Liberia Media Environment

 

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  Media Environment and Regulation in Liberia

Liberia’s media environment is expanding even as it struggles with economic and political constraints. The number of registered newspapers and radio stations (many of them community stations) is on the rise despite limited market potential. Meanwhile, politically critical content and investigative pieces do get published or broadcast, but the press remains subject to intimidation and harassment by government bodies.

In 2009, Liberia’s Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding documented a number of incidents in which critical publications were banned and reporters were assaulted by government officials, including police and elected politicians. In two separate instances in 2009, the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf effectively banned the newspapers the New Broom, Bi-Lingual and the Plain Truth by ordering all commercial printing houses not to print them. In both instances, the government failed to press charges against the publications before invoking the ban. [1] Liberia’s 1986 Constitution guarantees a citizen the right of free expression but makes them “fully responsible for the abuse thereof.”

Liberia has not fared well in a number of global indexes examining media freedom and transparency. The international human rights NGO Freedom House classified Liberia in 2010 as “Partly Free”, citing legislative constraints on freedom, incidents of extralegal behavior by government officials and an economic environment that limits the ability of outlets to perform investigative journalism. The NGO Reporters Sans Frontieres ranked Liberia 62nd out of 175 countries in its 2009 Press Freedom Index, down from 51st in 2008. [2]

FOIA Progress

On a positive note, Liberia passed a new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 2008, though it took the National Legislature more than a year to enact it. The FOIA followed public pressure from a large coalition of journalists and domestic and international media organizations known as the Liberia Media Law and Policy Reform Working Group. [3]

In principle, the FOIA empowers journalists and civil society to uncover corruption. In addition, the legislation can be used to gain greater information about development processes, including the implementation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy and County Development Agendas. Other pieces of legislation drafted and proposed by the Media Reform Working Group include an act stipulating the establishment of an independent broadcast regulator and another establishing a national public broadcasting service that would replace the current ELBC.

Economic Challenges

The country’s widespread poverty challenges the sustainability of media outlets in a number of ways, most notably by limiting revenue potential from sales and making media outlets dependent on a small number of potential advertisers. While these conditions affect both newspapers and radio stations (television’s presence in Liberia is limited), they are particularly hard on newspapers.

Papers are also at the mercy of the small number of printing houses in Greater Monrovia, which keeps printing costs high and offers papers little flexibility in the timing and size of print runs. Newspapers’ constrained finances have limits reporters' salaries, which have led to low quality content and a high risk of journalists accepting payment from outside parties for writing certain types of stories. According to the human rights NGO Freedom House, journalists commonly accept payment from individuals covered in their stories, and the placement of a story in a paper or radio show can often be bought by outside interests. [4]

Moreover, media outlets are prone to high attrition rates and are forced to hire low-skilled staff. In addition, the relatively low salaries offered in the media sector has failed to attract the highly educated. Research by the Liberia Media Center found that only about 20 percent of employees in print media and 10 percent in broadcast media (editors, reporters, managers, accountants, business managers, etc.) are college graduates. Nearly a third of print media workers held a secondary diploma, versus only 12 percent of radio staff.

In a recent media content study by the Liberia Media Center, researchers found that a large majority of the news published by either newspapers or radio outlets was either event- or interview-focused. Less than five percent of the news stories published during the time period studied could be qualified as investigative reporting. [5]

Another shared difficulty between newsprint and radio outlets has been business management. Most newspapers in Liberia are owned by a single proprietor instead of larger media houses, and the owners are often journalists themselves who lack management training.

 

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The same can be said for Liberia’s many rural community radio stations. A large majority of these stations have a specific public service mandate, where they often do not see themselves as businesses needing to raise money. While some stations raise revenue through advertising, the primary funding source continues to be external donors, whether through grants or the provision of development-focused programming. [6]

Improved and more extensive training in business management and investigative journalism has been a longtime recommendation for improving the sustainability and effectiveness of the news media. A significant number of domestic and international organizations and foundations continue to support the establishment of and training. However, there has been criticism about a lack of coordination among media development organizations and a lack of focus on the long term. [7]

In 2009, the U.S.-based Center for International Media Assistance  held a roundtable with media development practitioners examining the successes and failures of media assistance in Liberia. Here  you can find a summarized report of the event’s findings. IREX, the International Research and Exchanges Board, began in the spring of 2010 a five-year media assistance program that seeks to address and remedy many of the past criticisms of media development projects mentioned in the CIMA report and of other organizations. See a brief profile of the project below.

 

 


 

[1] "Intimidation: The Renewal of Censorship in Liberia Attack on Freedom of Expression 2009”. Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding. February 2010. Monrovia, Liberia. Accessed May 2010. http://www.cemesp-liberia.org/CEMESP-Publication-2010Feb.pdf.

[2] “Press Freedom Index 2009”. Reporters Sans Frontieres. Paris, France. Accessed May 2010. http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2009,1001.html.

[3] "Liberia media present new laws to legislators". International Media Support. 18 April 2008. Denmark. Accessed May 2010. http://www.i-m-s.dk/article/liberia-media-present-new-laws-legislators.

[4] “Freedom of the Press 2009: Liberia”. Freedom House. Washington, D.C. Accessed May 2010. http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=251&year=2009.

[5] “Strengthened Media for Poverty and Democratic Governance”. Liberia Media Center. Monrovia, Liberia. Accessed http://liberiamediacenter.net/2009/05/lmc-releases-report-on-media-coverage-of-liberia%E2%80%99s-poverty-reduction-strategy/.

[6] “Strengthening Liberia’s Media: A review of media support in the post-conflict transitional period and recommendations for future actions”. International Media Support. Copenhagen, Denmark. 2007. Accessed April 2010. http://www.i-m-s.dk/files/publications/Liberia_webfinal%201202-2007.pdf.

[7] Ibid. and “Special Report: Support for Independent Media in Liberia’s New Democracy”. Center for International Media Assistance. Event 17 February 2009. Washington, DC. Accessed April 2010. http://cima.ned.org/696/media-in-liberia.html