Building Peace With Radio: Lessons From Liberia Using Radio To Fuel & Prevent Conflict

By Frank Sainworla, Jr., fsainworla@yahoo.com

The Author with some community radio Journalists after a recent training session in rural Liberia

Monday, February 13, 203 is the 12th edition of World Radio Day. The theme for this year’s celebration is “Radio and Peace“.

It is against this backdrop that this writer finds it most appropriate to present a flashback on the piece done by its Managing Editor  (former Station Manager of the independent Radio Veritas) some time ago and presented at an international community radio seminar in Abuja, Nigeria underscoring the power of radio in building peace and ending violent/armed conflict.

BACKGROUND

I must say how gratified I am to be here in Abuja, the beautiful capital of West Africa’s superpower, Nigeria, a country that will ever be credited for its towering role in helping to rescue my country, Liberia, when it was deeply consumed in one of the most fratricidal civil conflicts ever recorded in the history of this sub-region.

When the first civil war started in Liberia on the eve of Christmas in 1989, this writer was reading Mass Communication at the University of Liberia in Monrovia and at the same time a Freelance reporter for the Daily Observer Newspaper. Later, after hostilities subsided, school resumed and I was able to complete my studies few years later, finding myself in the state-owned Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS).

So I have come face-to-face with violent civil conflict and all the filth that goes along with it. I lived through the 14 bitter years of brutal civil war and covered it actively for radio, except for ten months (2001-2002), when I was awarded the United States Hubert Humphrey post-graduate diploma fellowship in the US for mid-level professionals around the world. Rooting for community radio in Nigeria in SearchWorks catalog (stanford.edu)

USING RADIO TO FUEL & PREVENT CONFLICT:

No one should underestimate the enormous power that the media wield, especially radio in our part of the world. Herein our West African sub region, radio is considered the medium of choice, because it is portable and can reach far and wide amid poor transportation and communication infrastructure. But experience has shown that the media area double-edged sword. While radio and other media outlets can be a force for good, they can also be a force for evil, with the potential to tear society apart and engender hatred and fuel violent conflicts.

Having actively practiced journalism throughout the course of the now ended 14 years brutal civil war in Liberia, I do have a deep sense of understanding of the great potentials radio has.

First, in order for radio to serve as a force for good, its role must be clearly understood. This potent medium which BBC’s Mark Doyle once said is considered “King in Africa,” must be seen and used as a vehicle to influence positive change; promote peace by providing early warning to prevent violent conflicts; as well as promoting democracy and national or regional integration.

The ultimate objective of any media outlet must be to promote the public good. The media, particularly the independent/public radio has a greater responsibility to promote the public’s interest or “seek the greater good for the greater number”. To take a few lines from the journalist’s creed, “the public journal is the public trust.” In other words, the radio’s role is to provide “voice for the voiceless”.

For instance, when all is lost for the ordinary citizens in terms of a proper justice system, many people went to my radio station and others that give them a voice to tell their stories, condemned the senseless war and cry for peace, unity and national reconciliation. On many occasions even when the police stations had reopened, these individuals would run to my radio to complain about their rights being violated or about other civil domestic matters. At the radio station that I currently work for, we had on several occasions encouraged citizens to first take such complaints to the police or rights groups such as the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission U PC) and see what redress they would get; then they can follow up with the media. Many of them have followed that path and it is part of our social responsibility to encourage and promote the practice of the rule of law; as the media’s role is not to serve as the police station or the court. in short, testing the system.

As experience has shown in Liberia and other countries over the years, getting the space to play this role effectively does not come on a silver platter, not even if there is constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and the press. For example, Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution that came into effect in January 1986 guarantees press freedom, but past regimes deliberately flouted this provision. The reality has shown that state authorities have often lacked the political will to allow the law to prevail. And this space is even more dangerous to secure amidst political upheaval or civil war.

Even with these rights, those of us in radio and the media must exercise social responsibility, which is part of our professional code of conduct and ethics. However, it must be mentioned here that some media practitioners have abused the right to perform this noble role, either willfully or by ignorance due to lack of training. Like in other spheres of life, the media can only thrive in an environment of peace and stability. In order to genuinely play this role as a vehicle to promote peace and influence positive change, radio must first build the trust of the people by being credible. Credibility is key if radio is to maximize its power and influence in preventing conflict, building and sustaining peace.

Radio and the media cap establish this credibility by being committed to pursuing the truth without fear or favor, yet being politically neutral. There is no way that Radio can gain the respect and confidence of all sides in a conflict if radio stations or newspapers are professionally, politically, socially and religiously bias in their reportage.

Our experience in Liberia during the war clearly showed that the listening public was and still is the best judge, and eventually the goats were distinguished from the sheep. Even if a professionally upright radio station was not loved by party or parties in a conflict or anyone of the political forces, it was certainly respected as the voice of the voiceless.

During the course of the Liberian civil war, we saw radio being used both as a force for good (peace and national unity) and as a force for evil (intolerance and escalation of violent conflict), although far from the scale seen in Rwanda.

In Liberia for example, several years ago there were some radio stations that became the theater for fuelling the civil war and spreading negatively dangerous propaganda that eventually caused the conflict to drag and that of course led to the loss of thousands of innocent civilian lives. In one scenario the radio station of the most powerful warring factions in the 1990s (NPFL) ran a propaganda report that it had captured a certain part of Monrovia and that rice was being distributed to starving civilians.

Hundreds of unarmed people perished while surging to the area to get badly needed food; and that was only propaganda. The truth of the matter is that that faction was far from capturing that particular place, let alone the area being safe for food distribution.

Former President Taylor owned and operated the largest media chain in the country at the time, which was extensively used for his NPFL rebel propaganda. After Taylor won the Presidency in 1997, one of Liberia’s local dailies, THE NEWS newspaper said several years ago: *Taylor is setting up more and more media institutions to sing his song. The good news is that despite the determination of the Taylor regime to smash the free press, the very independent journalists in Liberia are also determined to continuously uphold the torch of press freedom.”

There were countless numbers of instances where the media were used to spew hatred, all sorts of divisions and further armed clashes, leaving to more carnage and destruction of properties.

On the other hand, there were numerous instances where the forces of good prevailed over the forces of evil, as was seen through the positive use of the media. Several things happened: some of the media (including mine) even at the peril of the lives of personnel underscored the senseless nature of the fighting; highlighted the atrocities/destruction; and the need to stop the madness as there could be no victor through the barrel of the gun, thus the need to stop it and pursue the peace process.

judging by personal experiences and experiences of other colleagues, such stance paid off in a great way and helped to propel both the military and civilian stakeholders into action to initiate peace talks that led to the signing of peace agreements with the latest being the comprehensive Accra peace agreement signed on August 18, 2003. Getting there for the media did require persistence, courage, nationalism and networking among media houses to pursue one common objective i.e. to end the war, bring peace, national reconciliation and free, fair and transparent elections.

It is certainly not a one shot deal. The airwaves and pages of newspapers had to be saturated with contents that bring issues and personalities to the fore by highlighting the need for peace in a sustained manner. Never mind threats and intimidations, but look at the bigger picture of saving the nation or our region from further carnage; but of course taking the most precaution to spare your neck so that you can live to tell another story or repeat what was done if need be.

Let me share this experience with you. Beneath. the horrifying moments on reflection, pleasant memories will continue to be cherished by me and other colleagues at the state-run Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS) during the first round of civil war in Liberia in 1996, known as the April 6 Monrovia fighting. As Editor-in-Chief of the state radio I, my boss and a skeleton staff had to run the only news organ in the theatre of conflict in the city center for nearly a month of daily battles. Located in the high rise D ucor Hotel on the hill overlooking the capital and protected by the ECO MO G intervention force, we had a choice to make whether we should blindly be the mouthpiece of the then 5-member transitional council government which included Charles Taylor’s NPFL and Alhaji Kromah’s ULIMO -K, or be the voice of the voiceless. We chose the latter and were assured by ECO MO G that both our personnel and the station facilities would be protected.

By then, our radio was the only media house on the ground covering the fighting from inside the city center. War-weary Liberians, the international media, western diplomats and United Nations agencies depended on our reports, in order to know the trend of things. Minute by minute, when

Taylor’s propaganda radio located outside the capital was giving slanted accounts, we were putting things in their proper perspective through our news stories, feature programs and live talk shows gave balanced analyses of what was transpiring.

Because of that, both of the armed groups fighting at the time (Taylor-Kromah government force and Roosevelt Johnson ULIMO -) remnant of the late Doe army) hated our coverage and wanted to put our broadcast out of action. The latter made two unsuccessful attempts to capture the station from ECO MO G but they were beaten back. Taylor got very angry when I hosted my regular PRESS TALK show discussing the need to end the fighting because no side was winning, review the then existing Abuja Peace Accord and put the peace process back on track. Taylor summoned my boss and myself to his Congo town residence to order the program off the air and issued a final warning that the station should broadcast as a government radio. There were threats and intimidation, but we did not waiver.

Meanwhile, the local and international pressure for the fighting to stop grew stronger. And a few days later the US embassy, which recorded all of our audio reports and West African Leaders pushed for ceasefire and soon the belligerent forces were in Accra for yet another peace conference.

Similar approach can be used to prevent violent conflict and build peace. In Liberia during the first round of election in October, radio and the media in general were to a large extent very helpful in ensuring peaceful elections through educating and informing voters that it was their right to exercise their franchise and that election was the best way to do this. Radio was also used as a positive tool for conducting voter and civic education that led to a nearly 75% turn-out of voters in the first round of elections. The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the National Elections Commission (NEC), local and international elections observers as well as ordinary Liberians themselves all praised radio stations and other media outlets for contributing immensely to overall success of the process.

To underscore the power of radio in facilitating peace and credible elections, this is how the ECO WAS elections observer mission to the 2005 Liberian elections summed up radio and the media’s contribution in its report:

‘The media particularly the mainstream radio precinct remained professional, and non-partisan in the coverage of the election. The theme of their broadcast was appeal for calm and peaceful campaign and election. They were pre-occupied with public education and enlightenment of the electorates. However, a section of the print media was overly partisan. There is need for the media to exercise caution and display professionalism in the conduct of their work, especially in this sensitive period when the general public awaits the election results.”

But the tendency to use radio for bad reared its ugly head in the period leading up to the second round of the presidential election in November. Some radio stations and other media entities and journalists began to lose focus of their social responsibility and allow themselves to be used by some politicians to muddy the water, by whipping up tension and engendering ethnic and regional divisions.

That began to reignite ethnic hatred between the so-called indigenous Liberians and the America-Liberians or Congos. It reached a point that the potential for violence

That began to reignite ethnic hatred between the so-called indigenous Liberians and the America-Liberians or Congos. It reached a point that the potential for violence emerged. But thanks to the efforts of the Press Union of Liberia, media houses like my own RADIO VERITAS that tried to be above the fray and other stakeholders, the action of some of these media institutions and practitioners were brought into question. And with a meeting of minds, reason prevailed and those bent on muddying the water were encouraged to stop turning the media into a hate tool and promote an electoral process that was based on the real issues affecting Liberia. Eventually that paid off and the run-off elections passed off peacefully and orderly.

I can say with pride that the European Union (EU) and its media monitoring unit comprising Liberians from the civil society monitored 14 radio stations and other media outfits during the electoral process and my station, RADIO VERITAS was among those given thumbs up for pushing peaceful elections by their professional reportage and educational programs.

ROLE OF COMMUNITY RADIO

The role played by community radio in Liberia in recent years is increasingly becoming relevant and outstanding. A need assessment survey carried out by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and other media development group put the number of community radio stations in Liberia at 57 across the country, with 37 of them active. It is no doubt that community radio in Liberia has grown not only in number but in quality and influence. As a Consultant Trainer for UNMIL and the UK-based International Alert’s Liberia Media project, I have traveled around the country and seen the level of influence community radio stations are beginning to have. Some of the community radio stations in rural Liberia have established affiliate relationships with few of the stations in the capital, Monrovia including my own radio. By this the stations in Monrovia are able to get wider national coverage through relay of news and other informative and educational programs promoting peace and reconciliation as well as development.

Excited by this new professional alignment, several community radio journalists volunteer their services as stringers for my radio stations and few others in Monrovia. For us we assist them with mobile phone cards and a token from time to time to serve as encouragement. What this has done is that it is making radio program content in the capital not only Monrovia-based but richer and wider in scope reflecting the views and activities of the rural population. For example, I host a thrice weekly talk show called, TOPICAL ISSUES considered by many as “popular”, which is relayed every week by at least 16 community radio stations in central, western, northern Liberia in addition to daily news and other programs.

CHALLENGES

However, the biggest challenge lies ahead in the months and years ahead, as radio and other media must strive to manage the very high public expectations, while holding the feet of the newly elected officials to the fire to ensure that they deliver on the fabulous promises they made during the elections campaign. This campaign is being made even more enormous considering the fact that this is the second time that Liberians have democratically elected their leaders after two wars in the past 14 years. To do this effectively, radio stations must help our war- weary people and leaders to build a democratic culture.

As Liberia in the post-elections and post-conflict period, we must all be reminded that the holding of successful elections alone does not automatically bring peace and sustain stability. Credible elections do provide the opportunity for lasting peace and serve as a reasonable deterrence against fanning the flames of conflict. Peace can only become a way of life if it is sustained. The media’s role is no doubt very crucial in building this peace through the promotion of those things that unite us; by preaching religious, political and ethnic tolerance and by providing a voice for the voiceless, with seeking the truth being the centerpiece of our reportage.

O ur brothers and sisters in Africa and the world can learn a lot from our experiences by insisting that radio and the entire mass media play their rightful role to prevent eruption of violent conflicts like what happened in Liberia. O ur brothers and sisters in Guinea, Kenya and other countries that have not yet tasted rebel war and full scale civil upheavals must also ensure that the mistakes we made in the past should not be repeated by them. O ur African colleagues must always remember that press freedom will not come on a silver platter.

Radio is power and we must give equal access to all groups in the society to air their views but of course in a responsible manner that would prevent conflict and promote peace.

The sacrifices. must be made to achieve a free and vibrant press, remembering that the ultimate press for press freedom is “eternal vigilance”.

It is no doubt that the challenges to doing an effective job of promoting peace and reconciliation are great, with debilitating financial and technological limitations serving as principal barriers. Radio Journalist, Broadcasters and other media personnel in Liberia are poorly paid and lack incentives. Can you imagine, they have no health benefits nor do they have insurance coverage? As a result, the media as a whole is experiencing brain drain of some of its trained professionals, who are seeking greener pastures in government, the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, etc.

CONCLUSION

Having experienced the bitterness of war and prolonged political violence, the radio practitioners and other journalists can only be hopeful that never again will their country choose the path of the bullet to replace a government. This is why besides striving to report in a balanced, fair and accurate manner, some of us post-elections Liberian radio journalists are also keen on playing our civic journalism role to educate and inform citizens about their rights and responsibilities in the society, vis-a-vis the government.

For example, I carry a segment in my talk show called, “constitutional tips” in which I read an article from the Liberian constitution regularly as a means of educating the public on what the organic law of the land says.

Indeed, through the airwaves and given the media’s role as “agenda setter”, radio practitioners in Liberia and other African nations must continuously focus on the need to avoid the terrible mistakes of the past. One thing for sure the ordinary people and the elite are listening and the watchdogs are certainly watching.

I end this presentation with a mission statement I coined for my radio talk show at the height of the Liberian civil war that I sign on with on every edition:

“On TO PICAL ISSUES we say, let’s agree to disagree, dialogue not confrontation, speak your minds always so that we can right the wrong.”

(He first made this presentation at a seminar on community radio development in Abuja, Nigeria, February 19-20 2008)

*Sainworla is Manager at Radio Veritas, an independent station, in Monrovia, Liberia.

Rooting for community radio in Nigeria in SearchWorks catalog (stanford.edu)

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