Journalists Want a Better Media Environment In Liberia

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By Mark N. Mengonfia   -mmenginfia@gmail.com

Calls are being made for the government of Liberia to ensure that the media in the country remain alive to serve the purpose for which they exist.

The calls came at a one day media roundtable discussion organized by the Press Union of Liberia and the Carter Center Liberia.

Speaking at the event, Othello B. Garblah, president of the Publishers Association of Liberia(PAL), said the independent media as a business does not operate in a vacuum adding, “It relies on the economy in order to attract, maintain and increase advertisements for its survivability.”

According to him, with a devastating economy such as the one we have in Liberia coupled with poor readership and dwindling circulations, the media is unable to recruit, retain and pay professional staff.

He also highlighted the presence of the COVID-19 continue to have an impact on media institutions leaving many of the institutions to a near collapse. With more vigor in his tone, Garblah said, “ Added to this, is the direction of needed advertisement to the Executive Mansions website, the President of the Republic of Liberia website.”

He added: “With an appalling economic environment, the media is left alone to survive, which is one of the key reasons why professional journalism is being relegated, giving way to mediocrity and patronage.”

This time with an appealing voice, the head of the Publishers said, “But the truth of the matter is the media in Liberia need serious help. They lack the operational capacity to provide the kind of services the public needs.”

According to him, a soft grant from international partners would go a long way in strengthening the media independence to enable play its critical role in the Liberian democratic dispensation.

For her part, the president of the Reporters Association of Liberia, Madam Cecelia G. Clarke said  for Carter Center Liberia to think of gathering media executives to discuss the state of the Liberia media she thinks the institution is looking in the direction of the media with some helps that will eventually change the narratives from what she called ‘state of backwardness.’

She stressed the need for subsidy from the Liberian government for operations setting an example with the Norwegian government that provided subsidy of NOK 303 million which was paid to 138 newspapers.

She pleaded with national and international partners who will lobby for funding in the name of helping the media to ensure that whatever they get have a direct impact on the media and not just training or workshops.

According to her, what journalists need now at this pressing time is resources to help them balance, not just training and workshops.

“Do not get me wrong anyway, I am not saying training is bad, but if there are no means to put into use the training, it is worthless, useless” the RAL boss stressed.

She furthered, “It is now time for donor partners to empower the media.”

The roundtable gather was brought together media executives to include Journalist Aaron Kollie of SKY FM and TV, Estelle Liberty Kemoh, director general at the Liberia Broadcasting System, Peter Quaqua, President of the West African Journalist Association, authorities of  the Reporters Association, Female Journalist Association, and the Publishers Association Liberia.

In a remark, WAJA president, Peter Quaqua said stressed the need for the Liberian government to advertise with the Liberian media as it is the only way for the industry to survive.

He also encouraged the government to remove the too many stumbling blocks placed in the ways of procuring adds from government institutions.

Additional, the WAJA president playing a twin mother role at the gathering told the publishers to make sure that those who work for them (Reporters) are paid.

He said because most media institutions are not paying their reporters lots of good journalist are leaving active journalism and turning into public relation officers.

The State of the newspaper Industry—Progress, challenges and solutions

By Othello B. Garblah, President Publishers Association of Liberia

Focus: Update on Current State of the Liberian Newspaper Industry Presented

PAL is the Publisher Association of Liberia with 15 print and online media institutions as members 10 daily and the rest weekly out of about 45 newspapers in the country.

We appear on the newsstands daily at a time Liberia’s economy is in crisis, companies are folding up, and workers are not getting pay on time; getting a cost for the next production of your newspaper has become a nightmare, talk less of meeting your overheads and paying staffs in the absence of advertisements and major dropped in sales, as taxes and rent close in on us.

Brief back ground:

Like every sector of the Liberian society, the media, particularly the newspaper is the first casualty and journalism suffered a massive brain drain due to the exodus of people during the Liberian civil war, of recent Ebola and COVID-19.

Most of the journalists practicing in the country at the time had little or no training or educational programs available to them during the years of war, leaving them unprepared to perform effectively.

Most media outlets emerging from the civil conflict were operating in confined and poorly organized spaces with few computers and other equipment to work with. Only a few journalists were fortunate to receive regular salary.

In a country where there is serious lack of electricity for general public consumption, businesses (including newspapers and other news outlets) had to purchase electricity from private generator owners or run generators. This was a very expensive venture, because these services were sometimes unreliable. Most generator owners, like the single major printing press operating in Liberia at the time, demanded payment in U.S. dollars for their services, even though the news organizations’ revenues then and now are in Liberian dollars, which is very low in value when compared with the U.S. dollar.

Hence, to restore the Liberian media to its prewar level and to ensure progress, the need for training, education and the provision of a printing press were high on the agenda of some donor partners.

“Training: Intense short and long-term training programs were needed to improve the professional skills of reporters and editors. Emphasis were placed on training in computer and information technology. Information technology development was an integral part of the rebuilding process of the Liberian media. To improve the working conditions for journalists and the quality of what journalists publish and broadcast. There was a very urgent need for the United Nations and the international community—particularly organizations that support press freedom—to assist the Liberian media through the provision of financial and material resources dedicated to improving training opportunities.

Education: Emphasis were laid on adequately supporting the Mass Communications Department at the University of Liberia in terms of instructional manpower and resources to ensure that students pursuing a degree were well trained.

Printing Facilities: More sophisticated printing facilities were recommended to improve the print quality of the newspapers and other publications and reduce the high cost and other burdens of printing-the rest is history now”-the Newman Report

Current status:

These findings and recommendations gained fruition, giving birth to quasi media development organizations over the past two decades or so attracting donors in the sector.

Thus for the past two decades or more foreign partners have spent millions of dollars in Liberia to train reporters and editors without considering institutional capacity building and training programs, too, for those working in the administrative, business and advertising sectors of the media, which are very key component in having a vibrant media.

From UNMIL to various international development partners including IREX and Internews, millions of United States Dollars have been directed at training and training, but if measured against such pouring in of funds administered by local and international organizations the impact leaves much to be desired.

Just training alone has not really helped in strengthening the media because professionally trained personnel are leaving media houses to seek greener pasture.

The independent media as a business does not operate in a vacuum. It relies on the economy in order to attract, maintain and increase advertisements for its survivability. But with a devastating economy such as the one we have in Liberia coupled with poor readership and dwindling circulations, the media is unable to recruit, retain and pay professional staff.

As if that was not enough, the impact of the COVID-19 on media institutions here has left many to a near collapse. Added to this, is the direction of needed advertisement to the Executive Mansions website, the President of the Republic of Liberia website.

With an appalling economic environment, the media is left alone to survive, which is one of the key reasons why professional journalism is being relegated, giving way to mediocrity and patronage.

Such a condition brings in the compelling need for a paradigm shift in the way international funds and support intended to assist the Liberian media should be utilized.

We suggest that rather than conducting, two weeks, one week or three days’ training or workshop for journalists, grants as well as logistical support should be provided to enable media houses to build their operational capacity.

Such grants and support should come along with set benchmarks that media managers, including publishers, would have to meet in order to qualify for future engagements. This is a fact: for instance, some media institutions just can’t afford to buy newsprint and other rising operational costs on a daily basis, let alone to regularly pay staff.

This is even compounded by delays in payment of advertising services rendered to clients, including the government, which remains the major advertiser in the country. The woes get deepen by international non-government organizations and others directing their advertisement to the Executive Mansion’s website-again the President of the Republic of Liberia website depriving media institutions of much-needed advertisement revenues.

Yet still, such payment, particularly in the public sector whenever ready, a requirement to disbursement is tax clearance. Where does a struggling media entity in such an economy like ours get money to be current with taxes? This argument is for another day.

This is an idea that media development partners need to consider as we work together in strengthening the press in Liberia. We have had series of professional training programs. But in the absence of vibrant institutions journalists are turning their backs on the newsroom to seek a better life.

If the media should return to the right trajectory with appropriate standards to provide the kind of services the public deserves it needs help beyond training. The operational strength of media houses needs boosting thru grants. Capacity building for business managers, and new ideas for boosting newspapers online presence to attract advertisement could also form part of such renewable grants.

Foot Note: The cream of the press is the newspaper. And if the newspaper got sick, the press crop is in serious trouble.

 

 

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