Free media helps beat down Ebola in Sierra Leone

Hundreds of hard-to-reach communities now get Ebola advice and independent news, through a new satellite link from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that boosts the reach of Sierra Leone’s sole, free radio network.

The Independent Radio Network (IRN), with its 51 community stations nationwide, began airing the daily Dreb (“chase out”) Ebola show in August 2014, to help far-flung groups stay disease free.

“Ebola is a serious health emergency, but at first people didn’t believe it was real,”says Kelvin Lewis, President of Sierra Leone’s Association of Journalists. “But quickly, within a month of starting our programme, we began turning the perception around. A lot more people now believe that yes, it’s true, there is Ebola.”

Supported by UNDP, the ‘Dreb Ebola’ team worked with the National Ebola Response Centre and the international community to bust myths on how the disease spreads, and support good hygiene practice such as avoiding touching, regular hand-washing, and quickly calling the national Ebola hotline about suspected cases.

“When the outbreak started, we all agreed that every radio station in Sierra Leone would give 30 minutes of airtime each day to fight Ebola, and newspapers would give half a page a day,” Lewis says.

Roads are often bad in Sierra Leone, and public transport is sometimes non-existent. For many remote communities, radio is their only link with the capital, and the only way to reach them.

“Ebola is tough, because it has to do with people changing their behaviour, mindset and culture,” says Ransford Wright, national coordinator of the Independent Radio Network.

“IRN started out by covering elections. With those you have clear timelines – for campaigning, voting, and announcing the results. But Ebola is complicated: no one knows when it’s going to end, so you keep changing plans.”

“We know from the many text messages we get from around the country that people take on our messages and tell family and friends,” Wright adds.

When schools were shut to help stamp out the outbreak, IRN broadcasted lessons, including maths, science and English for primary and secondary school children.

“We helped plug the gap that appeared once children weren’t able to go to school,” explains Wright.

“Definitely the support from UNDP helped. With the new satellite link, many community radio stations in remote parts of the country can now easily link up to the hub to rebroadcast.”

With the number of Ebola cases falling and children heading back to school, UNDP is looking at how to make more use of the network to secure peace and bolster democracy.

“IRN can have a huge impact on civil education, on getting out proper information and on engaging people, to enable them to make decisions about elections and other things,” says Hassan Jalloh, UNDP’s Media Programme Coordinator.

According to Sudipto Mukerjee, UNDP’s director in Sierra Leone, the media are a key part of recovery – but not the only one: “Supporting an independent and vibrant media is vital to secure peace, democracy and a robust society, but this is just one part of a wide range of support this country needs to get back on its feet.”

He adds: “The world must stay the course helping this country protect its hard-won development and peace-building gains.”

The Government of Sierra Leone will soon launch its national Ebola recovery strategy. The document will focus on getting to zero Ebola cases and staying there; on getting basic services and the economy back on track; and on moving back to the Agenda for Prosperity, the country’s long term national development plan.

In support of the Government of Sierra Leone, UNDP will launch its own recovery plan to help boost the Government’s capacity to coordinate the recovery, control Ebola outbreaks, address the socio-economic impact of the crisis and build the resilience of affected communities.

UNDP leads the UN’s support for recovery in the three countries hardest hit by Ebola: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

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