UNESCO promotes freedom of expression ahead of elections in Liberia
As Liberia’s second post-conflict legislative and presidential elections approach, the Strengthening Freedom of Information in the Mano River States project, financed by the Danish government and implemented by UNESCO, is striving to promote freedom of expression in this troubled region.
A free press depends on universal access to information and on the ability of media to operate independently. However, in Liberia, as a result of both logistical difficulties and the absence of an engrained culture of transparency, access to media and information is still limited: available mainly to people who live in or near the capital, Monrovia. Furthermore, the financial instability of the Liberian media industry means that journalists lack the hardware, training opportunities and remuneration, necessary to produce high quality journalism.
In cooperation with 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), as well as ICFJ’s Knight International Journalism Fellow, Luisa Handem Piette, UNESCO is addressing these issues in a number of ways.
The Strengthening Freedom of Information in the Mano River States project coordinates advocacy and sensitization campaigns for legislators and journalists, increasing awareness of the importance of freedom of information. This includes training workshops in conflict-sensitive, non-partisan election and political reporting for journalists and media management mentoring schemes for Liberian media outlets. As Director of LMC, Lawrence Randall explains, ‘the project also incentivizes non-partisan journalism through the provision of<a name="_GoBack"></a> hardware for conducting interviews and capturing images, Internet access and a free call for the exchange of election news and information’. Finally, this initiative will ensure that comprehensive media monitoring takes place during the October 2011 elections, providing an early warning system for conflict and violence, and increasing the pressure on media owners and editors to ensure the quality of their output.
In the words of Director of ICFJ's Knight International Journalism Fellowships, Elisa Tinsley, ‘the biggest challenge ahead of the October 2011 elections is getting accurate and balanced information, mainly through the radio, to the 75% of people who live outside of Monrovia’. Balanced coverage can play an important role in ensuring free and fair elections.
Liberia has recently become the first West African country to enact a Freedom of Information law. Its media landscape is one ripe with possibilities for the future. Indeed, UNESCO’s activities there provide an excellent opportunity to pilot initiatives which may then be implemented in the wider Mano River region (which encompasses Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire).
With this in mind, a conference bringing together media representatives, legislators and international experts is scheduled for the next year. This will allow for an exchange of experiences as each of the countries grapple with different issues related to freedom of information and expression in post-conflict environment.