Media Get Caught in Liberia's Electoral Political Unrest

Nov 32011

Roberts International Airport in Paynesville, Liberia

Many qualified journalists have left the country for better pastures. For those who remain, the challenge is to make it worth their while to stay. Clearly, my work as a Knight International Journalism Fellow was cut out for me.

This country requires a thorough and sustained effort to train and encourage journalists and media owners alike to adopt ethical, conflict-sensitive and accurate journalism practices, and to build sustainable media businesses. After all, this is a nation that, for nearly 15 years and up until 2003, had been engulfed in the worst of human conflicts.

Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, is divided into northern, central and southern sections.

The incumbent, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize just a week before the October general elections. The presumed winner, she pledges to continue improving the nation’s lot by creating 20,000 new jobs if re-elected. But the election has been turbulent. Her opponent withdrew dramatically from the second election round on November 8th. Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) candidate William Tubman and his popular Vice President George Weah claimed the first round of the vote was rigged and demanded the resignation of the National Elections Commission (NEC) president.

Despite the replacement of the NEC president, apparently for unrelated reasons, Tubman appealed to his supporters to boycott the election. What followed, on the eve of the run-off election, was a tragic rally during which at least three CDC supporters were reportedly killed at the party’s headquarters in Congo Town, Monrovia. According to UN officials, at least 11 people were injured. Hospital officials say seven were shot.

Sirleaf went to the second round of the election as the presumed winner, but the consequences of the violence are still hard to assess. And the media has not been spared from attacks in the 2011 election campaign season. Some journalists and media outlets, including the popular radio station Love FM/TV and the Liberian Journal newspaper, suffered arson attacks. Several journalists also claim to have received death threats. The media is being targeted possibly because some sympathizers of the various political parties are paying attention to the various threats made by their leaders, including CDC members and Prince Johnson’s followers. A sympathizer of Sirleaf’s UP party is, however, a suspect in the attack on Love FM/TV.

Fortunately for Liberia, many non-governmental organizations, both international and domestic, are active on the ground, working to strengthen journalists and media outlets. It is challenging work, and I am happy to be among them. I conducted pre-election media training of debate moderators, and a national Media Ethics and Conflict Sensitive Reporting conference, along with our partners, The Press Union of Liberia and IREX during the month of September. Training and mock presidential debates were conducted near Monrovia. Our work here is a key element of UNESCO's recent investment in media development in the Mano River region of West Africa, with Liberia chosen as the case study. Clearly, Liberians appreciate the value of a peaceful election process and the free press that helps to sustain it. But there is a long way to go.

Editor's note: Luisa Handem Piette is a Knight International Journalism Fellow working in Liberia to improve election coverage and create commercially viable radio stations.