– Paul Myles, Editorial Manager, On Our Radar
“Don’t stop covering our stories. Things have changed because of Ebola – there’s so much still to report on.” This message popped up on my Whatsapp whilst I was on my way home from work last autumn, at a time when the Ebola crisis in West Africa was beginning to be brought under control. It was from Amjata Bayoh, one of a network of thirteen citizen journalists in Sierra Leone who I had been working with throughout this devastating epidemic.
I spent the whole evening chatting to Amjata on Whatsapp about the ways that the crisis had affected day-to-day life in Sierra Leone: the collective trauma of communities who had been worst hit; the ongoing economic impacts of market and border closures; the social impacts of the fear and mistrust that had paralysed the country.
I began collaborating with this group of reporters through my work with On Our Radar – an organisation that specialises in working with some of the most remote and marginalised communities in the world, using the tools that are available to share their stories, from their perspective. In the context of Sierra Leone, a country where many don’t have access to regular electricity, but 83% of people have access to a mobile phone, SMS and Whatsapp were the tools that we used to capture these stories.
The reporters come from some of the communities that were worst hit by the crisis – urban slums, remote border villages, trading centres, former mining towns and even a polio camp. They reported from places that foreign journalists could not reach – many borders and roads had been closed, and whole regions had been quarantined. Travelling into the Ebola hotspots during the peak of the crisis was simply too risky for many journalists.
My colleague Libby initially trained a group of 40 reporters in 2012 to cover the elections in Sierra Leone using a custom-built SMS hub that allowed reporters to submit real-time reports at the cost of a local text message. Their work was picked up by international media outlets, and over the next couple of years, they continued to develop as journalists and storytellers, building trust and standing as reporters within their communities.
By the time the Ebola crisis hit Sierra Leone in 2014, many of the group had become well-drilled mobile journalists. They reported on the Ebola outbreak for many international news outlets, including Sky News, BBC World Service, Channel 4 News, The Guardian and Huffington Post.
These local reporters often broke new story developments long before Western media had arrived on the scene. Moses Kortu reported on the fact that market closures were causing a hidden hunger crisis in the East of the country, and John F. Sillah broke the story that the country’s last unaffected district had been hit by the virus.
They also spoke from the heart about what they were living through – Mariama Jalloh told the story of her own father’s death due to Ebola, and Agnes Moseray spoke about the difficulties she faced as a blind woman trying to survive throughout the crisis. Living in some of the most marginalised communities in Sierra Leone, they saw the crisis through a different lens. In the words Stephanie Degroote, a Senior Producer at Sky News: “their voices gave a vivid picture and were full of emotion: from the fear of being cut off from family; to outrage at the loss of work and income; to the sheer boredom of not being able to hang out with your mates and watch football. They helped to take us away from hospital tents and Western charity workers to give us the story of the real lives and real people.”