- Sierra Leone's bloody 10-year civil war ended in early 2002, but prestigious pre-war publications such as the 'Standard Times' are still struggling to recover from the impact of the war. "We expected a quicker recovery, and we expected investors," says editor Ibrahim Karim Sei.
Mr Sei manages what was an important regional daily newspaper before the civil war in Sierra Leone. The independent 'Standard Times' continued to operate throughout the majority of the conflict despite extreme conditions. Before the conflict, the daily circulation of the 'Standard Times' fluctuated between 10,000 and 15,000, but since the war it is around 2,000.
In October 2003, Mr Sei was still optimistic on a quick recovery. Interviewed by the African press network RAP21, the managing editor now says that "the situation has not improved as much as expected." The problem is mainly the continued pervasive poverty experienced in Sierra Leone. "Still today many people can't afford to buy a newspaper," Mr Sei says.
Nevertheless, the newspaper market in Sierra Leone is by now very competitive, the editor told RAP21. Around a dozen newspapers compete for readers in the capital, Freetown. But circulation outside the city is very low and radio stations totally dominate in rural areas. They are hosted by local personalities and broadcast in the local languages, whereas all newspapers in Sierra Leone publish in English only.
In 2003, the 'Standard Times' expected a modest recovery of its circulation, from 2,000 copies a day to printing around 5,000 daily copies in 2005. "This was not realistic," Mr Sei says today. "People are not able to buy newspapers from the high cost of living," he explains.
From 2000 to 2002, the 'Standard Times' produced an international edition that was delivered to Banjul (The Gambia), the United States and England. The circulation of that edition was approximately 2,000. "However, it became too difficult to collect the money so we had to stop the international edition," the managing editor says, explaining the setback.
Plans for an expanded distribution, outside Freetown, have also proven difficult to realise. The poor state of the roads and the absence of any organised distribution system continue to be major factors working against expansion, Mr Sei told RAP21. "Local rural communities feel closer to their community radio stations than newspapers," he added, noting that rural illiteracy was also part of the problem.
The 'Standard Times' however has achieved stability in its production since the war years. The printing infrastructure in Freetown has improved during the last years, securing that process. The newspaper now manages to publish daily, despite the persistent paper shortages and power outages in the Sierra Leonean capital. Despite these challenges, "we have managed to keeps our current readers and advertisers because we have maintained the quality of the newspaper," Mr Sei emphasises.
While peace has not meant a boost for businesses, at least the media environment has improved significantly. During the course of the war, the newspaper's offices were burned down, causing the loss of expensive equipment such as computers, printers and office furniture. The 'Standard Times' also suffered the loss of its deputy editor, Paul Mansalay, who, along with his wife and three children, was brutally murdered in January 1999.
Overall, the newspaper industry in Sierra Leone was severely damaged by the 10-year civil war, according to RAP21. "Newspaper production was severely impacted. Most editors and publishers left the country during the conflict," Mr Sei told the African press network. Still, Sierra Leonean journalists and editors face systematic muzzling from Freetown authorities, but not in a scale comparable to the war years.
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