How do you rebuild a country from scratch? First you need a government. Liberia, so far, has that under the leadership of President Ellen “Irony Lady” Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state.
Second, especially in the case of a country that has been at civil war for over a decade, you need security. Without security you can’t build infrastructure and without roads, telephone lines, and electricity, businesses won’t start up, hospitals can’t function, and government agencies are useless.
So far Liberia does not have its own stable security forces, which is why the United Nations still has nearly 15,000 UN peacekeepers throughout the country. (Details about where they are from here.) Today Liberian National Police officers are unarmed. The Liberian police say that they can’t do their job well because they don’t have guns. The United Nations Mission in Liberia, on the other hand, says that they don’t do their jobs well and so they shouldn’t have guns. Just three days ago, 139 members of Liberia’s “Emergency Response Unit” were given handguns and AK-47’s. Other than the SSS (Liberia’s version of the Secret Service), no other Liberian group is currently allowed to carry arms. This story from a member of the United Nations Mission in Liberia hels explain why:
Developing Liberia’s national media is key to 1.) promoting democracy, 2.) promoting national identity, and 3.) fighting corruption. We have been visiting all the different players involved in Liberia’s media development. First stop was the Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism (giving a new meaning to ICT). Entering the decrepit building I was asking myself why a single ministry should be in charge of both information and tourism. Upon our exit I was left wondering why the ministry should exist at all.
Dr. Lawrence Bropleh, Minister of Information, Liberia
Throughout our meeting with Lawrence Bropleh we were interrupted by calls on one or another of his five cell phones. You might think that this is because Dr. Bropleh, a former reverend in New York City, is hard at work with Liberian officials and members of the press. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case. Here was one of his more incredible exchanges:
The minister was not a happy camper when Vanessa tried her best to get him to tell us how much he made:Of course, in the United States (and in most democracies) this is public information, but Minister Blopleh wasn’t willing to spill the beans. The Ministry of Information is a British relic from the early 20th century – specifically during WWI and WWII. It was meant to serve as the government mouthpiece and distribute pro-government propaganda. Which would be fine, except that President Johnson-Sirleaf already has her own Press Secretary who does a pretty impressive job managing Liberia’s “eMansion“. The website of the Ministry of Information, on the other hand, is an empty vessel. Throughout our visit with the minister I wanted to ask, ‘well, just what is it that you guys do?’ but it was obvious that we were already quickly wearing out our welcome.
If Blopleh is doing little in terms of information, he is doing far less with tourism, an industry with big potential here. (Liberia has nothing like what Sierra Leone has done.) He admitted that little has been done in terms of promoting tourism in Liberia, but says that he doesn’t have the resources. I think he just as too many cell phones.
Our next stop was at the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), which has recently been in the media here for fining five of their members for ethical misconduct and for accepting $100,000 from the Liberian government.
The Press Union, representing the interests of Liberian journalists, is concerned that they do not have the resources to do their jobs well. Most media outlets here hardly have enough money to buy the diesel to keep their generators going. So when a big story happens across town, most journalists don’t have the cash to take a cab there to cover the story. When NGO’s call press conferences it has become the unwritten rule that they pay the journalists’ cab fare and provide them with food. Similarly, when business leaders and government officials want favorable coverage, one would imagine that it doesn’t take much money to buy it.
The problems facing media outlets around the world are even more severe here: lack of advertisers, rising energy costs, unstable readership. And, of course, as we saw in the video with the United Nations official, it is still dangerous to report on many stories.
The leadership of the Press Union was straightforward with us about the frequent lack of professionalism in Liberian journalism, but said that this is a direct result of journalists having so few resources. With the money from the Liberian government they say that they will hold free journalism training programs for their members, but they couldn’t offer many specifics about what exactly would be covered in the workshops.
Finally, we ended our big media tour on a high note at the Liberian Media Center, a young and ambitious NGO filled with young and ambitious reporters and new media enthusiasts. This is where I will be focusing most of my attention over the next couple days because I think these guys are leading the future of journalism in Liberia. Like the Press Union of Liberia, they hold training workshops with local journalists, but unlike they Press Union, they have lots to show for their work. They are also hungry to learn more about new media and reaching out to an international audience. They understand that the market for Liberian journalism right now, sadly, is outside of Liberia (in the diaspora and among those with a general interest in West Africa and peacebuilding).
Tomorrow I’m looking forward to seeing Boakai once again at the offices of AllAfrica.com and on Friday and Saturday I’m very much looking forward to working with the Liberian Media Center. Hopefully over the next three days we’ll be seeing many more Liberian bloggers.