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How objective is too objective?

Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation’s chief has lost his job, allegedly for being too objective. How will Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation’s new director general fare?

There’s an interesting story doing the rounds in media circles in Africa. Tido Mhando, the director general of the Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) has been replaced by the government, allegedly because he allowed fair coverage of all political parties during the elections in 2010. Mhando was hired in 2006 with the difficult task of transforming a monolithic state broadcaster into an independent public service broadcaster run with proper editorial policies, modernized news gathering and a well- trained staff. Some say he did too good a job and alienated the ruling CCM party.

Mhando, former head of BBC Swahili, was hired because of his background in journalism. Since taking office he introduced a ‘Big Change’ policy which helped TBC become competitive and creative with programming formats. Staff were trained in editorial values, election reporting guidelines were drawn up and equal treatment of all political parties was encouraged. During the elections, pre-rally agreements were signed with all political parties, with promises to conduct themselves peacefully without incitement to violence. When CHADEMA, one of the opposition parties, disrespected this pact, they were temporarily pulled off air. Every party got assigned a TBC reporter who facilitated daily updates of their activities. Insiders say CCM resented the lack of favour shown to them.

Elvis Gbanabom Hallowell, the new director general of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), faces crushing pressure to put on a good election performance in 2012. Launched by UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon in May 2010, SLBC is a merger of the UN radio station and the state-owned broadcaster, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS).

Sadly, he has been handed an organization filled with poor management structures and journalists with little experience in independent reportage, challenges similar to those Mhando encountered.  

He has two main problems:

First, the transition has progressed slowly. All senior management will realistically be in place only by the end of the first quarter, giving the broadcaster less than one year to whip into shape and prepare for the elections. TBC had the advantage of a strong senior management in place well in advance.

Redundancies are coming up, which means a potentially new staff will have to be trained and deployed very quickly. Most SLBC journalists have no idea how to cover an election independently because they’ve never done it before.

Second, as in Tanzania, political parties expect preferential treatment based on who they’re friends with in the organization. Remnants of political biases have been questioned on a number of occasions. In September last year, it was alleged that the chairman of the SLBC board, Septimus Kaikai, deliberately blocked the broadcast of an opposition viewpoint from a newspaper publisher on request from State House. There have been other accusations of favours shown to the ruling APC party.

Hallowell has no prior experience in public service broadcasting and needs some good advisors. To win credibility, SLBC needs more stories in the interest of the audience than politicians. It needs to be made clear to parties that they cannot buy or bribe airtime. These were supposedly Mhando’s crimes – Hallowell has a lot to draw inspiration from.

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