Sowing the seeds of change | K. Leigh Robinson, Head of the Public Information Office

Comedian and UNMIL Peace Messenger, George Tamba (right), celebrated throughout Liberia as Boutini, performs in an AIDS awareness campaign. Photo: UNMIL | 22 Jun 11

3 Apr 2018

Sowing the seeds of change | K. Leigh Robinson, Head of the Public Information Office

K. Leigh Robinson

Just after the Security Council passed resolution 1509 to establish UNMIL on 19 September 2003, a small team of international public information specialists was deployed to Liberia to support and promote the peacekeeping and peacebuilding initiatives of the new Mission.

Monrovia introduced them to the landscape of destruction they’d been watching unfold in the preceding years. But little could fully prepare them for the post-war realities on the ground: of families torn apart and displaced; utilities and communication lines destroyed; food and water in short supply; education and health systems in disarray. Broken dreams, lost hopes and lawlessness were rife; civility seemed to have been abandoned.

With much of the international community watching to see how the UN might repair the country, the team adopted crisis communication strategies to address challenges of how to assist the Liberians in having faith in the new focus on peace and stability for their country.

Combatting misinformation

In 2003, few means of communication had survived the destruction not only of infrastructure but also of social cohesion. The population had no access to credible news and information and knew little about the Mission descending on them.

Power brokers of the time had abused public communication channels, seeking to manipulate or control the media through threats or financial means. Their goal was to deliver one-sided propaganda that would ultimately sway the public to adopting their personal or factional agendas, while denying access to accurate information. Former President and war lord Charles Taylor had withdrawn short-wave frequencies of privately owned and community radio stations, further restricting access to information for those living in rural and/or remote Liberia and opening the way for the manipulation of information to an already uninformed population.

Liberians desperately needed trusted channels of communications and a platform for discourse in order to move forward. The immediate and dire need for an interactive communications strategy would be paramount for the Mission to gain their trust, as well as to improve the UN’s situational awareness on the ground. Employing diverse types of media, the public information team sought to gain the local population’s consent to the Mission by issuing regular reports on developments, promoting dialogue and combatting misinformation.

"Liberians desperately needed trusted channels of communications and a platform for discourse in order to move forward." 

From the first days of its deployment, UNMIL would use its radio station as the instrument of conflict resolution most capable of rapidly reaching all corners of Liberia. Radio had proven useful to the UN to inform and engage large segments of the population in, for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—far larger than Liberia--, but it had also been used as a weapon to manipulate beliefs to catastrophic effect in Rwanda in 1994.

The UN public information team set up rapidly: on 1 October 2003, broadcasting from a van parked in a field outside Monrovia the now familiar line: “UNMIL Radio, the official voice of the United Nations Mission in Liberia,” was transmitted. Those first words heralded a new era of hope for Liberia.

The station’s popularity grew quickly: its 24/7 transmissions soon became the primary source of frank and impartial news and information for people all over Liberia and along the borders with Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Côte d’Ivoire.

"men, women and children would gather under the canopy of mango trees or inside thatched Palava huts to listen to the radio’s news and education programmes as well as music"

Groups of men, women and children would gather under the canopy of mango trees or inside thatched Palava huts to listen to the radio’s news and education programmes as well as music sometimes from a hand-held solar powered radio, winding it frequently to prolong its battery life and their listening time.

Fifteen years on, the radio station that was established as a result of the Accra peace accord with the help of the Economic Community of West African States ends its existence as UNMIL Radio, to be reborn as ECOWAS Radio on 1 April 2018.


Delivering messages to the grassroots for critical campaigns

At the same time, those first public information officers saw the value of personal outreach particularly in Monrovia where most of the population was concentrated, and in rural hubs. Outreach, in the form of sports and music events, and the contracting of local celebrities was employed at every stage of the Mission’s life. These interactions where large groups of onlookers gathered were critical to the Mission, through demobilization and reintegration, the health crisis of Ebola, three rounds of elections and the handover of security to the Liberian Government. Popular local icons were employed to deliver messages to promote understanding and interaction between those of opposing affiliations, break down barriers and disempower hostility and tension.

The Mission’s public information office crafted and delivered messages in collaboration with key partners such as the Government of Liberia, stakeholders in the international community, local civil society organizations, local media, celebrity advocates and other national actors. These messages were produced in English, Liberian English and local dialects, conveyed by means of jingles and topical programmes on UNMIL Radio and by billboards mounted across Liberia, street banners, T-shirts and printed materials created with illustrations by Liberian artist, Samson Zogbaye.

UNMIL sensitization campaigns also addressed deeply rooted attitudes about vital topics such as the status of women and girls; traditional practices; health and hygiene customs; refugee rights, voting and civic responsibilities.

One of the Mission’s first priorities, the demobilization and reintegration of more than 100,000 ex-combatants showed how strategic communications, or the lack thereof, could affect a critical chapter in the peace process. Launched only four months after the peace agreement was signed, the initial Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programme had not been set up in time to deliver on the expectations of the high number of ex-combatants who showed up expecting large payouts. Misinformation by parties opposed to the plan and insufficient communications with accurate information both to and about the ex-combatants were among the issues that needed to be addressed. The Mission regrouped and a massive public information and sensitization campaign ensued; the Mission restarted its DDR programme in April 2004 and completed it without further  incidents in November of that year.

The DDR experience re-enforced the value of employing “traditional communicators,” and the Mission went on to contract eleven such groups, travelling often for miles by foot or lifted by UN helicopters-- to remote areas across the country delivering the Mission’s core messages, often to huge crowds of enthusiastic onlookers. Using local dialects and traditional modes of entertainment, these groups were able to engage people at the grassroots on issues vital to the stabilization and peace process in the country.

"Humour too proved a powerful outreach tool, and UNMIL tapped celebrated local comedian George Tamba, popularly known as Boutini"

The largely illiterate population with no connection to its Government became participants in community-based peacemaking, through the traditional communicators which included the Liberia Youth Network, Musician Union of Liberia, Traditional Peace Theatre, Professional Artistic Group, Harmonizers Entertainment Group Inc, Women in Peacebuilding Network, Flomo Theater Production, Lofa Youth for Progressive Action, Balawala International Foundation, United Youth Movement Against Violence, Liberia Crusaders for Peace, Development Educational Network of Liberia.

Humour too proved a powerful outreach tool, and UNMIL tapped celebrated local comedian George Tamba, popularly known as Boutini, as a Peace Messenger who wove Mission messages into his litany of side-splitting jokes.

Beginning with the DDR campaign in early 2004, Boutini conveyed critical information about the exercise to thousands of armed fighters from three warring factions, among them many youth and children. The campaign, supported by UNMIL Radio, also helped to build public understanding of the role of the entire United Nations system in Liberia in support of DDR. It also encouraged families and communities that would receive demobilized ex-combatants to focus on reconciliation and forgiveness.

Containing Ebola through communications

Another critical period during which UNMIL’s public information became vital was during the Ebola crisis of 2014-15.

At the onset of the outbreak in Liberia, UNMIL--which had been planning its own withdrawal-- found itself and its staff caught up in a public health emergency and the worst threat to Liberia since the civil war ended in 2003. In partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Mission initiated critical media support via radio, community theatre and visual media to raise awareness about the virus and prevention with the aim of protecting both the Liberian population and UN personnel.

Billboards, murals and cartoons in newspapers displayed safety messages. UNMIL field personnel spread the messages as they interacted with communities and local authorities. The traditional communicators performed Ebola shows from moving trucks to dispel myths and suspicions about the disease and about the ‘men in white’ suits who appeared to collect the ill and dead. They educated thousands of onlookers about the prevention methods.

"As education about the disease increased, public knowledge of prevention methods improved, and more people sought early treatment of symptoms"

At the peak of the outbreak, when the health system was overwhelmed; and shops, schools and services closed, UNMIL Radio devoted the bulk of its airtime to educating the public about the virus and its prevention.

The station issued daily news bulletins about developments, statistics and safety messages; and it hosted call-in questions and interviews with health care workers, and religious and traditional leaders among others.

As education about the disease increased, public knowledge of prevention methods improved, and more people sought early treatment of symptoms, it became clear that the peoples’ perceptions and habits had changed, reducing the risk of the disease spreading.

Imparting democratic rights and responsibilities

During the 2005 presidential elections that resulted in Africa’s first democratically elected woman president, UNMIL Public Information managed civic voter education campaigns, using a variety of communications platforms to inform voters about the importance of exercising their democratic right to choose their government. In 2017, the messaging focused on women and other marginalized groups. UNMIL’s Women o Women campaign, for example, developed in Liberian English, aimed to mobilize women in the voter registration and voting process. Posters targeted women to inform them about the practical processes of voting, while giving them confidence in knowing that the vote they dropped into the ballot box was theirs alone; it would be counted and was their secret.

The Mission’s platforms--particularly radio and outreach--encouraged exchanges of ideas and opinions, promoted non-violent behaviour and motivated voters to register and vote. During both the 2011 and 2017 presidential and legislative elections, UNMIL’s role concentrated on logistical support, and the National Elections Commission of Liberia adopted its own civic voter education strategy, that UNMIL supported with its media platforms and traditional communicators.

During the campaign and voting periods, UNMIL media teams monitored the collection of election information by other Mission components to understand the atmosphere and potential attempts to intimidate voters, or otherwise interfere with the conduct of the elections. Summaries were posted to the UNMIL website and social media platforms throughout each day to ensure that Liberian and international followers were quickly and accurately informed of developments.

Political debates, press conferences and round-the-clock reports gathered from stringers in the field were aired via UNMIL Radio and streamed live via the UNMIL web site, as well as relayed to community radio stations throughout Liberia. Candidates and civil society groups were offered a platform to discuss the election and related issues on UNMIL Radio’s electoral-specific programmes such as Inside the Legislature, Back to the Ballot Box or the live on-air Hot Seat.

Liberia’s three election exercises and their multiple rounds held over the past 14 years enjoyed both high turnout and were violence-free before, during and after the elections indicating, in part, that the messages were well received. While disagreements arose, they were not taken to the streets and did not escalate to violence. The public information campaigns by UNMIL, the Government and their partners had proven their worth.

Strengthening local media

Like other peacekeeping missions, UNMIL both produced media content over its own platforms, and relied on local and international media to report about the Mission and the peace process. Liberia’s media had suffered from both exploitation and poverty. An article from the UNMIL Focus magazine of September 2007 described Liberia’s media scene at the time as a “raucous, free-for-all...where journalistic ethics and professionalism lay in tatters.” External critics have written that UNMIL’s high salaries for journalists hired locally didn’t help, as local media could not afford to compete for skilled staff. Still, the quality of today’s publications and broadcasters in Liberia-- many operating since that time—has improved markedly. Some credit the high bar set by UNMIL’s level of professionalism. But also UNMIL played a role in channelling substantial funding to capacity-building initiatives in an effort to develop and improve the media landscape in Liberia.

The Mission initiated education programmes to sharpen journalistic skills and to raise awareness of ethical and objective reporting. Journalists and media managers have been trained on the importance of accurate, impartial and reliable journalism to the development of a healthy democracy, and on the other hand, the dangers to it of defamatory or malicious reporting.

''raucous, free-for-all...where journalistic ethics and professionalism lay in tatters.”

To enable local journalists’ capacity to report the news, UNMIL opened a media centre and county information centres where journalists could go to use equipment and telephones, free of charge. The Mission also flew local journalists at no cost to remote and inaccessible locations in the country.

SRSG Farid Zarif engaged actively with local media, promoting journalistic ethics and the participation of women journalists. Media managers and local journalists have attended many round-table gatherings during which he led discussions on issues critical to media and their audiences.

The media landscape in Liberia enjoyed a relatively liberal political space under the Government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The Declaration of Table Mountain made on 21 July 2012 committed Government and media to a free and responsible media. In April 2017, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) launched the National Media Council of Liberia and the Revised Code of Ethics for Liberian Journalists as part of an effort to enhance the self-regulatory regime of the Liberian Media. The Media Council have committed to identifying and punishing violators that do not uphold the ethics code or practice professional journalism.

Still, gruesome scenes and lewd photographs are de rigueur for some print media. These days, however, the images have shrunk in size and moved from the front-page to inside pages. The motivation to publish more sensitive images, as well-written and researched articles still requires development. Sensationalism, rumour and speculation continue to thrive, providing the daily bread for some media managers.

Women continue to be affected by media bias and insensitivity, often portrayed as objects of sexuality, rather than sources of opinion or intellect.

This dismissive attitude remains pervasive in Liberian society where women struggle to be heard on issues affecting their lives and rights.

The few women journalists in Liberia are themselves challenged by discrimination and abuse in the male-dominated media landscape. Reporting on sexual or gender-based crimes still usually ignores protections of the victims and perpetuates their trauma and humiliation. Some graphic photographs that are printed contravene the penal code as well as journalistic standards and best practices. Gender insensitivity in reporting will continue to undermine ongoing efforts to reduce gender-based violence in Liberia.

"Women continue to be affected by media bias and insensitivity, often portrayed as objects of sexuality, rather than sources of opinion or intellect."

Against this background, associations such as FeJAL (Female Journalists Association of Liberia) and LIWOMAC (Liberia Women Media Action Committee) are at the front line of a slow cultural shift, advocating for the advancement and empowerment of women in the media, and for the mainstreaming of gender-sensitive reportage on issues such as rape and domestic violence, female genital mutilation, sex slavery, maternal health, access to justice, political participation and gender development.

UNMIL has supported programmes such as national workshops on gender sensitive media coverage, implemented with quick-impact project funds. The remaining UN organizations and other national and international stakeholders will need to continue to assist in equipping journalists with professional knowledge about gender sensitivity.

In summing up the role of UNMIL’s public information efforts in stimulating the positive changes necessary for Liberia’s post-war reconciliation, stability and security, K. Leigh Robinson, Head of the Public Information Office said, “What we did was to start a relationship through conversation, a conversation that has lasted 14 years, one that has been instrumental in reconnecting all Liberians through information sharing and by encouraging their engagement with each other and participation in their own future. Our relationship with the people of Liberia has been built on their consent, consent that we sought to maintain and their trust that we managed to retain. UNMIL’s public information activities have sown seeds of change that will continue to cultivate hope, and build tolerance, trust, integrity and understanding. Now every Liberian citizen must strive to and take responsibility for nurturing the future they envision for themselves.”