The story of UNMIL [Book]: UNMIL Radio: keeping Liberians informed

UNMIL Radio staff on air at one of the studios at UNMIL HQ in Monrovia. Photo: Christopher Herwig | UNMIL | 7 Jan 09

3 Apr 2018

The story of UNMIL [Book]: UNMIL Radio: keeping Liberians informed

Napoleon Viban, Chief Radio Unit

UNMIL Radio first hit the airwaves at the very inception of the UN Mission. The start-up challenges in human and material resources were enormous but these paled in comparison to winning public confidence in a platform from which messages on the peace process would resonate for years to come.

“Expectations were very high,” recalled Torwon Solunteh-Brown, one the first producers. “Coming out of a war in which the local media had been a part, the people of Liberia were desperate for a voice they could trust.”

Seeing the urgency, the new station moved fast to establish a foothold, launching even before the Mission could pitch camp.

Early broadcasts from makeshift quarters at Spriggs Payne Airfield announced the deployment of the peacekeeping troops and other personnel.

Since then, the station went on to play a pivotal role in the advocacy for peace, tolerance and national reconciliation in Liberia, broadcasting to all 15 counties in English, Liberian English, the three major local languages (Lorma, Bassa and Kpelleh) and even some French. The radio reaches some 80 per cent of the population of approximately 4.5 million.

From March 2018, the station will continue to broadcast after UNMIL’s departure, under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Since the year 2000, ECOWAS had envisioned a regional broadcasting service, but couldn’t find the funding. UNMIL’s pending departure enabled that realization.

In May 2017, President Sirleaf welcomed the proposal that UNMIL hand over the station to COWAS, to become “a regional instrument for promoting democracy, peace, stability and good governance.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the “transformation of UNMIL Radio into an independent regional radio station.”  

Besides technical equipment, ECOWAS will inherit 15 Liberian radio producers and technicians.

At its peak, UNMIL Radio was producing 60 programmes a week in various formats, covering a wide range of issues and areas, including the work of the Mission and of the UN family at large, the Liberian peace process, national reconciliation, humanitarian interventions, current affairs, human rights, the rule of law, security, gender, civic education and human interest stories.  

UNMIL Radio has consistently given voice not only to the UN community, but also to public authorities and civil society organizations, largely through on-air debates and panel discussions on social, cultural and economic issues related to post-war reconstruction and development of Liberia.

Panelists have come from Government ministries, the Legislature, academia and advocacy groups. Notable topics in recent years have included women’s empowerment, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, mob justice, conduct during elections, ritual killings, traditional practices, land rights, corruption, the education system, governance, decentralization and the establishment of county service centres. Listeners phone in questions and observations, further enriching the debates. Special series were produced addressing the potential for conflict over Liberia’s natural resources and disputes related to land ownership, as well as corruption and its threat to stability and good governance.  

The station has also been vocal on gender mainstreaming, sexual and gender-based violence, and sexual exploitation and abuse, through programmes such as Women's World and Girl Power, as well as through panel discussions and call-ins. Programming has been produced in collaboration with various stakeholders, including the UN Country Team, the Liberian Ministry of Gender, the Liberia National Police, Ministry of Justice, and UNMIL’s Gender as well as Conduct and Discipline sections.

In its 2017 election programming, UNMIL Radio conducted panel discussions with stakeholders to push for an inclusive and peaceful process, and to ensure free, fair and transparent elections. Working with various UNMIL offices, the National Elections Commission, the Government of Liberia and other civil society organizations, the station produced several public service announcements (PSAs) and programmes providing guidance on the election process.

During the 2014 outbreak of Ebola, the station was on the frontline of public education on safe health habits and protocols. Complementing and reinforcing public awareness on other communication channels, UNMIL Radio developed and broadcast scores of PSAs, drama skits, panel discussions and talk shows to guide the public, reaching far-flung communities across the country with timely education and information on the epidemic.

To help avert an earlier crisis, following post-election violence in 2012 in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, bi-weekly programming in French targeted incoming Ivoirian refugees with information on developments back home and messages on peace and reconciliation.

Over the years the station has produced more than 1,000 jingles, PSAs and dramas to address a broad range of issues including mob violence, peace and reconciliation, child rights, human rights, education, corruption, sexual exploitation and abuse, HIV/AIDS and political developments such as elections.

As the Mission prepared to wind down, panellists and interviewees have urged the Government to maintain well-functioning, accountable and responsive national institutions. In parallel, UNMIL Radio provided both Government and UN officials a platform to explain the transition process.

Liberia has some 100 other private and community radio stations, but most can be heard only in the capital of Monrovia, and have had nowhere near the resources the UN station enjoyed in the past.

UNMIL Radio also developed partnerships with community radios in the counties, with 30 partners at one point. The number fell to nine in 2017 as drawdown progressed. For a token fee, partner stations relayed selected UNMIL Radio programmes to a wide listenership. Phoneins from across the country bore testimony to this reach.

The drawdown reduced budget and staffing for the station. The closure of field offices and dismantling of Mission communications’ infrastructure could have greatly impacted the station’s reach

However, by forging a partnership with the Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS), the station was able to retain much of its coverage, sharing towers that the UN handed over to the LBS, and using sites in the regions receiving the LBS signal.

This arrangement came at a critical time for the Mission, that is, during the election period as well as during the drawdown and eventual closure of UNMIL.

By December 2017, UNMIL Radio still operated eight transmitter sites. Feedback from listeners and observers in both the Government and civil society suggested that the station has remained a bulwark against partisan reporting, rumour and misinformation, providing Liberians with an impartial and reliable source of information and guidance on the affairs of state.

With the transition to ECOWAS management, it is hoped that the station will continue its role helping Liberia with the consolidation of its hard-won peace.