Former combat correspondent James Momoh of Liberia, who recently joined the Africa Center for Strategic Studies as an adjunct faculty member and advisor on media relations, understands the challenge associated with reporting in conflict-affected and post-conflict environments.
“The media needs to be an integral part of security sector reform and its implementation,” Mr. Momoh said during a presentation at an October 2012 ACSS workshop in Dakar, Senegal. “This cannot be done behind closed doors.”
The media in many African states has had a historically antagonistic relationship with the governments—especially the security sector, Mr. Momoh said during the presentation. During his time at the Africa Center, he will work to help bridge the gap between the media and the security sector on the continent.
A seasoned journalist who covered conflicts throughout West Africa, Mr. Momoh has closely observed the evolution of media and press freedom in Liberia and throughout the region over the past several decades.
“The media in the 1980s was basically controlled by the government,” Mr. Momoh recalled of his time reporting in Liberia. Media outlets required clearance from the government before publishing or broadcasting. Publishing houses that violated this policy risked being shut down or even destroyed. Non-compliant journalists operated in fear of constant intimidation. Many were arrested or detained by the government.
Meanwhile, the government maintained a monopoly over the country’s media. “Government media existed basically to protect government interests,” Mr. Momoh said. “When the government was accused of human rights violations, the government media projected a positive image of the government.”
Reporting conditions in Liberia deteriorated drastically with the outbreak of the Liberian Civil War in 1989. “Peacetime repression gave way to the dangers of reporting from war zones,” according to a report by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Apart from a short-lived cease-fire from 1996 to 1999, the war continued until 2003.
For journalists, the threat of violence and intimidation intensified during the conflict. “The media disappeared because of the insecurity,” said Mr. Momoh. “Liberia became a failed state. The media could not function and had to go underground.”
Warring factions were also able to compromise the integrity of a large share of the media houses that remained active in the country. “With Liberia caught up in highly factionalized conflict, many media outlets became, wittingly or unwittingly, mouthpieces for the competing factions’ propaganda,” according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
The reporting environment in Liberia has improved drastically since the civil war ended in 2003. “Today, we have a proliferation of media institutions in the country because of the relative peace that exists. There are more independent papers, there’s an increase of radio stations and television stations,” said Mr. Momoh. “Today’s era has become an era of relative press freedom in Liberia.”
In some ways, Liberia’s government has been a pioneer in the region in terms of press freedom. In 2010, for example, the country became the first state in West Africa to enact a Freedom of Information law.
The impact of enhanced media freedom has been clearly visible. “The rapid spread of mobile phones and FM radio in the last decade has had a stabilising role in the intrinsic sense of opening access to information,” according to a December 2011 study by International Alert on media, information flows, and conflict in Liberia. “[This] has also necessitated examples of specific good practice as the media, citizens and community leaders seek to build peace and counter information which might otherwise stoke conflict.”
But despite significant progress, state-media relations in Liberia continue to face major challenges.
“Liberia saw increased attacks against journalists in 2011, both in the form of physical violence, as well as the use of libel charges by politicians to silence journalists,” wrote Freedom House in its latest annual examination of press freedom around the world. Meanwhile, the watchdog has also expressed concerns about the ethical standards of some journalists in the country. “Reporters commonly accept payment from individuals covered in their stories, and the placement of a story in a paper or radio show can often be bought and influenced by outside interests.”
And Liberia’s case is not unique. Government censorship and interference in the operations of the media is commonplace in African states experiencing or emerging from conflict or political crises. Reporters in these environments routinely suffer from resource and capacity restraints. On the other hand, a lack of professionalism on the part of some reporters can undermine governments’ confidence in the media. What results is a relationship defined by mutual suspicion and mistrust.
Ultimately, in the absence of independent, empowered, and capable media, post-conflict states struggle to consolidate peace and promote accountability and good governance. Conflict can have a devastating impact on public-sector institutions and accountability mechanisms. As these institutions are rebuilt, governance experts say the media can play a crucial role as a watchdog and as a venue for dialogue between the government and society at large. Accordingly, empowering the media and fostering constructive relationships between reporters and governments in these states must be a priority.
One key responsibility for media outlets in post-conflict environments, according to Mr. Momoh, is to remain engaged with the security sector—especially as governments embark on security sector reform. Given that one of the most basic functions of any state is to safeguard the security of its citizens, ensuring that citizens receive timely and accurate information about key factors and institutions impacting their security is crucial for maintaining the legitimacy of the state itself.
As an advisor on media relations at ACSS, Mr. Momoh will spearhead several initiatives aimed at improving the security sector’s relationship with the media. Mr. Momoh plans to help ACSS alumni in the security sector develop a better understanding of the role that a free, independent, and professional press can play in contributing to government oversight and accountability, especially in the security sector. Mr. Momoh also will work to assist African journalists in enhancing their understanding of the security sectors in their respective countries. In addition, he hopes to help foster appropriate standards of journalistic ethics and standards of reporting on the part of journalists.
Professor Thomas Dempsey, chair for security studies at the Africa Center and a retired U.S. Army colonel, said a free, independent press can be an important aspect of a healthy security sector.
“Building a more functional and effective partnership between African security sectors and the press requires input from experienced African journalists who are familiar with the unique challenges of reporting in an African context, and who also have experience reporting on security issues,” Mr. Dempsey said. “Mr. Momoh meets all of these requirements, and we anticipate that his credibility with local media and journalists will help us identify other African journalists who do as well.”