Focus on Africa at 60 – Hassan Arouni talks to the Sierra Leone Telegraph

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 25 August 2020:

As the BBC Focus on Africa celebrates sixty years of broadcasting across the African continent and beyond, the editor of the Sierra Leone Telegraph – Mr Abdul Rashid Thomas, caught up with two of Focus on Africa’s most popular presenters – Hassan Arouni and Josephine Hazeley, to talk about their experiences covering some of the most significant events of the last three decades and their thoughts on 60 years of Focus on Africa.

Both Josephine Hazeley and Hassan Arouni were born in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Until her retirement from the BBC about two years ago, Josephine had spent thirty years as a presenter and editor of Focus on Africa as well as Deputy Editor for BBC Africa , playing a key role in ensuring that the voices of the people of Africa can be heard.

Hassan Arouni joined the BBC in the early 1990s and is today one of the most trusted voices in broadcasting in Africa as presenter and producer.

Over the past 60 years, BBC Focus on Africa has covered all the key moments in the continent’s history; the independence of more than 30 countries including the birth of Zimbabwe and South Sudan, the rise and fall of Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin, Ethiopia’s famine, the first elected female head of state in Africa, Nelson Mandela’s release and the end of apartheid, the war in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and much more.

But the media landscape has evolved from the early days of shortwave radio to digital revolution, thanks to internet technology and the advent of mobile phones.  The way audiences consume media has changed enormously. Days of appointment listening, or viewing are fast fading away. Audiences now consume content on the go or on demand. Focus on Africa reaches audiences globally around the world on digital platforms as well as radio.

The rapid increase in fake news and misinformation has meant that Focus on Africa provides a reliable reference point for trusted news and reporting. And with a rapid increase in the population of younger and educated Africans, one of the challenges facing Focus on Africa today is how best to harness the emerging new and innovative technological platforms to keep younger listeners engaged with the programme.

Hassan Arouni and Josephine Hazeley speak about these challenges and some of their best moments as Focus on Africa presenters.

This is what Hassan Arouni told the editor of the Sierra Leone Telegraph – Abdul Rashid Thomas in a Zoom online interview: 

ABDUL Rashid Thomas (ART): Hassan Arouni, congratulations on your celebration of 60 years of Focus on Africa; you guys are doing a wonderful job. I wish Focus of Africa many more celebrations to come. Before Focus was established in 1960, Africa was perhaps the most misinterpreted, least understood, and possibly the most misquoted continent on earth. But of course, came Focus on Africa, and the people of Africa were given a voice to tell their own stories. So, congratulations to you and all the other presenters and editors for a wonderful job.

HASSAN: Thank you very much Abdul.

ART: Now, BBC Focus on Africa is celebrating its 60th anniversary Hassan – how does it feel to be part of such a rich history of broadcasting to millions of Africans on the continent and beyond?

HASSAN:  As an African, it gives me joy to be part of this team. I am from Sierra Leone as you know and as a young student at university, I used to listen to Focus on Africa, to the point where I even aspired to be part of the team and to present the programme itself. For me it is a dream come true. So, being here at this time when the programme marks this milestone, is for me a key moment as well; it is a dream come true and I feel like I am still living the dream. (Photo: Hassan Arouni).

ART: And of course, you are one of the most recognisable voices on BBC World Service broadcasting to Africa; what made you decide to venture into radio broadcasting, and when did you join the BBC?

HASSAN: I started doing stuff for the BBC in 1993. Yes in 1993, I was doing my Masters in Journalism here in the UK, and I went back to Sierra Leone and did some interviews and recordings around the time of the NPRC coup that happened in Sierra Leone at that time, and I brought back these recordings which were used in some of the discussion programmes on the BBC that were under the clutch of what was the Focus on Africa family at the time. I also participated in those programmes, so that is how I started and from then on, I started getting shifts and eventually, I became a full-time staff.

I first got into radio broadcasting in 1989. I was a student in Sierra Leone at university, and the national broadcaster at the time which was SLBS was looking for new voices and I went and presented myself for audition. And to my surprise, I was told: “you have the same voice as the first Director-General of Broadcasting in Sierra Leone at independence, who was John Akar.”

I remember being in the SLBS studio for voice testing when one of the producers there, came with a recorded interview that John Akar had done, with the last Governor-General of Sierra Leone or one of the Governor-Generals, and I remember my hair standing on end because I thought I was listening to myself when I heard his voice. So that is how I got into radio broadcasting.

ART: what would you say are your greatest moments as a presenter on Focus on Africa?

HASSAN: Well, there are many great moments and it is really hard to be able to choose specific ones. But I would say some of the most painful were also some of my greatest moments; and that had to do with my country Sierra Leone, at the time of great turmoil when we had the long running war in the country – the rebel war. And also, around the time of the coup, I think it was in 1997.  I was working and I had to put on a brave face. I remember during the initial days of the coup and I was put specifically to look after Sierra Leone and the stories, getting in touch with the big players. It meant spending several days chasing the President who had escaped to Guinea at the time and securing that interview with him, which was the first interview he did since he went into exile.

He had a request in fact, which was very unusual. And that was to ask the programme directors to allow him to deliver a message to the people of Sierra Leone. That request had to be cleared at the highest levels in the BBC. He was allowed to do that, before we went ahead with the interview. It was difficult for me, because when you are reporting on other countries, there is a level of detachment. However, when you are reporting on your own country, the emotions are great. You have to be neutral but at the same time, you know these are your people, so there were times when I would go quietly into a room, cry, dry my eyes, come back and work as if nothing had happened.

I remember one day I was in the studio and a colleague of mine at the BBC – an English lady, walked into the studio, she looked at my face and she ran out of the studio crying because of the pain and anguish she saw on my face.

That very day, my mother had left home and had to escape to Guinea; and we did not know anyone in Guinea and I never told anyone that that was happening. I think the anguish she saw on my face affected her so badly that she burst into tears.

It was a good and a bittersweet moment, in the sense that I was able to safely help steer the coverage of the troubles in my country. And we had to be very careful that we were not being used by those involved in the conflict sometimes, to pass on messages, especially from the RUF group. The RUF had learnt from next door in Liberia how to send coded messages and we had to be very careful with the sort of things we were broadcasting.  To be able to sift through that, we had to be careful in how we steered and allowed the conversation to go, because at that time, certain elements were using links they had, within even the regional body ECOWAS.

I think Blaise Campaore  was Chairman of ECOWAS at the time and the Liberian Charles Taylor across the border was very much trying to get Blaise to have a deciding role in what was going on in Sierra Leone, and we had to be in a position where we could challenge some of the nuances of what was going on. So it was a good time in that sense, because I felt that as much as I was a BBC staff, I was also a Sierra Leonean, and I felt whilst doing my job as dispassionately as possible, I was also being very careful how things were steered. I would say those were some of the best and the most challenging moments for me.

ART:  Covering fast developing events like the civil war in Sierra Leone, obviously demanded tremendous show of professionalism; and as you say yourself, coming from Sierra Leone and all the emotions that goes with that, I just wonder how you managed to pluck up that sort of courage and professionalism to bring the news and reports objectively to listeners across the world.

HASSAN:  I think part of it is to do with the training that I had, both as a BBC staff and in the other experiences that I had before the BBC as well.  One of the practical things that I would employ – if I felt for example I was too attached to a particular issue; I would pass the story unto a colleague and ask them to do it. If I felt that the posture I was taking might not be balanced, I would run it past a colleague. Luckily for us on Focus of Africa, we could consult with each other freely. But at any one point, if I felt my judgement was going to be biased, I would ask to be taken off that particular item.

ART: In fact, I think a good example that I would like to cast your mind back on, which for many listeners and of course television viewers in Sierra Leone at the time, watching your professional performance – chairing and moderating the 2018 presidential election candidates’ debate in Sierra Leone.

Putting aside the technical fault with the microphones, which would not work, and one of the presidential candidates could not be heard, I just want to take you back to that situation, because I thought that was a brilliant piece of journalism on your part.

As you moderated that presidential debate in 2018 in Sierra Leone, what were your thoughts as you watched and listened to each of the presidential candidates? Did you get a sense that there was going to be a clear winner emerging at the polls judging by the debate itself?

HASSAN:  I will tell you this, I don’t know if I was asked to do it again, if I would, because in Sierra Leone, it is very difficult sometimes to be seen as someone who is neutral when it comes to politics, or someone who is in the interest of the nation, rather than on the side of one political party. It is a very difficult thing in Sierra Leone. Honestly, I was scared you would bring this up, but I would say that first of all, I did the debate because I was asked and I felt it was a huge honour to do it.

I felt I was the right person to do it – not from a point of being proud, but from a point of being the kind of person who would ask the right questions to all of the candidates in the interest of the people of Sierra Leone. I did not do it as a BBC staff. I had to clear it at a very senior level at the BBC, because I was going with the badge of the BBC behind me even though it was not a debate sanctioned or organised by the BBC. When I was leaving, one of the senior managers said to me jokingly: “It is a tremendous opportunity; if anything goes wrong or any suspicion of mishandling of anything at all, you will be the one to take the blame and it will not be the BBC’s reputation. However, if it comes out ok, we will share some of the glory,” he said.

So, I knew I had to be so careful doing the debate. It was a scary moment and it took a lot of prayers on my side and meditation, to be able to even go through and finish the debate itself. I remember during the interval, I went into some sort of tailspin because as much as I was trying to hold things together, inside I was in turmoil and at some point I was in great fear that I had not handled certain things properly. I remember going back to the hotel room on the night after the debate, thinking I did not do well. But I woke up the next morning and I saw there was quite a lot of good coverage on social media about the debate, and that was the only time that I felt reassured that I had not done a bad job.

I did not have a clear sense of who would emerge as the winner of the presidential election. There were three very strong candidates in the debate, but I think I was also shocked listening to some of the candidates. I am not talking about the leading candidates, but some of the minor ones, one or two maybe. I was very shocked at the calibre of some of those candidates, thinking: this person wants to be president of this country? And this person was a minister at some point? Those are things that were running through my mind. I was thinking, where are we as a nation? But other than that, I was not sure. I felt it was still a close call.

ART:  So, as we celebrate 60 years of Focus On Africa, I think we must reflect on freedom of speech on the continent; and of course, in Sierra Leone recently, the parliament has repealed the much dreaded criminal libel law which was used by successive governments to punish journalists. What effect do you think this repeal will have on the quality of journalism in Sierra Leone?

HASSAN:  I do not know how much it will change things, but hopefully, it will make journalists less fearful of particular stories that might have heavy bearing on the rich and powerful in the country. Whether it improves the level of journalism in Sierra Leone, I think it is too early to say, because there is a lot that could be done to improve journalism in Sierra Leone. But anything that allows people to hold those in power to account must be a good thing for a country’s development.

ART: What are your thoughts about the future of the BBC Focus on Africa program. I am asking this question, especially in the light of advancement in media technology and mass communication in general in Africa?

HASSAN:  It is a challenge, because Focus on Africa is mainly radio, but as you know, technology has exploded in Africa, and if you do not move with the times, you get left behind. We are still maybe the biggest radio listenership program in Africa . We have launched a new podcast to reach a younger audience.

But now, if I take your newspaper for example – the Sierra Leone Telegraph,  I access you online, and I access stories that I would not even see on Focus; or sometimes if I need to look up ideas, I would go online to pick up those stories.

That is what is happening across Africa now. So, what you have, and I feel certain that a lot of young people are going online and accessing what you are putting out there. So it’s a question of how do we plug into what you are doing; and how we run along with you as you are going, so that we do not lose those younger and newer audiences that are coming up. These are the challenges that Focus has to rise up to.

I think Focus is trying a bit online, but we could do more to reach out to those newer audiences, especially people who access their news using their telephones. So that is a really big challenge and if we do not rise up to that challenge, it will be to our own peril and it will be a problem for us.

ART: What about the programming itself in terms of its diversity, and making sure that the programme content meets the needs of the growing young population in Africa. Do you get a sense that Focus on Africa will evolve and change to meet the requirements of young people in Africa?

HASSAN: It is a challenge we are reminded of very often by people higher up in the organisation and in the Africa service. It is a challenge, and we could do more to meet this challenge. Some days I am not so sure, but we are trying our very best. It is also a time when we have lost reporters. We used to have an extensive network of reporters on the ground across Africa and we have lost them. We have just a few now, so it is a real challenge and it is something we are battling with to come up with answers, and we do not have a clear answer but we are working on it.

ART: There is no doubt that Focus on Africa, BBC Africa is doing a wonderful job in Africa, and as I said earlier on in my opening that, pre 1960 before Focus on Africa was established, Africa was the most misinterpreted, least understood and possibly most misquoted and misinterpreted continent on earth. But then came Focus on Africa that gives a powerful voice to the people of Africa to tell their own stories through wonderful presenters such as yourself. And I can only say that Focus on Africa will go from strength to strength, building on the very strong foundation that the early presenters, had established. And of course, yourselves, taking on the baton and moving the program forward to probably the most listened radio programme in Africa, probably alongside your sister program ‘Network Africa, which I listen to almost daily.

So yes, Hassan Arouni, this has been a fascinating discussion; and as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of BBC Focus on Africa, once again, I want to say congratulations to you and all the presenters on the programme for a wonderful job that you are all doing; and I wish you all the best and I hope that the program will go from strength to strength.

HASSAN: Thank you for the opportunity Abdul and thank you for the privilege, and I hope people who go online and read the Sierra Leone Telegraph. Also, remember to check us online on ‘bbcfocusonafrica at 60’ and we have quite a few of the programs that we have been running online. But thank you for your time and you too, keep up the good job.

ART: Thank you very much Hassan Arouni and speak to you soon.

 

4 Comments

  1. Congrats to BBC Focus on Africa on turning 60. With the well known signature tune, Focus has been instumental in bringing the news to Africa. People in Sierra Leone are always huddled around their radios about 5pm to hear the latest news from Focus. During times of crisis in Sierra Leone, Focus is a reliable source of information.

    The presidential debate 2018 in Sierra Leone was moderated very well by Hassan Arouni. I cannot think of anyone else who could have done it. Like the late Gipu Felix-George, they both have voices which are a treat for radio listeners. Mr Arouni, please continue to fly the flag for our country.

  2. Every Sierra Leonean should be proud of Hilton Fyle , Hassan Arouni and Josephine Hazeley for the wonderful job they have and continue to do by representing our nation in most the respected Broadcasting ( BBC) organization around the world. All of them have their unique voices but the same unique Sierra Leonean accent that is admired and respected around the world. I personally believe that they played a major role to classify Sierra Leoneans with the Highest IQ or most intelligent people in Africa. Hassan Arouni will always go down in history as the first journalist to transform our democracy by the fair and balanced 2018 Presidential debate that he conducted. May the Almighty continue to bless you for flying our flag around the world.

  3. Great interview Abdul Rashid Thomas. I’m glad I had the opportunity of tapping into his long broadcasting expertise whilst I was doing my internship with the BBC Media Action Sierra Leone office. Thanks so much for sharing his story. It gladdens my heart. Love you boss #HassanArouni

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