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In Liberia, needy media strained to cover election campaign

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, is up for reelection in October. (AFP)

Last week in steamy, rain-soaked Monrovia, anticipation for the World Cup aside, I could already sense the buzz building around presidential elections scheduled for October of 2011. In the coming contest—only the second presidential election since the end of the civil war—Liberians will decide whether to reelect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, for a second term. Just as the daily downpours fill the potholes that mar almost every road in Liberia, giving the illusion of a smooth passable surface, Liberia’s airwaves and newspapers will soon be filled with the political propaganda of the candidates.

While Liberia is certainly not a repressive environment compared to other countries in matters of free speech and press freedom, the profound lack of resources that the Liberian media has at its disposal creates a kind of de facto censorship. Outlets cannot cover the candidates to the depth necessary, and are vulnerable to the ethical lapses that often occur in media environments where survival trumps professional journalistic practice.

Besides talks of soccer, particularly concerns about the condition of injured Ivorian superstar Didier Drogba, speculation on who might be a worthy contender to succeed Sirleaf was part of almost every conversation my Newhouse School colleague Ken Harper and I were in. Most educated people read several newspapers, listen to the local stations as well as UNMIL radio, the voice of the U.N. military mission, as well as the BBC, VOA, and now the Chinese- and English-language news. As the election season heats up, the Liberians will increasingly rely on the media to help them sort out the issues, define the platforms of the candidates and investigate the claims and counter-claims that will be gushing forth from the propaganda machines of the candidates.

While Sirleaf may experience nothing but accolades when she travels abroad, in Monrovia she is a more controversial figure. The local media have been pounding her administration for the past several years with allegations of corruption, sexual scandals and incompetence. The Monrovia-based New Democrat newspaper ran an extended piece last week suggesting how it was international lawyers, rather than administration officials, who saved the country from entering into seriously disadvantageous natural resource deals.

Kamara (Election Liberia)

Incidentally, Tom Kamara, the editor of the New Democrat, said his newspaper’s Web site was brought down by hackers two times in the past month. The newspaper is also battling legal action from the government threatening its existence: a libel lawsuit seeking a million dollars in damages and a claim for $2 million in alleged unpaid taxes. When I asked Tom if he thought someone was trying to take him off the board, he just laughed. “They are trying to put me out of business, but I will carry on.” He said.

When the hackers damaged his Web site, they left a message on the home page: “Your hatred feeds our power.” For Tom, their fear feeds his courage. Of all the newspapers in Monrovia, the New Democrat has been relentless in its coverage of the Charles Taylor trial and revealing the details coming from the testimony that most other media outlets in Monrovia would prefer to ignore.

Editors like Tom Kamara, or Rodney Sieh, the editor of Front Page Africa who recently returned from exile in the U.S., are bringing a new style of journalism to Monrovia with good, solid reporting, extended analysis of major issues, and a certain fearlessness in dealing with entrenched power. It’s no coincidence that both papers also have their own printing presses on the premises, which prevents the authorities from easily shutting them down (as they sometimes do to the papers that rely on the sole newspaper printing business in town). Despite his problems with the government, Tom Kamara has a picture of Sirleaf pinned above his press. He says he has no animosity for her or her government, but neither does he want to sacrifice the truth in the name of some false notion of civic solidarity.

It is also the case that Kamara, as well as Sieh, pay their reporters and staff better wages than their competitors so they are able to attract the best and offer quality, independent reporting. This is unfortunately the exception rather than the norm in Liberia’s media landscape. My friends at Star Radio, for instance, are currently experiencing severe cash-flow problems that have forced management to curtail services and cut back on staff and salaries. This is a pity because in Liberia, Star Radio is one of the few trusted sources of nonbiased information. As often happens in post-conflict situation, donor fatigue sets in (in Star’s case major donors have been the Swiss foundation Hirondelle and USAID), but management is still not capable of managing their numbers. Part of the problem is a lack of advertising revenue potential but a major issue is a lack of know-how. One reporter told me that management “has forced us to become beggars.”

It is a fact that in Liberia, as in many developing countries, the media is under-resourced. Certain newspapers have sought to blackmail politicians and businesspeople, while crying foul when they are threatened with lawsuits or sanctions. These practices have allowed Sirleaf, on occasion, to dismiss critical coverage by accusing the independent media of being “checkbook journalists.” In fact, there is always speculation around town about which editors are “in the bag” with the current administration and which are fighting for the opposition, or perhaps for just some sort of positive change.

Next year, Liberian media will be the world’s witnesses and the country’s watchdog to the unfolding of a campaign that will be hard-fought and one where the interests of ordinary Liberians will hang in the balance. The capital will be saturated with advertisements, talk-show appearances and public rallies. In the countryside, however, particularly places like the remote cities of Fishtown or Harper, where there are few passable roads during the rainy season, the local population may remain starved for information. In fact, I am not sure there is one newspaper in Liberia that owns a four-wheel drive vehicle.

As the election season heats up, the threats and intimidation will likely increase, but there is a real question of whether the information needs of ordinary people can be served by journalists who are pressed by survival needs and whether such an environment can be said to be free. Democracy has proven to be a fragile and often elusive commodity in Liberia. Without a strengthened media partner in the election process, its fragility will likely be tested again.

Michael Keating teaches on media and conflict at the New School University. He is co-director of the Liberia Media Elections Project, a four-university consortium working to support independent media in Liberia in the upcoming 2011 elections, and the associate director of the Center for Democracy and Development at UMass Boston. He can be reached at michael.keating@umb.edu.

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Comments

Well, Michael i have read this piece. Much of it is in place but maybe you needed to talk to the press union cuz as secretary general of the press union i have began to look at and into the sincerity of those who feel Liberia is at the lowest edge and wanting to help. I am very much troubled at the conspiracy i now see going on in raising the problems and needs of the Liberian media to world's would be donors. There is too much we can talk about in looking back at the many wasted and sometimes siphoned donors' media development cash by the very westerners who professed to be fighting to improve the Liberia media landscape. I have seen this in projects after projects. We have records of instances where projects intended for the improvement of the Liberian media were implemented in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. I am working on a program to alert the united states and european countries where their aid dollar for the Liberian media has been going. Michael, your analysis was not bad but fell short of telling the story of the media development organizations that you and others have been dealing with whose executives are getting rich building expensive estates in Monrovia and environs. How come they are getting wealthy and the rest of the media they claim to be working for continue to be in disrepair. "In fact, there is always speculation around town about which editors are “in the bag” with the current administration and which are fighting for the opposition, or perhaps for just some sort of positive change"-I am not backing the Liberian media but this happens in USA too. As i have said to you and i repeat "Nothing for us without us" When you raise money to help Liberia please be careful how you spend it and not to have enrich a few media development executives who by all indications are you personal trusted friends. Yes there is corruption in the Liberian government and the media is not sleeping on it. But the one that really hurting us is the syndicate that you,others and few of our colleagues are doing to us. And please nothing you wrote is offensive but next time be wholistic by talking to more people and addressing the real issues. Philip A. Sandi-Secretary General PUL cell#+2316534216

Mr. Sandi presents an interesting challenge by demonstrating that even the organizations that have been created to help the Liberian media are suspicious of one another. Personally I don't think it is such a good idea to air this laundry in public but rather it should be dealt with among the organizations in question and with the interests of Liberia press freedom. I believe that all media support organizations in Liberia need to abide by certain practices and principles and that donors need to insist on transparency as they would in any other kind of project. Making accusations of this kind in a public forum doesn't help anyone.

Michael Keating June 12, 2010 11:29:35 PM ET

I do agree that we need to begin to think about strengthening the media role in elections, and being more independent and that can only happen if they have the skills and the resources to do so. Therefore, I beleive that media dvelopment organizations need to build concerted efforts and design a wholistic program to help the media by providng resources and skills.
On the other hand,is time that the Mr. Sandi realize that it does not help when one catsigates and make noise all of the time just because they feel challeng by what others are traying to accomplish in their own weak ways, has anyone complain about the christian media center and its systems of accountability, what has the PUL done for media dvelopement in Liberia, than just wait all of the time to get aided, I think is hard time that Mr. Sandi begin to take initiative for the union and liberian media, then make bla, bla, bla, all of the time with no facts, proof or any substantial evidences for statements made. In my opinion is better to think, analyze before speaking and those who have glass house should not throw stones.

florence Cooper June 16, 2010 8:28:33 AM ET

The United Nations mission in Ivory Coast reported on December 24 that international peacekeepers had met a heavily-armed group of fighters who spoke English and said they were Liberians. (To read the full story, click here). Another report posted on January 1, 2011 by world international news agency Reuters under the title "Liberian mercenaries hope for work in Ivory Coast" sited that men from a remote valley near Nimba mountain armed with machetes prepare to walk through the forest into neighbouring Ivory Coast -- to fight for anyone willing to pay them. (For more on this story, click here ). After following these reports, do you think these men were Liberians? Should the government of Liberia be held responsible? What concern could Liberians show to set out our image right? What could the government of Liberia do to stop these acts. All of these and more, please tell us what you think.
Note that comments that are inappropriate will be deleted. Please contribute your thoughts in the right manners. more info log on http://www.libwebradio.com

Mr. Sandi's comments are worthy of notice the fact that he has raised an issue that in my view is meant to cast aspersion on media development organizations who over the years months and days continue to improve the professional capacity of the Liberian media.

It would have also been fair had Mr. Sandi mentioned in his comments the many tremendous gains media develop organizations like the LMC, CEMESP and even the PUL he served as secretary general made over the years in helping to improve the standards of the local media.

while I agree that there are some bad apples in the basket, Mr. Sandi has the typical Liberian metality of being suspicious of individuals who as a result of the proper management of their earnings or meager resources,are improving their living standards. The fact that Mr. Sandi has brought his suspicion public,he is obliged to make available his evidence.

the Problem of the Liberian media over the years has been indequate logistical and financial resources, a situation that continues to make the Liberian media vulnerable to manipulations, mainly durng this time of camapign ahead of national elections this year. for instances, a lot of journalists covering the campaign are relying not on their media instituions, but politicians to pay their transport fares, perdiems and hotel bills to cover the electoral process across the Country. These are the concerns that I think Mr. Sandi should place emphasis on than making blanket allegations against media development organizations.

Low wages,uncomfortable working environments and lack of logistics are the factors affecting the media in Liberia and must be addressed as to the way forward.

I am David Targbe, news editor/acting head of news of Radio Veritas operated by the Catholic Church in Liberia.