WIMSAL | Women and the Business of News



To close out Women's History Month on Sewa News,  Mariama Kandeh and Rachel Horner bring us news and notes on women in Sierra Leone's media landscape,  their challenges, influence and representation.


 



I
n the days following the transition from Harmattan to mid dry season, Jane (not her real name) got caught up in a dialogue. She was searching for answers in her lonely room packed with junk clothes and shoes from Malamah Thomas Street. Her salary is not good enough to buy new, ready-made clothing.


“Journalism is a man’s job. Aren’t you tired of all the harassment, bullying, and the pull-her-down syndrome that has marred the profession for a number of your colleague female journalists?” Jane thought. Telling herself all the reasons why she did not belong.

“Maybe I should have gone into public relations,” she said. “It makes good money, which I will never find in this field.  Maybe this is not my calling,” she lamented as she walked up and down her sparse room, kicking the only chair sat so close to her single bed as if both were kissing each other.

Over the two years since Jane started her career as a journalist, she has worked at three media houses. In her third job, Jane finally got to use a computer. But most times she typed like she was breaking kernels so she asked the secretary to do the typing for her. In Sierra Leone, many journalists have limited computer knowledge. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) skills are still a mirage for most.

But getting computer skills is a small part of the problem.

Jane left her first job because she was not paid for six months.

“I only got travel money from programs and press conferences I attended,” she told her second boss, who later demanded sexual favors that forced her to quit the job earlier than she had planned.

Male chauvinism, sexual harassment and discrimination are among the hurdles women journalists face in trying to pursue high-profile stories.


Asmaa James, president of Women in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL) and station manager for 98.1 FM, explained that sexual harassment in the newsroom continues to be a challenge to female journalists.
Asmaa Kamara James, president of Women in Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL) and station manager for 98.1 FM

“The newsroom has been described as a hostile environment,” she said.

“Female journalists are often exposed to language and actions that embarrass them.
These come in jokes about their breasts and hips, mostly from male colleagues that make them uncomfortable. They are often perceived by society as “free (easy) women” because their job necessitates that they interact with diverse people.”

A female journalist in Bo said: “Male sources and interviewees are often more interested in the personalities of female journalists rather than the work they do. Most interviews always end with requests for lunch dates and in the case of a refusal an important source of information might as well be lost, so one has to be very tactful in turning down these numerous advances.”

Data shows there are a low number of women in decision making in the media--
three female radio station managers and no women newspaper or TV editors-- a handful of female editors or station managers in over 40 radio stations and 50 newspaper houses.

Men dominate the profession extending into the newsroom, where male journalists are always praised for being tough and hardworking and females are regarded as lazy and incompetent.
Archive photo of Princess Gibson announcing her intention to run in the Sierra Leone Journalists Association elections

W
IMSAL
Vice President Princess Gibson added however that few female journalists have gone the extra mile to get the education and training to compete in the field of journalism.

“Among the many factors responsible for the low level of education of some of us are financial constraints, the 10-year war and lack of mentoring from senior colleagues that could give junior colleagues the morale booster to move themselves forward,” Gibson said.

On average, female journalists receive fewer training and career advancement opportunities in relation to their male counterparts. They are hardly assigned the big political and investigative stories; most are often stuck with gender violence, sports, cookery, beauty, and lifestyle and relationship stories.

“The female journalist is regarded by her male employer, editor and counterparts as a woman not as a colleague,’” said James noting that females in the media are rarely given opportunity to prove their competence. If they come up with results they are accused of having used their “woman power” to achieve that. The scarcity of female columnists also makes it difficult for burning issues to have a female perspective.

Gender based harassment and violence in real life is being replicated online.

There have been cases where intimate pictures and videos of young girls have been used to blackmail them; as was the case of a Sierra Leonean model and beauty queen whose intimate video with a boyfriend was circulated in the cyber world of Sierra Leoneans at home and in the diaspora.

Women and girls are increasingly being harassed online through mobile phones with WhatsApp. Often times, one will notice that somebody one has never come into contact with has added one to their account and they will be sending very unfriendly messages and sometimes pornographic pictures.

The media in general lack the training to deal with sexual assault and gender-based violence in the real world and online. Recent coverage of the story of a deputy minister of education’s alleged rape of a university student exhibited such lapses. The identity of the alleged victim was exposed and her privacy invaded, with horrible newspaper stories about her in the media and online.

Media establishment history in Sierra Leone shows that women have little influence in determining their representation in the media. Media images are formed through the eyes of men who are most times the sole decision-makers in the newsroom.
 
Female journalists need adequate training to report cyber harassment, bullying and online violence.
But most female journalists in Sierra Leone lack computer knowledge. Most struggle with use of the keyboard and basic programs. ICT is a modern day reality but for female journalists in Sierra Leone this is still farfetched. Most media houses have old computers, a handful with Internet facilities. But intermittent power supply and slow speeds make the experience frustrating.

Some colleagues go months without checking their emails. The few with Facebook accounts occasionally access it. Most do not have a Twitter account. Only a few have WhatsApp on their mobile phones and they are irregular users.

Sierra Leone probably has the weakest cyber security.

There have been incidents of professional sabotage and identity theft. People go to Internet cafes and later realize their email accounts have been hacked.

 

Despite the challenges, WIMSAL, formed about six years ago, has conducted training programs on news writing, investigative journalism, gender-based violence, court reporting, etc. For their part, WIMSAL intends to help members get the training they need on responding to violence in the real world and in cyber space.


WIMSAL has worked to support its membership, advocating and providing protection for them. The organization has also encouraged members to be more assertive and carry out tasks assigned to them with diligence in order to make the desired impact.
WIMSAL has also been involved in advocacy, both for female journalists and other women in society. These programs involved meetings with editors, media owners and other decision makers including members of the diplomatic corps in order to push forward the cases of colleagues. They have also promoted maintenance of values and professional etiquette especially in appearance and interaction with the public.


In 2013, WIMSAL held a nationwide campaign against rape and other sexual offenses. The campaign involved radio, television and newspaper reports and raising awareness.


The organization has also partnered with Journalists for Human Rights, BBC Media Action and Talking Drum Studio in implementing its projects.


WIMSAL has identified women mentors in the media such as station managers, women program producers, columnists and presenters and working with them to be mentors.
They have also organized in-house motivational and skills training to help improve the skills of female journalists. on talk shows and a marches against rape.

Thankfully, the Internet is not only changing the way women and girls experience violence but also how they react to them.

According to James, ICT training is one of her organization’s major objectives but she emphasized that WIMSAL is seriously challenged by lack of funding to pursue its dream.

“We are the voice and the ears of other women; we need these trainings to help transform the lives of other women,” she said.


Last week, world leaders, lawmakers, and activists concluded the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58).

This year, the annual gathering to address crtiical issues related to gender equality and women’s rights, focused on ways to accelerate implementation of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They noted the gaps in programming and legislation around MDG work, especially in Africa with a historical gender gap in access to information and communication technologies.
This could be because the basic needs approach of the MDGs ignores many of the women’s rights concerns that cut across and permeate all other development and human rights issues including ICT.

While the only MDG directly relevant to gender has just one target: to promote gender equality and empower women (eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education) there are myriad development issues relating to women and girls—quite often involving inequality and the abuse of women; increasingly so online.

The persistence of unequal power relations between women and men, discriminatory laws, societal norms, practices and stereotypes are among the many setbacks that women are faced with from day to day.

The challenges cut across diverse sectors of development from the women who sell in the market to those who work in the media. But there is no better platform to showcase women’s empowerment, exhibit their talents and competencies than in the media.

Media roles extend beyond information and education with a greater obligation of changing societal perceptions about ideas, concepts and beliefs. The media should also ensure that international and local instruments such as the MDGs and other human rights conventions that are of tremendous benefits to the public are upheld and implemented.


For young reporters like Jane, online media is becoming the most popular, and for career growth, one would have to embed technology in practice. This is the Social Era, where more and more people are getting connected. Social media is now considered an essential tool for journalists, but how connected is our fiber optic cable to access Internet service is a topic for another day.



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