Following 14 years of devastating civil war and a brutal dictatorship, the media in the West African state of Liberia, like the rest of the country, has begun the tedious process of recovery.
Since the dictatorial regime of Charles Taylor fell from power in August 2003, Liberian journalists have been enjoying a level of freedom inconceivable under the rule of the rebel leader turned-president of Liberia. There is a multiplicity of independent news outlets. According to an official of the Ministry of Information, the primary agency responsible for media affairs, this spring there were 32 radio stations, 31 newspapers, and three television stations. The list has been expanding since then. A notable aspect of this new era is that the media, like the general public, have been free to openly criticize public officials, including the interim head of state of the power-sharing transitional government, without retribution.
A statement made in June by the Press Union of Liberia, the national journalists’ organization that advocates for press freedom and democratic governance in Liberia, celebrated this milestone change: “A new day is dawning on the media horizon in Liberia. Since the ushering in of the National Transitional Government … last year , the media have breathed a sigh of relief; no journalist has been jailed, and we are happy that people whose feelings are ruffled by the newspapers and other media outlets are now taking a recourse to the law, instead of brutalizing journalists.”
This statement was made at the convention of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA), an organization founded by Liberian journalists living in exile to continue to advocate for press freedom and democracy in Liberia. ALJA members are mostly members of the Press Union of Liberia forced to flee their country due to the war and suppression of press freedom. Both organizations champion the cause of democratic governance in a country long dominated by misrule and dictators.
Along with its statement, the Press Union provided an assessment of the media situation after the cessation of hostilities in August 2003. This assessment “showed that media institutions were massively looted by combatants during the fighting. Computers, vehicles and other equipment were carted away, leaving newspaper houses and radio stations in a deplorable state. At the moment, media institutions have diverted their attention from developing their institutions to concentrate on replacing what was lost.”
Despite these difficulties, the Press Union attributes the large number of functioning news organizations to a relaxation of registration requirements by the transitional government. This reflects of the growing sense of security, freedom and peace within Liberian society—thanks to the presence of the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world. As a result, thousands of Liberian refugees in neighboring countries are returning home along with a growing number of others from countries throughout the world.
Philip Wesseh, managing editor of The Inquirer, goes through the remains of the newspaper’s building after a bombing in 1996. Photo by Gregory H. Stemn.
Journalism in the Aftermath of War
After more than 10 years in exile in the United States, I went back to Liberia on April 21, 2004, less than a week after U.N. peacekeepers began the disarmament and demobilization of the armed factions. I had been in Liberia during the first four years of the war and served as leader of the Press Union and managing editor of The Inquirer, the nation’s leading independent daily. I fled the country in late 1993 due to death threats from some factions because of my work as a journalist, and this trip back was meant to help me understand the circumstances the media confronted now that the war was over.
As I stepped off the plane at the ruined Roberts International Airport that hot, sunny afternoon and traveled 35 miles to the capital of Monrovia, I felt depressed and horrified by the sight of such widespread destruction. I was seeing my country broken, but as I settled in I could see signs that Liberia is getting back on course. Monrovia and its environs were peaceful and gun-free, with only the on-duty U.N. peacekeepers armed. I visited offices of media outlets and held meetings with various national leaders, including those in the Press Union and news organizations. I was also received in audience by Liberia’s transitional head of state, Gyude Bryant, and some of the representatives of the international community in the country.
From these meetings, it became clear there were widespread concerns regarding what was seen as a serious decline in professional standards in the media. I found this to be true when I saw firsthand some of the conditions under which media offices were then operating. From watching how they operated and reading what they published, it was obvious that most of the news organizations were substandard. This was attributed to two key factors:
Like every sector of Liberian society, journalism suffered a massive brain drain due to the exodus of people during this time of war and repression.
Most of the current journalists practicing in the country have had little or no training or educational programs available to them during the years of war, leaving them unprepared to perform effectively.
Most media outlets emerging from the ruinous war are operating in cramped and poorly ventilated spaces with few computers and other equipment to work with. Only a few journalists are fortunate to receive regular paychecks. In a country where there is no electricity for general public consumption because the hydroelectric dam and other generating facilities were completely destroyed, businesses (including newspapers and other news outlets) have to purchase electricity from private generator owners. This is expensive, and service can be erratic. Most generator owners, like the single major printing press operating in Liberia, demand payment in U.S. dollars for their services, even though the news organizations’ revenues are in Liberian dollars, which is very low in value when compared with the U.S. dollar.
Compounding the precarious financial state of media organizations has been the very limited availability of advertisements. Given that few businesses were able to operate during the years of war, they are not there now to help commercially sustain independent news organizations. The war meant that Liberia’s economy virtually collapsed, leaving a massive criminal enterprise in its place and causing unemployment to climb to an estimated 80 percent. Widespread poverty results, too, in a serious decline in circulation of newspapers, since there is a limited number of people who can afford to purchase the publications. Added to these problems is the high cost of printing at the only primary commercial printing house that remained operational through the war.
Restoring Liberia’s Media
To restore the Liberian media to its prewar level and to ensure progress, the following recommendations, among others, should be implemented:
Training: Intense short and long-term training programs are needed to improve the professional skills of reporters and editors. Emphasis must be placed on training in computer and information technology. Information technology development must be an integral part of the rebuilding process of the Libe-rian media. There must be training programs, too, for those working in the administrative, business and advertising sectors of the media. To improve the working conditions for journalists and the quality of what journalists publish and broadcast, there is a very urgent need for the United Nations and the international community—particularly organizations that support press freedom—to assist the Liberian media through the provision of financial and material resources dedicated to improving training opportunities.
Education: The Mass Communications Department at the University of Liberia must receive adequate support in terms of instructional manpower and resources to ensure that students pursuing a degree are well trained. The department should resume its two-year certificate program that existed before the war but was interrupted.
Printing Facilities: More sophisticated printing facilities are needed to improve the print quality of the newspapers and other publications and reduce the high cost and other burdens of printing.
Civil Society: Mindful that a free, vibrant media is crucial to the existence of a peaceful democratic society, it is important that media safeguards and supports be included in Liberia’s two-year reconstruction program under the auspices of the United Nations. And to encourage Liberian professionals and entrepreneurs who fled the civil crises to return at a time the literacy rate in the country is estimated to be a shocking 15 percent, the United Nations should seriously consider implementing a resettlement program. Indications are that most of the trained journalists who fled Liberia would return and get involved in the process of rebuilding when they know they can sustain their families.
Government Roles: The Ministry of Information, the Press Union of Liberia, and independent media in Liberia need to work together in finding solutions to problems affecting the media. The current Minister of Information, C. William Allen, who is former editor in chief of the independent Footprints Today newspaper and president of the Press Union of Liberia, has demonstrated his commitment to press freedom. Under his leadership, opportunity exists to transform this ministry from an instrument of state repression that enforced antimedia laws to an agency promoting press freedom. Its relaxation of media registration regulations is commendable. However, after Allen or the transitional government leaves office, those who take over could decide to reinforce the repressive laws and regulations. Accordingly, the Liberian media and international media advocacy groups must work with the current information ministry to change the country’s antipress laws and regulations.
Before the war, the independent Liberian media was regarded to be one of the most vibrant in West Africa. As Liberia prepares for presidential and general elections in October 2005, efforts must begin now to enable journalists to report and publish news of these changes in Liberia so people will better appreciate the fragile gift of democracy.
Gabriel I.H. Williams is the author of “Liberia: The Heart of Darkness: Accounts of Liberia’s Civil War and its Destabilizing Effects in West Africa.” He lives in the United States and is an executive member of the Mano River Media Forum (MARIFO), an organization seeking to improve the practice of journalism in the Mano River subregion, which includes Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.