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Alice Chasan: With the growth of independent journalism around the world, and this is perhaps counterintuitive, the risks for journalists increase.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, recognizing the courage of West African journalists.
DAVID Tam-Baryoh: Everyone of us actually has had his office ransacked clean. Everyone of us has gone to jail. Everyone of us has had somebody in his staff, on his paper, harassed, molested.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. In many parts of the world journalists are an endangered species. They face physical, financial, and professional dangers.
Alice Chasan: It’s a rather rueful competition to decide which are the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, but I would have to say that at the moment Sierra Leone continues to be perhaps the most dangerous place.
PORTER: Alice Chasan knows a great deal about how the news gets reported around the world. She spent several years working for The Committee To Protect Journalists.
Alice Chasan: There are many others, which include Columbia, Serbia, and Mexico, and Guatemala, and Burma, and-I mean, the list goes on, unfortunately. And it’s an equal opportunity list in that it includes countries in every, virtually every region of the world. Russia has again become a very dangerous place to be a journalist. Unfortunately, with the growth of independent journalism around the world, and this is perhaps counterintuitive, the risks for journalists increase, because there is a disjunction between journalists understanding that there is a standard to which they wish to rise, of independence and enterprise. They know this because electronic communications and the Internet have made people aware in every corner of the globe that there is a certain standard of journalism to which they wish to aspire. But sometimes that comes into conflict with the climate; the cultural climate, the political climate, in their countries. And that puts them in danger. So that it is not always necessarily the most repressive regimes in which it is most dangerous to be a journalist; there are other reasons why it is sometimes very dangerous to be a journalist. Journalists are often targeted by criminal elements, by extra-governmental forces who have one reason or another for wanting to silence journalists.
PORTER: Chasan now serves as Editor of World Press Review Magazine.
CHASAN: World Press Review is a monthly magazine. It became World Press Review in this current incarnation in 1974, after having begun its history as Atlas, a magazine with a similar mission. And that mission is to bring the international press to US readers. It’s based in New York City. It has a circulation of approximately 53,000, and those are primarily US readers. And our goal is to bring to English speakers news that is largely invisible from the US press, either in the subject matter itself or in the particular perspective on the news.
MCHUGH: World Press Review is published by the Stanley Foundation, the producer of this program. Annually, the magazine names an International Editor of the Year.
CHASAN: Each year for the last 24 years, this being the 25th annual International Editor of the Year award, the editors of this magazine select an editor or editors we wish to recognize. And the criteria have to do with their courage, their persistence and perseverance in upholding the highest standards of the journalistic profession, and advocating on behalf of press freedom and human rights.
PORTER: This year World Press Review chose to honor the editors of war-torn Sierra Leone in western Africa. In particular, they named three leading journalists: Paul Kamara, editor of the newspaper For di People; Philip Neville, editor of the newspaper Standard Times; and David Tam-Baryoh, editor of the newspaper Punch.. All three work in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.
MCHUGH: The magazine flew one of the editors, David Tam-Baryoh, to New York City for an awards ceremony. But Alice Chasan admits it wasn’t easy.
CHASAN: Well, David Tam-Baryoh is a persistent person and it took persistence for him to get here because, simply, the matter of getting the visa necessary to come here turned out to be an extraordinarily arduous task. He had to spend what turned out to be close to a week, I believe, in Conakry, Guinea, waiting for a visa. Part of which time he spent sleeping out in the rain because the situation there is so chaotic, with so many people from Sierra Leone seeking to get visas to go overseas because of the anarchic in Sierra Leone. The delays at the US embassy there were extraordinary. We actually had to intervene here from New York to make it clear to US officials that Mr. Tam-Baryoh was essentially sleeping out in the rain attempting to even get on a list to get a visa. So, David persisted and he even eventually got a hotel room, which is some sort of a miracle. And he did indeed get his visa, thanks to some very kind people at the embassy with whom I spoke and who were willing to intervene on David’s behalf. But I think that would give your listeners a bit of a taste of what life is like in West Africa at the moment because of all of the upheavals.
PORTER: While he was in New York, I sat down with David Tam-Baryoh to discuss the serious dangers he faces in Sierra Leone, and more importantly, why he became a journalist.
David Tam-Baryoh: In our own society it is difficult to have role models. Having looked at my society, I think I discovered that there was much hidden under the table that the authorities wouldn’t like to be known about outside the borders of Sierra Leone. And so as a result, I kind of actually was watching and looking around to see, what better way do you bring these things out for society to know? Maybe it was actually the inquisitive nature of my very personality. The need to, to tell, the need to tell the others, I think I do know why you are doing this wrong thing. Let the other person know about it. Maybe from that perspective actually I said, “Well, maybe I wouldn’t be a singer; that won’t bring it out properly.” I think I needed to be a talker or a writer.
PORTER: In 1999 the rebels in Sierra Leone released a death list with your name on it, and the names of the other two winners of this Editor of the Year Award were also on that list. At that point did you have second thoughts about your choice to become a journalist?
Tam-Baryoh: Yes, I think yes. Honestly, yes. I thought actually I was going to think again. Actually I was number three on that list, I quite remember. But you see it was a list prepared-that’s the sad part of it-it was a list prepared by the rebels with the help of other journalists who were in their camps. So they called the rebels, originally they didn’t know who they was, they were just reading. OK, once in a while we’ll put our pictures on the papers, but they didn’t know who was who. But that is why I say the nature of this religious war and the conflict is so much diversified that the rebels were quick enough to know that they needed some journalists on their side. And because of some interest, there were those on their side who actually knew who was who, you know. And so as a result those names were prepared. So when they came to town with those names, we’re lucky that we had to know about it, because after all, the conflict is such that the other guys are also in the other camps. In the sense that they will tell you, “I saw your name somewhere, you better put your head low.”
PORTER: In many ways though, appearing on that list is proof of your independence, isn’t it?
Tam-Baryoh: Yes. Not only the independence, but saying what they wouldn’t want you to say or writing about their atrocities. Things that they wouldn’t want the other side of the world to know. Because there are a lot of released persons coming towards the towns where we were-maybe whether it’s in the provincial towns or in the city-and who give us actually a hint about what exactly was happening in captive camps, you know. So they would tell us how the rebels were raping women and hacking children to death, and how they were killing other men they suspected to be saboteurs or being government informants. So, you actually in possession of concrete information. Because you wanted to tell the other people to be aware in the city, those who felt they were safe, to tell them that Freetown as a city was not Sierra Leone as a whole, and that if it was happening in the provinces, it could come down to Freetown; it could happen.
PORTER: What personal price have you paid? Both yourself and your family? What personal price have you paid for being in this position as a journalist?
Tam-Baryoh: Many. Apart from being arrested on a few occasions and locked up into a cell with madmen, because they are trying to have mental to knock you down, you know, they put you in jail with mad people. And then for all night the mad guys are doing their own thing, you know, asking you, push aside, “Let me sweep this place. I’m told that my parents are in this jail. What are you doing here?” So apart from this psychological torture, I still carry on my conscience something that I felt I was responsible for. That is, I was arrested on the 8th of October, ’97, and when I was arrested the rebel guys who came to arrest me actually thought that I had moved my things to my sister-in-law’s house. So they came there at night around midnight and then they didn’t find me there. And as a result they raped my sister-in-law and her daughter. And so often these days she blames me for being responsible for her being raped, because she says, “After all, if you didn’t become a journalist, I wouldn’t be raped. They wouldn’t be coming looking for you.” So she was raped, her 16-year-old daughter was raped. And so, once in a while when the-I, sometimes I prefer not to see them so that they don’t come to visit me, I don’t go to visit them, so that we don’t replay the old thing, you know. But I know they are there. And she’s been saying it on and off.
And then on a personal-well, personally, oh, they want to arrest you, to put you in jail, your threats. And then once in a while you go across the border to Guinea and even in Guinea you are not safe. Once it’s written in your passport you are, you are a journalist, you have trouble. Maybe it’s a crime, but a few journalists in Sierra Leone go on two passports or three. In some we are a student, in others you are a journalist. So you produce your passport in places that you think it will be honored as a journalist. And if you know that there, you produce it here as a journalist you are in trouble. So you better go on in another traveling document. Maybe it’s a crime, but that is the reality.
PORTER: Wow. I know that at various times you had to publish your paper while in hiding.
Tam-Baryoh: Oh, yes.
PORTER: But you know, gathering news and printing a newspaper, running all of those things is a very public endeavor. How do you do something like that while you’re in hiding?
Tam-Baryoh: There was a time in 1997 when it became too real, that it was difficult to produce the paper. Four newspapers came together-myself, and Punch newspaper, Democrat, and another, Pioneer, and there was another newspaper. Four of us came together and we, we carried the banner headline of the four newspapers put together, you know, four of us. And then you, I think I usually, actually was writing the editorials. And then we’re all in hiding and then once in a while, like the telephones weren’t much down yet, so we could call each other and say, “Do you have any story to go into the paper?” “Yes.” So we are preparing this script one place and then going to another place and laying out the paper and giving it to some boy, office assistant, who they don’t know. He goes to the printer and it is printed. And then you find ways and means of distributing it through the vendor who actually will have to be careful that he doesn’t distribute the papers in one spot. He distributes some at the post office and goes to give some to the other vendors.
And then, but the financial aspects of it actually was a problem. Because you didn’t go for profit, because at that time you knew that you were doing the job just because you felt that you needed to inform. In terms of financial remuneration, you knew you were doing the wrong thing. And then it came to a time that even those of us who were coming together, we became suspicious of each other in the sense that you felt that if they arrested your friend he would kind of point to where you were hiding. And so, gradually, especially around, between May 1997 and February of 1998, it was very, very, very dangerous, until they came back, January of 1999, and they killed some other journalists, 11 journalists, I suppose. So actually we were working under dangerous circumstances. And sometimes you feel you are playing with trouble.
PORTER: More from one of World Press Review magazine’s newest International Editors of the Year, next on Common Ground.
DAVID Tam-Baryoh: For the past 10 years in Sierra Leone we have actually not been allowed to work to our maximum capability. Because for the past 10 years, the only story I have been reporting is a war story. Because I’m in a war situation.
PORTER: World Press Review magazine is published by the Stanley Foundation and is a sister publication to this radio program. The magazine names an annual International Editor of the Year. This year, World Press honored the editors of Sierra Leone. Specifically they cited Paul Kamara, editor of For di People; Philip Neville, editor of Standard Times; and David Tam-Baryoh, editor of Punch.
Tam-Baryoh: The three of us, I think there are a few things that are common.
PORTER: This is David Tam-Baryoh, editor of Punch.
Tam-Baryoh: Everyone of us actually has had his office ransacked clean. Everyone of us has gone to jail. Everyone of us has had somebody in his staff, on his paper, harassed, molested. Of course, Philip has had his news editor butchered to death. And his two kids and his wife, they are all macheted by rebels.
PORTER: Did you say, macheted?
Tam-Baryoh: Yeah! They use cutlass to kill the…
PORTER: Cut glass?
Tam-Baryoh: Yes, yes. To kill him. To cut his throat, cut the throat off his two kids and his wife, simply when they, because they found out that he was a journalist and he was reporting for Standard Times, immediately he was identified as a journalist. They said, “Oh, fine. You stand outside, you get separate treatment.” So the others, it was with that they shot them dead, and for him they killed them slowly.
PORTER: Because he was a journalist?
Tam-Baryoh: Because he was a journalist, yes. Twelve Sierra Leonian journalists have been killed and 13 foreign journalists, you know, including a Nigerian, an American, you see. So of the 15 that have been killed, I know of one being executed by the government. They said he took part in the coup, and I knew about one dying in prison-he was to stand treason trial. They said he was guilty of, what they call, “collaborating with the enemy.” That’s the vocabulary they used. And then as I’m talking to you I know of one who is also in jail to be charged with treason. So it’s an ongoing thing.
PORTER: There is a debate going on. It centers around all kinds of human rights, but I’ll focus on freedom of the press. There are some people who talk about universal principles of freedom of the press. And others who say that perhaps there are cultural or regional nuances that need to be built into these principles of freedom of the press. Which side do you fall on? Do you think that these are all universal? And the same principles apply everywhere? Or should there be cultural and regional differences in those?
Tam-Baryoh: Well, actually those who say that we should have cultural and regional principles or ethics pushed into that, if it’s in the side of the African politician, I say they have hidden agenda, because when they don’t want things to work rightly they bring about, all talks about, “Oh, according to our culture,” “Oh, according to what our people will like.” But if it is made universal, then I know that what is ethical in the US will be ethical. If I should write a story in the US and not revealing the names of minors, then I think I understand that even in Sierra Leone, even if a minor is raped, perhaps I’ll write such a story, at the same time not revealing the name of such a minor. So what if it is universal? Once it is good, is good. So, but people who fight actually trying to culture, put this thing into cultural milieu and say, “Oh, this thing, this type of journalism cannot work in Sierra Leone. This type of journalism you practice in the UK. You can’t bring it to Sierra Leone.”
But the type we practice in Sierra Leone is sometimes we write about corruption. If people are suffering and a minister steals $1.5 million US dollars and you write about it in the US, then it can still be written about in Sierra Leone. If a minister who is supposed to know better, he steals money, one million, five-hundred thousand US dollars, that he is supposed to be feeding the poor somewhere in the villages, they write about it and they say, it is not culturally correct, then I wonder whether corruption can be culturally correct, you know. So actually, if you asked me which side I am, I won’t actually mind universalizing some of those ethics.
And that is why, when the government brought up a new rule, they called it Independent Media Commission, and you fuse into it all types of laws. You know, we have to fight hard. I was the secretary-general of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists there. We fought hard. They included funny things like, you couldn’t write about a president….. It was so shrouded such that if you addressed the president without all his titles, you could be charged, you know. You couldn’t call our president without saying “His Excellency, the President Doctor, blah-blah-blah.” You know. You know they actually are doing things that are not correct, but they will give cultural reasons.
PORTER: If these principles are universal then, what can journalists in the West do to help journalists like you in situations like yours, around the world? What do you need from journalists in the West?
Tam-Baryoh: You see, for the past 10 years in Sierra Leone we have actually not been allowed to work to our maximum capability. Because for the past 10 years the only story I have been reporting is a war story. Because I’m in a war situation. I have not written a story about economy for years. I’ve not written a story about women liberation and things like that, because for us it’s just war. You know, I have not gone to a university to do war correspondent courses, but I have just been writing war stories. So, sometimes our colleagues from the West, they come to Sierra Leone or they come to some African country and then they ask you, “Can you give me a piece on equality?” I, so I say, “Oh, that’s not a problem here. We are talking about people cutting hands and limbs.”
One of the many things actually, we need actually, is training and the infrastructural build-up for the media that has been destroyed. You type your newspapers here. You proofread in this other place. You go to there to, to this other street to film the plates. Then you go to the printer. You are not even sure you will print it. So usually you don’t put a date, because you don’t know when the paper will be printed. You leave it out. When you are printed, your paper is printed, it’s printed. And besides, it’s one or two of those politicians who own the machines that we do print with. So sometimes when you take it there, they have somebody there, they look through. If they find out their party is not affected, there is nothing you have written that affects their corruption, them, they will print for you. But if they see a headline, you see, “Minister in $2 Million Scandal,” forget it. You go around for the next three weeks, you might not get your paper printed.
So infrastructure-wise the media is down. And then, you may train people, yes. You give them all the training. I may have, I trained in Ghana as a journalist. But, if you don’t have the means to practice, you don’t have the means, you know. So journalists in the West, actually they ask this question. And even our colleagues will come there, like the American guy who was shot dead. I was speaking with him two days before he was shot dead. And he said, “David, the media here is so, it’s impoverished.” I said, “Well, maybe it’s the general situation in the country itself.” It’s because the media cannot be richer than the people. You know.
PORTER: The media cannot be richer than the people?
Tam-Baryoh: Yeah. In Sierra Leone generally the people are poor. And they are the people who are going to be buying the papers, the people who are going to be listening to the radio. So you can write out a very good story as to how we can get out of his malaise and then the guy said, “Oh, I didn’t even read it because I didn’t have the money to buy.”
GILLIAN SORENSON: On behalf of the secretary-general, let me simply say, thank you, good wishes, take care, and keep writing. Because we need to hear from you. Thanks so much. [applause]
MCHUGH: The International Editor of the Year Award was presented during a luncheon held at the United Nations. Assistant Secretary-General Gillian Sorenson brought greetings from Kofi Annan.
PORTER: The award itself was presented by Under-Secretary-General Olara Otunnu.
OLARA OTUNNU: I can’t think of a group of people in a country that is more deserving of today’s recognition than journalists from Sierra Leone. You all have seen the agony through which this country has been for almost ten years. And there are very few situations where civilians, especially children and women, have suffered beyond description. But there are also very [few] situations where I have been where I’ve seen ordinary people display such courage in the face of impossible circumstances. It is not just the risk of being detained or the risk of having to run and leave the country. What many of these people were putting on the line were their lives. Literally their lives. And the group that brought on the siege, the junta in Sierra Leone, many of you will remember, ECOMOG?? troops delivered the coup de grace. But the group that brought on the siege, the junta, was civil society in Sierra Leone. And the head of that, a group of particularly committed and courageous journalists. Who in the midst of everything continued to print and to broadcast and to resist.
MCHUGH: Winning such a public award for journalism is sometimes dangerous. I asked World Press Review Editor Alice Chasan if she worries her award will make the winners a more tempting target for oppression when they return home.
ALICE CHASAN: The answer is complex. In that it is different from one country to the next. And it may even be different from one journalist to the next. I would never name someone who felt uncomfortable about being chosen. If he or she felt that his or her life was going to be endangered, or that of his or her family or colleagues, we would certainly not name that person.
MCHUGH: Do you sometimes, as you sit in your office here in New York, feel guilty about where you’re at in your place in the world, as a journalist, versus someone like David or other journalists in conflict regions?
CHASAN: I wouldn’t say so much that I feel guilty, but I do feel that it gives me a very different perspective on my work. And in large part I think it has dictated where I choose to do my work and what kind of work I choose to do as a journalist. I love the work that I do with World Press Review because for me it is a natural outgrowth of the press freedom advocacy work that I did for several years as the Program and Editorial Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Through World Press Review I feel I bring to readers in the United States and readers of English publications elsewhere, an understanding, a greater understanding, of the complexities of the world around them. And in a more sustained manner than they’re likely to get from their local media, whether television or newspapers or magazines. And thereby heighten their appreciation and understanding of what other human beings elsewhere in the world have to endure.
While I can’t draw a direct causal connection for you between that and the improvement of conditions in the world, I would like to believe that that kind of knowledge and sensitized outlook is a necessary precondition for any of the chronic problems in the world to improve. So, I think guilt is the wrong term. But I think I wouldn’t mind if a lot of our colleagues here in the United States felt a little guilt if it motivated them to assign a story on these complex subjects in far-off places, instead of assigning a piece that they think is perhaps going to lull their readers or please their readers in a way that I’m afraid that honest coverage on the ground, in a place like Sierra Leone, would not do. It’s not conducive to going to sleep with a calm soul at night, perhaps. To read about the limbs of small children being chopped off. But I think it’s necessary for all of us to understand these terrible phenomenon in order to have the will and the intelligent perspective on them, to help bring about some sort of change in the world.
PORTER: Alice Chasan is Editor of World Press Review magazine. You can learn more the magazine by visiting their Web site at www.worldpress.org.
MCHUGH: Earlier we heard from David Tam-Baryoh. He is one of the Sierra Leonian journalists honored with World Press Review‘s International Editor of the Year Award. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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