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The “Bad” Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden I Know

The “Bad” Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden I Know

It was in the afternoon on a Monday and I was very very busy reading the stories that have been brought in by my reporters for the next day publication. That of course meant I was too deep into my job and my telephone rang. I briefly look at the telephone to know who was calling and it was a strange number. I wanted to refuse to pick up the call but two things prompted me to pick it up; the first one was the way that particular number was arranged. The number was serially placed (for example 6789) and the next one was I am used to getting late breaking news before I go to press and I was expecting one of them has just breezed in. I was the Editor–in-Chief of the Sierra Express Newspaper. A friend, Adeyemi Paul, had just spotted me on the internet and asked me to head his newspaper in Freetown when I was in Guinea.  (Photo: Dr Sylvia Blyden, Publisher,  Awareness Times)

When I picked up the call, it was a sweet but very strong woman’s voice that asked if I am the Sitta Turay. I was not sure what the question was leading to and I am not used to answering questions of that nature no sooner they are asked. On that day, it was different; I am still trying to make up what prompted me to answer the question immediately it was asked. I followed through several questions that were asked and immediately agreed with the person on the other side without putting up my usual stiff resistance. I did not even start an argument to know the reason the other side has decided to intervene in my editorial policy.

That person on the phone that day was no one else but Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, the publisher of Awareness Times Newspapers. She was strongly intervening and asking me to do a retraction on a story that I published the previous day. Although I knew my story was true and I had recorded video and audio evidences on the story; for humanity sake, I agreed to do the retraction on the next publication. That was the first time I ever had an official conversation with Dr Blyden and it was the birth of a very close relationship that developed into becoming one  Editors of the Awareness Times newspaper.

Few months later, Dr. Blyden called me from her sick bed in a hospital and asked me if I can be contracted as Editor of her Newspaper. I answered in the positive although I had some reservations. My fear was I had got some discouraging experience and I preferred not to work for any media house but instead be a freelance investigative journalist. The young man that owns Sierra Express had exerted so much effort in that newspaper but the one he left in charge were opposed to the progress of the newspaper. That pissed me off and therefore scared me away from local media houses.  Sylvia was able to convince me and I agreed whole-heartedly to join her Editorial team. In her office on the day before I start my job, she told me one thing that remained in my mind that is always telling me the kind of journalist Sylvia Blyden is; she said “if you know you shall be bias as an editor please let us don’t work together. My media is an investigative one so you have to be very sure of your publications”. After that she went ahead to introduce me to rest of the staff in the office. On that day Sylvia made me to be more committed to my work as a journalist as she told the workers my decision in that office is always final.

As far as my experience with Olayinka is concerned, she is a woman leader. A leader that is more assertive and persuasive. She has a stronger need to get things done and always willing to take risks than male leaders I have been meeting all my life. I found Dr. Blyden to be more empathetic and flexible, as well as stronger in interpersonal skills than any male counterpart. That is enabling her to read situations accurately and take information in from all sides. She is a kind of leader that is able to bring others around to her point of view… because she genuinely understands and care about where others are coming from….so much so that the people she deals with feel more understood, supported and valued. Sylvia will not joke about her job and stories that are posted on her newspaper. She will always come down very tough on anyone that will tend to smash up people’s image.

The thrilling character of this young lady is how she puts her stories together. She is not like some of us journalists that will burn lots of calories in the hot burning sun to investigate stories…. Nope!!!  She is not!!! She has a strategic way of placing her informants and sits in her office monitoring those informants minute by minute and in the process informing the informants about their safety. Let me make it clear, she has a counter -intelligence apparatus that she operates to get “cogent” information with documents and most of the times with video footages. When she sends an investigator on any ground, she sends another person to guard that investigator and most of the times the investigator will not know that guard. With all those intelligence system she is operating, Sylvia will never publish a story without exhausting all sides. She always prefers keeping a story for months until she gets the response from all the sides in that particular story. She will never stop at the video footages and documents she has but reach the concerned persons either in person or on telephone.

I understand the politics of a newsroom all too well. That was the reason when I worked for the New Storm Newspaper I pretended in totality not to know anything. It earned me so much because I realized and experienced the Politics of a newsroom. I can pretend very well and my colleagues at the New Storm will agree with me on that. But I always knew that, a leader can discourage it or encourage it. One can operate with what has become known as creative tension or can let it be known that playing politics in the newsroom will get you absolutely nowhere. I did my best to practice the latter. At the Awareness Times, my peak of contention came when a member of the Editorial Team thought he will sabotage my work and insist he is the Editor of the Newspapers. When that happened, I thought to myself,  do people who work with you feel they have to work as long and hard as you do to keep from falling out of favor?  This particular guy was the acting editor of the newspaper before my arrival and he has always been assuming the same even when I have been introduced to him as the new Editor. For that reason he decided to be a saboteur to my existence in the office. The guy was always trying to move my work backwards and I called him one day and I told him, “I may be the wrong person at the Awareness Times for this moment, yet I have been contracted to head the Editorial Team”. Before Sylvia could give stern warning to the guy, the newsroom was always tense. The young folks do not like to search for exclusive stories and I do not believe in “ready-made” stories that are most of the times brought in from press conferences. I always insisted on other kinds of stories and created some kind of panic among the young reporters.  Some did not like my existence but there were those that wanted to learn the job (journalism) that obeyed the stringent rules I put in place. Because of the silent revolt among the young reporters I used my former connections outside the Awareness Times to collect news. These young reporters at Awareness Times did not know that there were tens of reporters that always wanted to work for me. I was quick to identify reporters that were implanted on Sylvia . I never told Sylvia about there existence in the office but I called these “spy reporters” and reveal to them what I knew about them. That worked because these “spy reporters always thought I have told Sylvia about their existence in the office and they left or did some awkward things that Sylvia fired them.

Awareness Times for me was a kind of institution that is filled with several things; Politics, Human Rights, Social Advocacies, Women’s right, Children’s Right and most of all Media business. There is not a department that was easy to handle and I was expected to have control over everything. The task was daunting but I had to live up to the expectations vested in me.  What made it more difficult was that, no sooner I assumed office, Sylvia traveled to the United Kingdom. I was left with the whole task of handling the media house. That was difficult because workers thought they will have a field day after the departure of Sylvia. That never happened; I instead implemented harder rules than Sylvia so much so that, at a time they prayed for the quick return of Sylvia. An interesting day arrived when a quick intelligence was revealed to me that some APC thugs were about to raid the office. Before the intelligence popped in; nasty letters were dropped at the office by anonymous persons threatening to kill everyone in the office. Anonymous telephone calls came in daily. But that day was exceptional, as my intelligence was damn serious about the attack. I quickly did what I was supposed to do and left the office without alerting other workers. Little did I knew that the guys in the office observed my way of doing things that day and also left the office immediately I did. One of the editors refused to return to the office since that day and refused to practice journalism even when he is a qualified journalist. He resorted to teaching. That was an interesting occasion as we joked about it a lot.

Sylvia works long hours and many of the people around her stay because she does. I do know that in the daily news business at the Awareness Times there always will be more stories, always a chance to do it better the next day, always an opportunity to correct mistakes. That is what Sylvia will offer as a job. When the newspaper is on sale in the streets or most of the times at the post office along Siaka Stevens street, Sylvia is busy with me on the phone making corrections. That is done on every publication. She will get very angry if anything in the newspaper is untrue and unfounded. Sylvia is a kind of woman that will not hesitate to say her mind even if one is held in high esteem. She respects me a lot but that respect does not intimidate her at all. She will tell me her mind if she thinks something has gone wrong that I am supposed to have taken action. To confess, Sylvia is a “gentle giant” of her own type. As I have confessed, I failed the course on work/life balance, putting in too many hours at the office. And I knew that put pressure on those who reported to me to do the same. Even if that is a not-so-nice comment on my performance at Awareness Times, I am obliged to mention it because it shows the kind of power and charisma that is vested in Dr. Sylvia Blyden. Those who know me will surprise to read that I gave in to a person that I am far older than and most especially a woman. It is not my nature to behave the way I did at Awareness Times and with Sylvia. The only thing I did not let go was my ability to judge the results of what people do and not how many hours they stay in at the office. I worked hard to meet the pace of both the newspaper and Sylvia. Actually, most of the media houses I worked for before the Awareness Times were very slow if I can make a comparison.

There is one thing I like about this young lady, which is her passion about fellow Women. She is a Woman defender. In fact that was the reason we met as I mentioned earlier. Sylvia will not put difference if it comes to defending women. She always told me to take my time in dealing with women. Her reason was that it has been a long time Sierra Leonean women have been victimized. She insists it’s time for women to be removed from that victimization and assume POWER. Sylvia will predict the action of an event before it even takes place. There are so many things she told me will happen that came to pass. She also has the potential fire and hire workers no matter the type of worker she has. That is because of her fearlessness and frame of mind she has developed over the years in the business of journalism. That was the reason when I joined her at Awareness Times, those that knows both of us said two fearless persons have joined force. Some were even saying both us will be at the Pademba Roads prison in a week’s time. That did not happen but the Ernest Koroma government was placed on their toes. I think that was the reason they wanted to eliminate us.

After all these years, although there isn’t always the chance for a do-over for those precious moments I had at the Awareness Times, I always feel engraved in the activities of the Newspaper. I also knew that there were too many times during my short stay at the Awareness Times news business that I would have found a work reason to miss those fun-filled milestone events. The guys (male and female) at the Awareness Times made me feel good. There was a guy called Akibo-Betts who creates the fun always and will make me laugh sometimes finding it difficult to get to the seriousness of my job. They guys do respect me and it was like something coming from heaven when I came down to their level as junior workers. Although I had to decide what mix of work and play is best for me and the workers, it was always fun in the office. That’s one list of leadership behavior patterns. One can add and subtract to those office formalities offered, but if one is a leader, or aspire to be one, one should make oneself known to junior workers. That I did and I am sure the feedback Sylvia had at that time satisfied her. Don’t’ get me wrong, there were those that snitched and said bad things about me but there has not been a day Sylvia brought those things to me. She listened to everyone’s comment about the other person but will never judge that person by those comments. She has her own way to get into people’s strength and weaknesses as far as her work is concerned. All I experienced with Dr. Olayinka Sylvia Blyden was to believe in oneself and the things one is doing. Also I learnt to do my best and follow it and be faithful to what one is doing.

To be blunt, this is the “Bad” Sylvia Blyden I know.

By Umaru Sitta Turay, USA

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