A recent Vice Guide to Travel on Liberia has provoked mixed reactions among Liberia observers, journalists, and bloggers. There are two camps.
The first camp is fuming. They find the travel guide “idiotic, sensationalizing, simplistic” (David Sasaki). “Nothing constructive is going to come out of this documentary. All it does is further fetishize the same scenes and stories that are always associated with Liberia.”
“This has left me seething,” says Kate Thomas. “‘Documentaries’ like this widen the gap between Liberia and ‘the west’ and discourage understanding and interest in the burgeoning tourism industry.”
“In four and a half years of watching Liberia coverage in the media, I can safely say that the Vice series is the most irresponsible, exploitative, morally bankrupt, stereotype-confirming, thinly-researched, dishonest—even harmful—parachute hack-job I’ve seen,” says Josh Chaffin. ”Discussing wartime conditions, the excesses of wartime, as if they were still the norm. In the case of sexual violence, ok, it’s still rampant. But flesh eating? Murder, mayhem, etc? You’re purposely trying to make Liberia seem worse than it is, just so that you can have a story.”
The second camp is less mad. ”I’m fascinated by VBS because they appear to be getting people to pay attention to a part of the world that receives very little media attention,” blogs Ethan Zuckerman. ”At minimum, Vice’s documentary demonstrates that there are stories to tell about Africa’s history that can reach an audience beyond the NPR/PBS community.”
I’m firmly in the first camp.
One of the journalists involved in the Vice project, Myles Estey, has a fantastic blog. He has a great series called “Gettin’ By,” where he tells the stories of people working in Liberia’s informal economy. The series counters the oft-cited statistic that 85% of Liberians are unemployed. “While Liberia certainly lacks locations for official, regulated employment, that only 15 % of the population works is an absurd assumption, and one that would be practically unattainable. While severe poverty is rampant, Liberians are not starving to death,” Myles writes.
Yet this Vice series does exactly the opposite of what Myles does on his blog–it perpetuates the idea that Liberia is violent and dirty and squalid. It feels like a modern version of a colonial travel diary. The harm done by the series far offsets any of the gains made by bringing attention to Liberia.
It would be good to get the opinion of some Liberians. Have any Liberians responded to this series yet?