Justice Goes Prime Time in Sierra Leone

Set back by years of civil war, Sierra Leone’s justice system remains a work in progress, with only a handful of qualified lawyers and many remote communities largely unable to benefit from the formal systems of civil and criminal justice.

For the past six years, the Freetown-based NGO AdvocAid has been working to make justice more accessible to ordinary people. Working from the central principle that it’s hard to demand respect for rights you don’t know you have, AdvocAid concentrates on raising popular awareness of legal rights. The group has gotten the word out through booklets, cartoons, posters, radio dramas, and organizing “street law” clinics with law students.

Now, they’ve gone a step further. In partnership with a local production company and the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Company, they’ve created Police Case, a prime time police drama—a kind of “Freetown PD Blue”—that emphasizes the rights of suspects.

We asked Sabrina Mahtani, executive director of AdvocAid, to talk about the project, which is being supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

Justice reform through prime time television seems wonderfully unorthodox. What made you choose television?

I grew up very aware of the power that television and drama have to captivate and convey messages. As a child I would watch Bollywood movies with my grandmother or the weekly “Play for Today,” a televised play on various topics produced by the Lusaka Theatre in Zambia, where I am from. Sierra Leone’s own film industry is resurgent right now and many Sierra Leoneans are already watching Nigerian films—which tend to be long on gender-based violence and gender stereotypes and usually short on positive messages.

We wanted to harness this appetite for visual stories and use it to enhance legal rights awareness and to create a conversation concerning justice reform.

Is there anything else like it on Sierra Leonean TV?

Unfortunately not. There are hardly any Sierra Leonean television dramas. Most of what you can see on television is dubbed versions of series from China or Brazil. We were fortunate to have the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation partner with us on this project. They’re limited in what they’re able to develop, but I think they recognized the importance and potential of this venture. And in this case, the partnership offered a real opportunity. 

I would think the series hopes to educate and entertain at the same time. How are the story lines for the episodes developed?

The stories are based on real life stories of women that AdvocAid has encountered through its work. We have developed the story lines with input from former prisoners, sex workers, and law students. AdvocAid’s Legal Officer, Simitie Lavaly, also provided technical input. Our script writer, Jonathan Bundu, has written lots of scripts for organisations such as Amnesty or Search for Common Ground and is able to create interesting story lines and lots of funny one liners.

There seems to be a strong focus on women's stories. Why that emphasis?

AdvocAid’s focus is providing access to justice and strengthened rights for girls and women in conflict with the law. While we hope the series will educate the wider population about their legal rights, we also want to use the series to highlight some of the reasons that women come into conflict with the law—reasons often linked to poverty, abuse, or other circumstances that leave them vulnerable. For example, the lead character, Adama, has endured a history of domestic violence. We want to start challenging assumptions that all people in conflict with the law are “bad” and highlight the need for prevention and protection programs.

Broadly speaking, what are some of the most pressing issues facing women in Sierra Leone and how does the show handle them?

Just 4 years ago, Sierra Leone was assessed as the worst place to be a woman in Africa. Things have improved but women still face many challenges, with high rates of gender based violence, illiteracy, and difficulties accessing justice. We cannot address all these issues in one series—we would love funding for a 2nd series!—but we do highlight domestic violence, and the importance of women's economic empowerment and access to justice. For example, one woman in the series is a market woman who is arrested for owing money, a practice AdvocAid often comes across and which significantly harms women's role as economic actors and providers for their families. The series also aims to provide the public with positive female role models, including a female paralegal and lawyer. Simply portraying the courage of the detained women themselves sends a positive message, as well.

Who is the production team for the series?

The drama is proudly an all Sierra Leonean production. We are working with an upcoming Sierra Leonean multimedia company, Concept Multimedia. The director of photography and editor, Idriss Kpange, has worked on several documentary films, including Lost Freetown, as well as educational dramas. Concept Multimedia also has a recording studio and they have recorded a catchy title track, theme song, and lively sound track for the drama.

Is the series shot using real locations? I imagine you'd want the details to feel right…

We’ve been fortunate to have the support of the Sierra Leone Police, who have allowed us to film in Central Police Station, the main police station in Freetown. It has made a real difference to the authentic feel of the series. We’ve tried to avoid shooting scenes on stages and have used typical locations all over Freetown, including “ghetto” scenes.

Any behind-the-scenes production adventures you can share?

On the first day of shooting, Idriss Kpange, the director of photography, rode into Central Police Station on the back of a motor bike taxi (an “occada”). He pulled off his helmet as they entered the police compound and was promptly arrested by a junior police officer for “not wearing a helmet.” Luckily, as he knew his rights, he drew the matter to the attention of the Officer in Charge who promptly ensured he was released!

Fantastic. You should make that into a promo clip. Where will the episodes be broadcast?

The episodes are currently being broadcast on the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation.

Are you also planning other outreach with the series?

After each episode, there is a live call-in discussion with a varied panel including police, AdvocAid lawyers, the justice reform NGO Timap for Justice, and the Anti-Corruption Commission. Just last week we received 40 calls and 96 text messages in 30 minutes! There is a great need for legal advice.

We plan to use our Facebook page to post answers to questions and share other legal education materials.

We also plan to create a DVD of the series and distribute these to other civil society organisations and schools to use in community education programs.

There is a human rights film festival, Opin Yu Yi/ Open Your Eyes, which happens annually and we hope that Police Case will be screened during the festival.

Funding dependent, we hope to host other screenings and discussions in other communities and in Sierra Leone’s more rural provinces, as well.

What has the reaction been so far from audiences?

We’ve had a really positive reaction so far. We’ve had lots of call and texts during the live call-in discussions. Lots of people have come to our office in need of legal assistance. We have been able to assist some and refer others.

The series has already taken on a life in the popular imagination, too. We keep hearing people talking about it—especially the notorious “bad cop” Take Breeze.

How about from police?

The police have been very positive. The Inspector General of Police actually launched the series during an event we had at the British Council. During the last live call-in discussion, the police’s media spokesperson said that he was glad the series was not only educating the public but also highlighting areas of bad policing which need to be changed.

The series is quite balanced. One of the main characters is LUC Banguara, who truly believes that the police can be “a force for good”—the motto of the Sierra Leonean police—and wants his police station to be a role model.

Any chance those of us outside Sierra Leone will get to see an episode?

We hope to eventually upload the series to the internet and also share the series on other available platforms, such as film festivals or even African Magic channel.

Police Case airs every Thursday at 10pm on Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) Channel 1 and is followed by a live call in discussion. A repeat of the program airs every Sunday at 8pm on SLBC Channel 2.

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This is a terrific effort -- keep up the good work. We can never over-estimate the power of stories to teach.

Connie Freeman

Police mandate should be helping people solve their problems of conflicts and disputes by authoritative,lawful interventions and not "fighting"crime,only then will they respect people's rights;mere knowledge of law has not saved a citizen from police atrocity.

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