Taking steps towards democracy and free press in Liberia
Freedom of information is an essential prerequisite for achieving democracy, reconstruction and peace-building in post-conflict societies. Information makes it possible for citizens to hold their officials accountable and to take informed decisions to ameliorate their conditions. UNESCO’s DANIDA-funded project in Liberia, implemented during 2011-2012, aims to strengthen freedom of information in the Mano River states (Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea). These countries are particularly fragile today after having suffered violent conflict, civil and political unrest over the past decade.
UNESCO aims to help this region achieve sustainable post-conflict stability within the framework of democratic governance, starting with the establishment of a fairer, more accountable and transparent media environment.
Liberia was chosen as the region’s pilot project. In 2005, Liberia ushered in a newly-elected government that heralded an optimistic new chapter for a nation that had endured 15 years of bloody civil war. During the first term of the Sirleaf administration, press freedom in Liberia noticeably improved, according to Luisa Handem Piette, UNESCO’s consultant in Monrovia.
Handem Piette, a Knight International Journalism Fellow whose mission for UNESCO in Liberia is due to end in August 2012, shared her views on the concrete gains that have been achieved in the country in the past few years, as well as the challenges that lay ahead. “The Freedom of Information (FOI) law that was passed in 2010 is a landmark achievement for Liberian people. Liberia is the first West African country to have enacted this legislation. It is among the four out of 56 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that has FOI legislation.” This legislation guarantees access to data held by the state and is a milestone for Liberia’s development of press freedom.
Additionally, Handem Piette praises the positive steps that Liberia’s Minister of Information, Lewis Brown, has been taking in terms of fostering press freedom in his country. “During World Press Freedom Day in Monrovia this May 3, 2012, Mr. Brown announced the decriminalization of libel in Liberia. This is a huge leap forward as in the past local journalists were frequently subject to lawsuits with outrageous financial penalties for any reports critical of the government that led to a culture of self-censorship. This goodwill measure reassures journalists that they will no longer be sued or prosecuted for simply seeking the truth.”
The key ingredient to ensure Liberia’s development of press freedom lies in media sustainability.
For decades, the United Nations, international NGOs, and the Liberian government have been the main sources of financial support for local media. The pilot project launched by UNESCO in Liberia strives to overturn this traditional business model, which is perceived as limiting in terms of fostering a free thriving media industry. “In the past, the private sector did not invest in media because it was perceived as being of low quality,” said Handem Piette. “UNESCO has implemented a series of measures that aims to change that common perception and break the negative cycle. We are trying to help Liberian businesses see the potential in investing in media.”
Among the measures taken by UNESCO include the launch of regular media business and development workshops for targeted local media in Liberia that were implemented between fall 2011 and summer 2012 by UNESCO’s three partner organizations: the Liberia Media Centre (LMC), the Centre for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP) and the Washington-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). UNESCO’s media partners on the ground include three major radio stations: The Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS), Sky FM and The Liberia Women Democracy Radio (LWDR), and five newspapers: Daily Observer, Inquirer, Public Agenda and Heritage. The media outlets selected have been identified as having the largest audiences and reach, and/or the greatest potential to become self-sustaining and attract revenue.
Additionally, the Media Business and Sustainability Exchange (MBS) program, a UNESCO-ICFJ initiative, was launched in November 2011 in cooperation with IREX and SPARK. Each month, some 30 local CEOs, media owners and journalists meet in order to discuss the possibilities of increased private investment in Liberian media. One of the most concrete results that came as a result of the MBS Program was the launch of Heritage’s online advertising site in April 2012. Since its implementation, the paper’s advertising revenue has jumped 25 percent, up from the previous quarter. “It is a hugely successful experiment because it is the first case of live online advertising done by Liberian media,” said Handem Piette. “Newspapers used to only put up static logos of advertisers, there were no live links. The Heritage’s business model is revolutionary and inspirational for other Liberian media.”
UNESCO’s activities in Liberia, which have delivered very favorable results since the start of the Strengthening Freedom of Information in the Mano River States project supported by the Danish government, provide an excellent opportunity to pilot initiatives that may be later implemented in the wider geographical region. “The good thing is that between Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, each country will be looking to each other’s experiences via their legislation and press environments in order to develop their own media landscape. It is a much-needed process,” said Handem Piette.