In the US, new media forms are diverse – tablet magazines, tweets, and facebook, to name a few – and discussions abound about how they are changing our consumption of news and affecting politics. Yet two aspects of the new media are left undiscussed, perhaps because they seem too basic to merit mention: first, that our new media are written, and second, that they are electronic.
Yet what would the media look like if it lacked these two characteristics? And what role could non-written, unelectronic media play in politics? Last summer, I spent several months in Liberia exploring the answers to these questions.
Founded by freed slaves as Africa’s first republic, Liberia was once viewed as a beacon of prosperity and stability in West Africa. But fifteen years of brutal civil war in the 1990s and 2000s destroyed the county’s infrastructure, killed one in twelve Liberians, and left the country ranked 182 out of 187 countries in the International Human Development Index, a measure of health, education, and standard of living.
Today, Liberia lacks an electrical grid – even in Monrovia, the capital city, buildings only have power if their owners can afford individual generators. (Most lack electricity of any sort, especially in rural areas.) Additionally, 30% of males and 60% of females are illiterate. Those two consequences of the war have created a context in which media like Twitter and blogs are ill-suited for spreading information. Yet as I discovered, that same context is ripe for the development for homegrown, grassroots media forms. And in the run-up to the October 2011 presidential election – only the second election since the end of the war – these new media forms were especially important for increasing access to information for voters.
Alfred Sirleaf, the main journalist with whom I worked in Liberia, is best known for The Daily Talk, his chalkboard newspaper in Monrovia. As the campaigns kicked off last summer, though, he recognized that rural, illiterate Liberians still lacked access to information about the candidates, their policies, and national issues. To broaden access to news, he launched a “mobile outreach media” program. The premise of his media outreach program was simple: he recorded public service announcements and newscasts onto audiotapes, installed megaphones onto the bed of a pick-up truck, and drove to Lofa County, a rural county near the Guinean border. At night, when Liberians gather outside to socialize, Sirleaf parked the truck by crowded street corners to broadcast his news. Sirleaf’s first broadcasts included information about agriculture policies, national development, and the incumbent president’s achievements, and the truck drew large and enthusiastic audiences.
Back in the capital, Joseph Kollie, of the Liberia Media Initiative, saw a different limitation of traditional media in Liberia: namely, that it is not participatory, and Liberians lack a way to ask questions about confusing policies. To fill that gap, Kollie launched Ducor Debates, titled after Monrovia’s traditional name. The debates were a town-hall style forum, gathering candidates and policy makers into a discussion panel before a live audience. Held in markets and streetside cafes, the panels were conducted in vernacular English and offered audience members the opportunity to ask panelists questions directly. Providing clarifications about topics like the questions that would appear on the ballot of the August referendum and the potential impacts of entering into a timber agreement with the EU, these debates also drew huge crowds.
Ultimately, Liberia’s elections were far from perfect. Though they were deemed free and fair by international onlookers, the opposition candidate disputed the election results and boycotted the runoff vote, and at least one person died in protests in Monrovia; ultimately, incumbent president and Nobel Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won 90% of the vote, though only 37% of registered voters voted in the runoff election.
Nevertheless, when the alternative was a descent back into civil war, that relatively peaceful election can be counted as a success. As we head deeper into campaign season in the US, it’s easy to forget that 24-hour, understandable, and participatory media are not to be taken for granted. Nor are peaceful, civil elections a given in many countries. But as Liberia’s example shows, all healthy democracies need robust media, even if that press works without electricity and written words.