclusive newspaper where I am training reporters says that editors refuse to teach them anything because they don't consider them competent. Plump assignments go to male colleagues and there is no incentive to work hard either monetarily or by way of an encouraging pat on the back.
A female newspaper editor is almost unheard of. Sylvia Blyden, the managing editor of The Awareness Times in Freetown is the only exception and is currently making headlines for a seditious libel suit that has been slapped against her by the ruling APC (All People's Congress) government. The situation in radio and television is somewhat better with more women in senior positions. But largely, the media in Sierra Leone runs on testosterone.
There are a number of myths about women reporters which erode their credibility. One is that they are lazy, and the other is that they are easy. Aisata says that the second allegation is not entirely untrue as some women do enter the profession only to curry favour with high ranking politicians.
I asked Doreen Barrie, the current president of Women in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL) about this problem. She says that since 2007, when the organization was formed, they have been trying hard to counter negative perceptions about female journalists. WIMSAL has 150 members around the country and is working on more training initiatives for their members, as well as advocating for equal opportunities. She admits that so far they've had limited success.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for WIMSAL will be psychological. Earlier this year, four women journalists in the eastern city of Kenema were reportedly abducted by a female genital mutilation (FGM) retentionist group and marched naked around town for penning a story criticizing the practice. The international news media immediately picked up on it and advocated the banning of FGM. They neglected to focus on what the kidnapping meant for human rights journalism in the country.
There are conflicting viewpoints on the veracity of the abduction story. But one thing is clear: it's hard being a woman journalist in Sierra Leone and incidents such as these cause them to take two steps backwards. WIMSAL has condemned FGM but Aisata confesses that most women colleagues are terrified to report on it after that episode.
At The Exclusive office I rarely see the women reporters around. David, the editor, says it's because they're not serious about the profession. I once caught him yelling at Aisata because she had been unwell and unable to attend work for a dew days. It is this attitude of male supremacy in the Sierra Leonean media that keeps the women away or marginalized.