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

In Liberia, needy media strained to cover election campaign

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)
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 [email protected].