Election Special: Pre-election Media in a Post-war Context

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.

The launch of Alfred Sirleaf's mobile media outreach program in Lofa County

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.

Jordanian UN peacekeepers watch over an election rally

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.

President Johnson Sirleaf at an election rally several months prior to her reelection

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3 Responses to Election Special: Pre-election Media in a Post-war Context

  1. David says:

    This is really interesting, Jessie. I’d be curious as to what percentage of Liberian adults voted in the original election. The initiatives you discussed are incredible, show an admirable degree of proactivity, and seem necessary given the climate. But, due to their inherent nature of being fixed to a location, they are limited by their locality (this doesn’t minimize their importance, though). Do you know if radios are prominent in Liberia? Otherwise, with such a low level of literacy, I’d be curious as to what the primary source of information is, how deeply it penetrates the information consumer base, and how informed adult voters on the whole realistically could be. Your post really makes me thankful that I have such free access to the information I often take for granted as a personal right.

  2. Colby Brown says:

    Jessie, I also thought that this was an excellent post. You’re absolutely right that, without context, much of the meaning of what the importance of media actually is becomes lost. And ultimately, while we use media extensively for entertainment, communication, and socializing, its most important function is to create a general space through which the people may remain informed, voice dissent (if necessary), and act as a government ‘watchdog’. Media is indeed the difference between democracy and authoritarianism; the freedom of media underlies the freedom of peoples. I can only hope that journalists like Sirleaf remain motivated to continue their efforts in education and providing what ultimately amounts to the symbol of freedom.

  3. Shunori says:

    Jessie, this is a really great post. It is very easy for us to forget that what we’re discussing about the nuances of new media is not applicable to all people in all countries. But at the same time, the lack of “new” media in the form of online media does not mean that there is no new social media – you’ve given us a great example of this. Do you know what Kollie and Sirleaf are doing now? Are they continuing to work on new forms of social media?

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