Freedom of the press is a tricky issue in Liberia, as in most African countries. While it’s assumed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf played a behind-the-scenes role in the release of editor Rodney Sieh from prison, journalists still suffer threats and intimidation - and with election in October this will only increase. A lack of resources is not helping matters either. By MICHAEL KEATING.
As far back as June 2010 in steamy, rain-soaked Monrovia, I could already sense the buzz building around presidential elections scheduled for October 2011. In the coming contest – only the second presidential election since the end of the civil war – Liberians will decide whether to re-elect 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 in matters of free speech and press freedom, the profound lack of resources the Liberian media has at its disposal creates a kind of de facto censorship. Outlets cannot cover the candidates in the necessary depth and are vulnerable to the ethical lapses that often occur in media environments where survival trumps professional journalistic practice.
Watch Interview with Rodney Sieh:
Speculation on who might be a worthy contender to succeed Sirleaf is part of almost every conversation. Most educated people read several newspapers and listen to the local stations, as well as UNMil radio (the voice of the UN military mission), not to mention the BBC, VoA, and now the Chinese- and English-language news. As the election season hots up, Liberians, like voters around the world, will increasingly rely on the media to help them sort out the issues, define the platforms of the candidates and investigate the claims and counterclaims from candidates' propaganda machines.
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 year suggesting international lawyers, rather than administration officials, who saved the country from entering into seriously disadvantageous natural resources deals
Coincidentally, Tom Kamara, editor of the New Democrat, said his newspaper’s website was hit by hackers twice in May 2010. The newspaper is also battling legal action from the government threatening its existence in a libel lawsuit seeking $1 million in damages and a claim for $2 million in alleged unpaid taxes. When I asked Kamara 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 the New Democrat website, they left a message on the home page: “Your hatred feeds our power”. For Kamara, 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 most other media outlets in Monrovia would prefer to ignore.
Watch interview with Tom Kamara:
Editors like Kamara, and Rodney Sieh, of Front Page Africa, who recently returned from exile in the US, 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 did to the papers that rely on the sole newspaper printing business in town). Despite his problems with the government, Kamara has a picture of Sirleaf pinned above his press. He says he has no animosity towards her or her government, but neither does he want to sacrifice the truth in the name of some false notion of civic solidarity.
But it's not easy. Sieh was recently jailed for publishing a letter that criticised one of the country’s chief justices. It took the intervention of Sirleaf to get Sieh released in time for her speech where she could declare how proud she was that “no Liberian journalists were in prison”.
Both pay 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, experienced severe cash-flow problems last year that forced management to curtail services and cut back on staff and salaries. Star Radio management has since resigned and the station is currently off the air pending a reorganisation of its staff and its finances.
Watch Iron Ladies of Liberia on PBS:
This is a pity because in Liberia, Star Radio is one of the few trusted sources of impartial information. As often happens in post-conflict situations, 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 its 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”.
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 “chequebook 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.
This 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 in remote cities such as 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 nears, 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 proved 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. FAM
Michael Keating teaches on media and conflict at the New School University. He is also director of operations at the Centre for Peace, Democracy and Development at the McCormack Graduate School of the University of Massachusetts in Boston. An earlier version of this story appeared on the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Photo by Election Liberia.
Main photo by WhiteAfrican.