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Radio discussion programme Fo Rod (Crossroads) a weekly show broadcast in conjunction with eight community radio stations is giving Sierra Leoneans a platform for debate and a chance to hold their leaders to account.
The programme is designed to provide a space for members of the public, leaders and civil society to address issues of national concern. It has also often had a profound effect within local communities.
For the residents of Moyamba in the south of the country, this has meant successfully demanding better access to public information from the district authorities, after the programme increased awareness about their right to information.
For young people in Kabala, northern Sierra Leone, it has been useful in holding medical officials to account after uncovering corruption in the distribution of treated bed nets (for malaria prevention). This came after a Fo Rod special on free healthcare hosted the District Medical Officer who urged communities to report malpractice in distribution of government health programmes.
And in the southern district of Pujehun the programme has been instrumental in bringing sensitive subjects to the attention of the whole community. After local station Radio Wanjei broadcast a special Fo Rod on the lack of reporting of sexual assaults the station was flooded with phone calls, in the most overwhelming reaction the station has ever seen.
Listeners and leaders
Fo Rod is part of 'A National Conversation' which focuses on supporting media to encourage transparency and accountability in governance in three African countries; Angola, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.
Sierra Leone enjoys greater media freedom and diversity of ownership than other countries in the region, but journalists can often be partisan, exercise self-censorship and lack access to reliable sources of information.
In general, people lack access to useful information that might help them make informed decisions. The media does not hold the government to account on their behalf, and does not offer a space for the public to air their views or debate the key issues of the day.
'A National Conversation' aims to bridge this gap between ordinary people and leaders. In Sierra Leone, local journalists have been trained in editorial standards and skills to produce the Fo Rod radio programmes and community radio stations supported with equipment, training and guidance in editorial management.
This network of rural local community radio stations and one partner national station each produce a version of Fo Rod which links local issues to national priorities.
Beyond the radio
Three mentors based in Freetown work in partner radio stations for six months at a time to support journalists. The mentors then work with local trainees to build skills, offer encouragement and to show how the media can be used to improve accountability of the powerful.
International BBC Trainer Tony Howson has taught the mentors skills in impartial and accurate reporting. He is keen to make sure journalists keep the audience in mind at all times.
"We aim to go beyond the radio and link with the listeners and find the issues which affect their daily lives like water shortage, maternal issues and child birth issues" he says.
"You're getting their voice onto the radio and using that as a lever to ask questions to people in decision-making roles. You then get [those leaders] to justify why something hasn’t happened or what needs to change."
As the people of Moyamba, Kabala and Pujehun have demonstrated, Fo Rod has been successful in delivering just this kind of catalyst for action.
'A National Conversation' is supported by the Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF) of the UK’s Department for International Development’s (DFID). The fund is designed to promote accountability, transparency and public participation through public service broadcasting.
Sierra Leone enjoys greater media freedom and diversity of ownership than other countries in the region, but journalists can often be partisan, exercise self-censorship and lack access to reliable sources of information