How the U.N. Silenced Liberia’s Press

UN troopsand Liberian riot police take position on November 7, 2011 in Monrovia. Police shot dead up to four protestors during a rally in Monrovia, opposition leaders said on November 7 on the eve of a run-off vote they accuse President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of rigging. Shooting erupted after anti-riot police and UN peacekeepers using water cannons tried to block an unauthorized march by thousands of demonstrators supporting the opposition challenger Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party. AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)

In June, the U.N. Mission in Liberia, known by its acronym UNMIL, wound up 13 years of peacekeeping. The mission played a crucial role in ending a 14-year civil war that destroyed this West African nation, spilled into neighboring Sierra Leone, and left as many as 300,000 people dead in the two countries between 1989 and 2003. UNMIL helped guarantee the 2003 peace agreement that saw the three main factions lay down their arms and sent warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor into exile in Nigeria.

But in the years since the 2003 peace deal, UNMIL has left its own trail of destruction. The second-biggest mission in the world at the time it was deployed, UNMIL was a massive force responsible for all aspects of security in Liberia. Its budget dwarfed the spending of the Liberian government for its first five years. (For the 2004-2005 fiscal year, for example, UNMIL’s budget was roughly $760 million compared with the Liberian government’s budget of $61 million.) Not surprisingly, the U.N. mission distorted the economy, crowded out the private sector, and in some cases hampered the recovery of whole industries after the war.

Few aspects of Liberian society have suffered more under UNMIL than the media, which is critical for any young democracy but all the more so for one emerging from civil war. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.N. mission itself, and other donors have spent more than $10 million since 2003 to develop a robust independent media market capable of holding Liberia’s leaders accountable — only to watch UNMIL turn around and build a media behemoth that monopolized the country’s talent, resources, and audience, making it impossible for smaller outlets to compete. UNMIL Radio, the U.N. mission’s flagship media outfit, has a budget of $1.4 million this year — more than the annual revenue of the country’s commercial media combined. We are not aware of a media market in any other democratic country where one player so dominates all others in terms of revenue and resources.

And there’s a massive misrepresentation at the heart of UNMIL Radio’s presence in Liberia. Although it now masquerades as an independent media outlet, operating in the same radio space as other news providers and delivering a product that looks like that of other news providers, the U.N. shows little interest or aptitude for the hard, dirty work of independent journalism. It claims to set a standard for journalism in the country but then fails to deliver on the industry’s most important responsibility — holding leaders, not just Liberia’s but the U.N.’s own, to account.

To be sure, UNMIL Radio was born of an admirable goal: to bring reliable information to a public that had been fed little besides propaganda from all sides during the war. UNMIL built a station and a much needed network of transmitters, reaching 95 percent of Liberians, many of whom previously had no access to media of any kind. But as the postwar recovery gathered steam and threats to peace diminished, UNMIL Radio didn’t scale back its operation to make room for local media outlets. With its slick, expensive production and talented cast of reporters and broadcasters, it continues to attract by far the largest audience of any outlet in Liberia.

UNMIL Radio has single-handedly gutted the local market of its most talented reporters

UNMIL Radio has single-handedly gutted the local market of its most talented reporters, significantly weakening the industry’s ability to serve its critical watchdog function. Take for example Sonnie Morris, a reporter at the local Sky FM station who in 2010 broke a major story on the devastating toll of teen and child prostitution. (Morris found that U.N. peacekeepers were the main clients of these prostitutes.) The story convulsed the country for months, prompted a U.N. investigation, and forced President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to launch a series of initiatives to tackle the problem.

But instead of going on to do more groundbreaking work at Sky FM or another leading local outlet, Morris was snapped up by UNMIL Radio almost immediately — at 16 times her Sky FM salary. She was hired not as a journalist but as a “public information officer,” an important distinction that UNMIL Radio does not explain to its listeners. Morris has since gone on to a job with Internews, a nonprofit media development organization. But nothing she has done at either organization has rivaled the impact of her Sky FM report.

Morris’s story is sadly typical in Liberia. Dozens of talented journalists have ridden success at private media outlets into plush but irrelevant postings at UNMIL Radio. (Some, like Mabel Dahn, who was doing groundbreaking work on a radio program for ex-combatants hosted by Talking Drum Studio, a local production house supported by the U.S.-based nonprofit Search for Common Ground, have even abandoned journalism to become U.N. drivers because the pay is so much better.)

According to UNMIL spokesman Russell Geekie, the station prides itself on covering “all issues in an unsensational and objective manner to defuse confrontation and encourage discourse.” But in practice, that means it avoids asking tough questions of a government that is plagued by incompetence and graft and barely mentions allegations of corruption even when they dominate the headlines of the independent media. Part of UNMIL Radio’s caution no doubt stems from the U.N. mission’s need for the Liberian government’s consent to remain in the country; individual employees may also fear expulsion from Liberia if they dig too deeply into issues the government would prefer not to address.

When it comes to sensitive cultural issues, UNMIL Radio has been equally timid. In 2012, reporters at New Narratives, a local production house, went undercover as members of a traditional society to expose the practice of female genital cutting on girls as young as 8. (As many as two-thirds of women here have endured female genital cutting.) When the story was published in Front Page Africa, our newspaper and website, it sparked a national debate on the previously taboo subject and paved the way for the introduction in the legislature of several bills to ban the practice.

But the pushback from conservative quarters was fierce, and one of the reporters, Mae Azango, was forced into hiding because of death threats. We had offered the original story on female genital cutting to UNMIL Radio to run as an exclusive. It turned the story down. It was only three weeks after Azango had been forced into hiding — and after a massive international outcry prompted members of government to defend her publicly — that UNMIL Radio devoted airtime to the story.

The U.N. has undercut the development of independent media in more insidious ways, too. UNMIL, as well as other U.N. agencies like the U.N. Development Programme, handles transportation costs — paid out in cash — for journalists who cover its press conferences. According to Geekie, the UNMIL spokesman, the U.N. is simply trying to help poor journalists get around, but the payments are usually many times the real cost of transportation, and they’re understood by most journalists to be payment for coverage — in reality, bribes. Media bosses know about these payments, so they pay reporters less than they otherwise might. And since the U.N. sets the standard for other international agencies and nonprofits, many organizations also hand out cash at press conferences — a practice that encourages journalists to write biased articles and undermines the independent business model of all media here.

One area where the U.N. could have played a positive role in the development of Liberia’s domestic media market was in much needed advertising revenue. An organization with that kind of cash could have been a game-changer in helping finance independent journalism. But the U.N. rarely advertises, and, when it does, it can take months to process payments. As a result, commercial media outlets with immediate cash-flow needs do not see UNMIL as a reliable partner.

None of this should have been news to UNMIL leadership. For years, local media bosses have been telling U.N. officials in Liberia that it’s time to shut down UNMIL Radio or confine its reach to the parts of the country that are underserved by other media outlets. The message apparently has not reached the U.N. headquarters in New York. Andrei Shkourko, the head of the Liberia desk at the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, seemed shocked to hear that there was any discontent. “We heard everyone loves UNMIL Radio,” he told us.

Geekie says he has arranged several meetings between local media and the top U.N. representatives here in the last two years and that no one has raised the issue, a claim that was contradicted by several local media bosses who spoke on the condition of anonymity. On at least one visit to the country in 2012, the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission, which advises the Security Council on operations in post-conflict countries, met with representatives of UNMIL Radio and the nonprofit IREX, which headed USAID’s $5 million media development program, as well as with officials from Liberia’s Ministry of Information. The commission did not meet with any local media representatives during the trip.

In December, the U.N. Security Council will decide whether to completely withdraw UNMIL (along with its peacekeepers), alter it, or establish a new mission. The future of UNMIL Radio will be decided then, too. We hope the members of the Security Council will take into consideration the damage caused by UNMIL Radio and develop a smarter strategy that supports, rather than tramples, independent media in Liberia.