From Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown

Belated Happy Birthday@ 5!!! Awareness Times is a successful Project
By Sayoh Kamara (Founder Editor-in-Chief)
Aug 20, 2010, 17:08

In Sierra Leone, when a baby lives up to five years, there is a strong belief that that child will live for long except otherwise by some unforeseen circumstances. This is all because the country has a bad name for high infant mortality which has dragged the country to being bottom of the UNDP Human Development Index for several years now. This scenario is applicable to the press in the country. A press house that survives for five years in perpetuity is sure to live even longer irrespective of the challenges and adversities it faces in the media world of this country. On the whole, the Awareness Times has lived through the thick and thin and for five years has survived the storm. I doff my hat to the Publisher, Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, for her resilience, commitment and determination. To the entire staff, it’s simply, keep it up! As a founding editor, I am impressed.

The setting up of the Awareness Times Newspaper was the sole initiative of Dr. Blyden. Before setting the newspaper, Dr. Blyden had for long cherished the media, particularly the print, on some of whose pages disparaging and spurious articles have been printed about her more than any Sierra Leonean woman in the country, all aimed at dampening her spirit and ultimately bringing her down. But Sylvia is not that woman that can be brought down so sheepishly. As a matter of fact, she has been embalmed by these attacks and can now adequately fire back any time and from where ever such attacks originate from with more ferocity than would be expected. To some extent she even applies the pre-emptive strike principle of self defence to destabilize her assailants once she suspects an imminent attack on her She wanted a free press that can challenge issues positively in the national interest. However, in establishing Awareness Times, she wanted a free press that can properly tell Sierra Leone’s story to the outside world in a way and manner different from the parochial, sentimental, emotional and partisan stories that were posted on the World Wide Web (Internet) from the Diaspora. Dr. Blyden wanted a free press that can challenge the government and its officials on issues that are in the public interest.

Before Awareness Times was born, Dr. Blyden supported Chernor Ojuku-Sesay’s The Pool Newspaper on pro bono basis for several years. Even with such a fabulous financial support however, the paper would be out of production for weeks and months due to poor management. This situation reflected on us the then staff of The Pool and the reflection was grossly negative. For the staff, they were virtual ‘charity workers’ in the words of the publisher, Chernor Ojuku Sesay. This means they were ‘volunteers’ in Ojuku’s newspaper consortium. Those who received salary did so intermittently and the salaries came from his pocket. I was part of those ‘charity workers’ from 1999 to 2005.

I first came to know Dr. Blyden by name in 2000; she was then living in the United States of America. I actually did not know her just like that; I came across her name almost in every other edition of certain newspapers (names withheld) allegedly associating her either with the NPRC Junta, the Ninja website, or the RUF rebels. I wondered what a powerful woman she must be, as she gave those male detractors of hers, complete restlessness. On enquiry from my boss, Ojuku; since I could not have known her any better since I was coming from upcountry, Kono to be precise, I came to realize that they writings against her were mere campaigns of calumny and vilification, I therefore decided to write a commentary questioning the professionalism and the moral fibre on which those writers based their postulations. Little did I know that I was provoking a macabre and that I had entered a labyrinth charged with desperados. I was attacked the next morning no doubt. I fired back though, stressing on my earlier points. The press war which ensued landed us in court on charges of defamatory libel. It was however settled out of court, and that brought a cessation to the reckless attacks on the personality of Dr. Blyden in that particular newspaper for a long time. This was even before I set eyes on her.

When I finally came to know Dr. Blyden in 2002, I found her to be humble, principled, self disciplined and above all, a no nonsense woman. Our good relationship still continues and my view of her remains the same eight years on. Sylvia established her newspaper with me as the founding Editor-in-chief in spite of all the back biting and the scandalous insinuations against my person all aimed at shifting her decision. But she was as constant as a Northern Star and unshakable like the Bintumani Mountain even when attempts were made at convincing her that with me as head of her investment, her money was at risk. She had and still has trust in me and was/is confident that I will always be by her whenever and wherever necessary.

I share the same Libra Star with Sylvia and President Ernest Bai Koroma. I was born on the 12th of October, Sylvia on the 1st of October and the President on the 2nd of October. Perhaps it is this star-link that connected us with a sense of being each other’s keeper even when I had not set eyes on her. Teaming to set up the Awareness Times was like a calling of two lucky stars.

Our touch on Awareness Times became a Midas touch as it boomed progressively beyond the expectations of many my critics, sceptics, pessimists and doubters. Within three months, Awareness Times was taking care of its publication cost and in less than one year, the paper no longer depended on the subvention of Dr. Blyden to pay salaries also. The paper grew from strength to strength.

Awareness Times, as I have mentioned above was set up principally to address the inequities of  unfair, unbalanced and inaccurate reports on Sierra Leone that were posted on the Internet (www) by Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora. As such, it was to be published online. So as Dr. Blyden engaged herself with the setting up of the web site and securing the domain name, I was engaged with the paper’s registration with the IMC, settling its income tax obligation with the NRA and securing the authority from the Administrator-General’s office. Within two weeks all of these were achieved. However, it was after all of these that I suggested to Dr. Blyden that we produce the newspaper version locally in parallel with the website, since the website would not be accessible to all and sundry. We agreed that a local newspaper be produced as a way of impacting on society generally.

The name of the newspaper came out of intuition. We wanted a name that was truly Sierra Leonean and one that could make the appeal to the ordinary Sierra Leonean reader. We first thought of having something ordinary and in our perusals settled down for ‘Awareness Times’. Because we wanted something closely related to the people of Sierra Leone and one that they could easily associate with, we discussed DJ Base’s popular radio jingle at the time; ‘Conscious Time, Awareness Age’ we discussed between the two phrases which could be more reaching-‘Conscious Times’ or ‘Awareness Age’. We analyzed the definitions of the buzz words and out of intuition as I said earlier, I came up with the coinage; ‘Awareness Times’ and Sylvia was quick to concur. It was out of this that I again conceptualized the motto; ‘Giving knowledge to the people’. Once the paper took off on 12th July 2005, its name was on the lips of every vendor and reader as it was easy to conceptualize even by those ‘readers’ found in Mabelas and Kroo Bays.

The Awareness Times newspaper should have hit the newsstand much earlier on but was delayed because I travelled for two weeks to Cotonou, capital of Benin to a West Africa civil society forum. All modalities had been put in place including staff, whom I recruited single-handedly and they included; Theophilus S. Gbenda (Deputy Editor), Abu Bakar Munu (Senior Staff Writer), David Jabati (News Editor), John Mansaray (Staff Reporter), and Kadiatu Sesay (Typist, Layout Designer). These were the earlier forces behind the breakthrough of Awareness Times and indeed, my humble self in my first responsibility as Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper conceptualized, registered, co-managed and edited by myself.

On the 12th of July 2005 marking Awareness Times’ inaugural publication had challenges. The news items we had in stock were obsolete and we hadn’t anybody that layout for us properly at that time. You may want to ask, why with Sylvia Blyden, a computer scientist. The answer to that is, she was completely hands off the Awareness Times and could not have even come to help. As such, the maiden edition was poorly designed and laid out by Kadiatu, who herself was testing her hands freely in newspaper layout for the first time. Once we realized this handicap, I moved swiftly to address it by contracting an expert who gave a day’s training to Kadiatu and that aspect became a thing of the past. Awareness Times was then set to fly over the horizon and the issue of having obsolete news items in my story file was no more. In fact we never dealt with news that are a day old, we dealt with current and running stories. As established journalists, my reporters already had their certified sources and off course new ones kept coming. From the newspaper’s imprint, I received calls from then President, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, Vice President Solomon Berewa, Opposition Leader, Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma, Speaker, Edmund Cowan, Cabinet Ministers, opposition and ruling party members of parliament, members of the judiciary and the private sector. We reported in depth the national conventions of the SLPP and the APC simultaneously from Makeni and Port Loko respectively; we described the woeful manner in which John Leigh was not nominated in his much trumpeted aim at the leadership of the SLPP, and off course, we gave popularity to Mr. Charles F. Margai and his PMDC. I could call any of these and on the first ring of their phones would receive and call me by my first name or Mr. Editor-in-Chief. All of these were ready to talk to Awareness Times even at short notice and in most instances; it was they who would force an interview. Awareness Times became a channel for the venting of political fervour and spleen. It became a channel for advocacy and the respect for the rule of law and democracy. In essence, it became the loudest voice of the voiceless; even the dumb came to us to fight out their cause. These were all coming our way because we were positive, balanced, fair and accurate in our reportage; it was all because we were exhaustive in our analysis, though we did so without fear or favour and we did so too with the vehemence and critical thinking any subject of national interest deserved. We manifested this severally. When the campaigns for the 2007 elections were heating up and it then appeared that the formation of the PMDC was a curse on its formers, the party was attacked at Jaiama Sewafe and Bumpe respectively on their way to the district headquarter town to campaign. The signal was giving to me by a senior PMDC official and I went into gear to contact all my sources in the district including those in Sewafe and Bumpe towns. We reported the incident with sources from both sides of the divide. In our editorial and commentaries in the subsequent editions, we were hard on the SLPP as our investigations proved that they were the actual offenders, citing the dangers of the country slipping back to the sort of political violence and intimidation the country was exposed to in the days of the Siaka Stevens/Joseph Momoh APC regimes. That was and is still what makes up Awareness Times, fearlessness for as long as knowledge is given to the people. 

Our major breakthrough as a truly investigative set of professionals came during our watch over the Gloria Newman-Smart issue with the Anti Corruption Commission. Like the Watergate and Monica Lewensky scandals which were earlier reported insignificantly but came out to be big political stories, so was the Newman-Smart story which I picked up small but ended up becoming a big human interest story for the entire nation. That was one story that I feel good about and continue to be grateful to Dr. Blyden for her unflinching support to access my sources both locally and internationally. She would make available thousands of units of top ups across the networks in my phones and this allowed me to talk to sources as far as in the London, the epicentre of the so-call ‘passportgate’ scandal. We forced a Public Inquest into the poor lady’s consequent death after we had proved her innocence in the trumped-up deal. I know that even in her eternity she must be praying for Sayoh for bringing her plight to public knowledge at a time she was hounded & hunted by her haters. May her soul  RIP.

I learnt a lot as a journalist during my two-year editorship at the Awareness Times. As a matter of fact, I realized a deep contrast in terms of management and remuneration between the Pool newspaper where I spent almost ten years and Awareness Times. I was strongly supported by Dr. Blyden, both financially and morally. She used her personal contacts to open up tight-lipped public and private citizens; she helped demystify the name ‘journalist’ around me by making personal introductions to people who went on to see me as someone to be trusted and this included strong-headed politicians. Though two years older than her, I learnt from her, the art of a strong and focused leadership; a quality she made me to understand as based on the principle of determination, selflessness, tolerance and commitment to succeed in what ever venture one undertakes. She equally encouraged me to be patient, but being persistent; to always find out the other side of anything I hear, to ask all the sides of a story and to be critical in my analysis. In inculcating these character traits in me, she lavished resources on me; provided or made available all the resources I needed to ensure my being fair, accurate and balanced no matter the nature of a story. Those were days before I went to the university in which she also played a key role. She actually provided the initial funds for my entry to university as she had assessed my intellect and capabilities.

People I have spoken to or who have spoken to me several times when Sylvia’s name is controversially mentioned would at certain instances pretend to know Sylvia. They will tell me how they knew her as a child with her parents along Kissy Road etc. But that child Sylvia is not the woman Sylvia today, I will always tell them. But they will insist on her stubbornness, but none of them has ever explained why she is stubborn or why she was stubborn as a child thy claim to know.

Yes, Sylvia can be seen as stubborn, but stubborn on purpose. She becomes stone-headed against any piece of advice one gives to her if she believes and has trust in something, even if the whole world is against that thing. She behaves as such on purpose; to prove right or wrong. But one thing I can vouchsafe for on her behalf is that she can do anything, spend what ever resources to get what ever information she wants that serves her interest. And once Sylvia is armed with those information and having crossed-checked them with empiricism, she can die in defence of that thing. She proved it in my own case against the wishful thoughts of my then detractors, she proved it in her defence of former High Commissioner to the UK, Ambassador Sulaiman Tejan Jalloh; she proved this in her expose of the computer criminality of the former British Deputy Commissioner of the ACC; she tried her positive stubbornness in her criticism
of the  treatment of late Hinga Norman by the then SLPP and upon his transfer to a hospital in Senegal by the Special Court, the Public will recall that Awareness Times was the very last newspaper Chief Hinga Norman spoke to with a passionate appeal through us before he died. No wonder this newspaper is seen as a Bible in many places in South-East!; and she is currently fighting to prove her point in the ongoing corruption matter between former Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Haja Afsatu Olayinka Kabbah and the ACC. Over the period under review, the Awareness Times has partially succeeded in achieving its principal objective, which is to tell the Sierra Leone story different from what was being portrayed by Diaspora Sierra Leoneans. It was the first Sierra Leonean locally based newspaper online and in two and the general democratization of the country with respect for the rule of law and democracy. That is an enviable contribution that no other newspaper can take away from Awareness Times.


Five years on with a woman as its publisher is remarkable and another enviable feat. No Sierra Leonean woman has endured the challenges of the male dominated and chauvinistic Sierra Leone media as owner apart from Sylvia. She challenges everything that brings ambiguity to her mind irrespective of her relationship providing a possible Pandora Box, which could have the proclivity of provoking ad hominine attacks, but she is never scared. The Betty Forays of recent could not survive and so also a number of female journalists because of obvious reasons. Sierra Leoneans should have respect for her in that regard, for breaking the chauvinistic ring around journalism in this country. Sylvia has proved beyond all doubt that what men have done and are doing in journalism, women can also do. It is her belief and trust in journalism that has kept her and Awareness Times going and indeed with this belief and trust, Sylvia and Awareness Times are sure to reach the top echelon of journalism in Sierra Leone. Of course I will always be there to save, guide & guard my baby for the name Sayoh Kamara is almost synonymous with Awareness Times. This success is because those behind the formation of the paper, Sayoh Kamara and Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden are two lucky stars whose Midas touch on anything including Awareness Times will turn to gold.  Happy belated 5 years anniversary, Awareness Times newspaper, may you live longer!!

© Copyright 2005, Freetown, Sierra Leone.