Tag Archives: Critique of reporting on Liberia

Local coverage of trial in Liberia

Many thanks to Aaron Leaf (@aaronleaf) for this overview of today’s Liberian newspaper coverage of the Taylor trial:
-Observer has a simple news piece on the front page with no byline plus a commentary by Alpha Sesay that breaks down the case in more depth.
-Insight has a similar byline-less piece on the front page.
-In Profile has nothing
-Inquirer has nothing
-Front Page Africa (where I’m based) has an inside page with wire copy
Couldn’t find the Democrat today. Probably sold out like usual.

Many thanks to Aaron Leaf (@aaronleaf) in Liberia for this overview of today’s Liberian newspaper coverage of the Taylor trial:

-Observer has a simple news piece on the front page with no byline plus a commentary by Alpha Sesay [the fantastic writer behind the Trial of Charles Taylor blog] that breaks down the case in more depth.

-Insight has a similar byline-less piece on the front page.

-In Profile has nothing

-Inquirer has nothing

-Front Page Africa (where I’m based) has an inside page with wire copy

Couldn’t find the Democrat today. Probably sold out like usual.


Ritual killings: Bad journalism repeats itself

I wish every reporter who wanted to use the term “ritual killing” in an African context was required to first read chapter six of Stephen Ellis’ The Mask of Anarchy. (Available for free online!)  Ellis explains the causes of foreign correspondents exaggerating incidences of ritual killings in Liberia during the war.  For example, the word “eating” was often used as a metaphor, and fighters might lie about cannibalism to scare their enemies.

The Economist is usually very good on Liberia. (Despite lately relegating Liberia stories to the light blue boxes, as if to say, “no need to take this as seriously as the real content of our magazine.”)  But this week’s article on “a spate of ritual killings” is an exception.

The article argues that politicians are being tempted to perform ritual killings more frequently now that elections are coming up.  The author cites one man saying the killings are “rampant and increasing.”  I’ve done no study to prove otherwise, but I simply don’t believe this.  Ritual killings probably happen occasionally, but to use the word rampant is inexcusably misleading.

The article is at points quite offensive.  The worst sentence is probably this one: “Liberia’s long civil war made [trading body parts for cash] seem less gruesome.”


Sirleaf’s relationship with her stepson

Johnny Dwyer (author of the 2008 Rolling Stone profile of Chuckie Taylor) has a fascinating article in Time about the strained relationship between Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her stepson, Fombah Sirleaf.

Fombah heads Liberia’s National Security Agency.  In cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the NSA caught a Russian pilot who was attempting to transport $100 million of cocaine through Liberia.  The Russian alleges he was tortured while in NSA custody, and this is in line with other claims of abuse at the NSA since Fombah became its head.  Dwyer also notes that the president publicly criticized Fombah after he attempted to arrest a government official who had criticized the her.

This article is everything the New York Times profile of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wasn’t: interesting, original, and critical.


Critique of Sirleaf profile

Glenna Gordon critiques the New York Times Magazine profile of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf more thoroughly than I did:   

Journalist Daniel Bergner takes twelve paragraphs to even hint at the fact that many Liberians are unhappy with EJS, though it doesn’t bother talking to any Liberians who are not the president or running for presidency. It mentions candidate Prince Johnson, but it doesn’t mention that his candidacy isn’t the real threat and that George Weah’s is […]  Bergner didn’t bother, you know, talking to any Liberians besides EJS about the TRC […]

Glenna’s full post (which she has tagged with the category “simplistic political narratives”) is here.


Chasing the Devil

Mr Butcher, a self-confessed “ego-driven Alpha Male”, is less sympathetic when reminding us at every turn of the risks he is running. There is no denying his courage and bravado, nor does he make any attempt to do so. If Greene plays down the gravity of dangers surrounding him (at one point he nearly dies of fever), Mr Butcher is on constant alert for fatal diseases and devil-worshipping fetishists who might knife out his heart to the blood-curdling screech of a bullroarer—an instrument which shares with Mr Butcher’s overheated prose the capacity to create “a strange unnerving sound that made the ceremonies even more terrifying.”

That’s The Economist’s less-than-flattering review of Tim Butcher’s Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit, an “account” of today’s Liberia and Sierra Leone.  I’m 99% sure I would hate this book, so have no intention of reading it.  But if anyone does, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Things that make you cynical about The Media

Naomi Campbell’s imminent testimony is the lead story on the BBC.  I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am.  Tons of far more news-worthy stuff has happened over the past few years at Charles Taylor’s trial that hasn’t gotten 1% of the attention Campbell’s testimony will get.


Clashes, Konia, and confusion


Something happened in Lofa County, Liberia last week.  I don’t completely get what, but I think the confusion is important.  Below is a “least-common denominator” overview of what I think happened, and then some quick comments about the confusion.

What probably happened

On Friday a woman was killed in Konia, a town in Lofa.  I don’t know why.  The woman was either 14 or 21.  I think she was Loma and Christian, and I think her body was found near a mosque. The killing sparked revenge attacks between two ethnic groups in the region: Mandingo and Loma (aka Lorma).   Attackers targeted people (including local political elite), mosques, and churches.  UNMIL restored order (or, perhaps more likely, they showed up after things had settled down).  Some are accusing UNMIL of siding with Mandingos (who are usually Muslim), as the UN peacekeepers in Lofa are mostly Pakistani.  4 people were killed and probably more than 14 wounded as a result of the clashes, mostly in Voinjama, the capital of Lofa.  Simultaneously, taking advantage of the tension, maybe 60 people escaped from the Voinjama prison.  Hundreds of people fled from Konia and Voinjama.  (As Johnny explains, both towns were hit hard by Liberia’s war.)

The confusion

First, I can’t figure out the exact name of the town.  It is alternatively spelled Konia, Kornia, and Konica.  (Sometimes different spellings within the same article.)  Also, based on 15 minutes of Google-ing, I can’t find the town on any map.   As best I can tell it is on the main road in Lofa, about 55 miles in some direction from Voinjama. [Update: It’s between Zorzor and Voinjama.  Thanks Viktor.]

These points of confusion are not insignificant, but more important is whether or not the fighting should be characterized as religious.  Land disputes between Loma and Mandingos in Lofa have been a big issue since the war ended.   Mandingo laid claim to land Loma had fled from during the war.  When the war ended, and Loma returned, land disputes arose.  (Similar dynamics have taken place across the country.  Sometimes these disputes have become violent.)  Mandingo tend to be Muslim, and Loma tend not to be Muslim.  Does this make the conflict religious?  Calling the revenge attacks religious, as VOA first did (h/t to Jina)  seems akin to a guy who happens to work at a supermarket mugging a guy who happens to be a banker, and then saying that clashes have broken out between supermarket workers and bankers.

This misrepresentation cannot just be attributed to VOA not understanding the historical context.  I saw a wire report (not the one shown above) co-written by two people, including one Liberian, that also characterized the clashes as religious.  The issue seems to be more about journalists trying to frame the story in a way that fits into people’s ideas about fighting in Africa.

A related point: Was the violence planned?   Did the murder of the Konia woman provide an excuse for people to  carry out attacks based on personal, unrelated, grievances?  These are also important questions raised by Lofa County senator Sumo Kupee.   “This thing, to me, was planned by some counterproductive individuals, who were only looking for a space to carry out such action,” Kupee said.  On a similar note, I would like to know how the clashes spread from Konia to Voinjama.

Something happens in Liberia.  Even days later, the international and local reports are confusing and riddled with inaccuracies.  This story line is not new, nor, I would imagine, isolated to Liberia.  But the consequences are always important.  Inaccurate stereotypes–in this case religious antagonism–get reinforced.

(Please let me know if I made any factual errors in this post.)


Response to Vice project criticism

Myles Estey, a collaborator on the Vice Travel Guide to Liberia project, responds to all the criticism at his blog, here.  This is an excerpt:

First of all, I want to make it clear that while I have done work with Vice, I do not work for Vice, and differ with them on a lot of issues. They hired me to assist with a project that originally had a lot of positive elements to it, and looked at the complex situation in Liberia. And because they are not afraid to go places that other media outlets are (seemingly) not willing, and talk about important issues in a manner other media cannot (which they have done to great success with past projects), it seemed like a good fit.

…I direct you to the Gettin’ By [series], and any of the blog entries found with that tag, if you doubt that. Or any article I have ever written about Liberia. The whole purpose of my work as a journalist here is to show that many people face great hardship, that real people in Liberia work exceptionally hard to make ends meet, for them and their families, and that Liberia is moving in a positive direction.

…As many people have pointed out, the overall portrait of Liberia they purport as fact is misleading. They touch on some very important ideas facing Liberia, but don’t properly contextualize them.

…My role as a fixer/field producer was to direct Vice to a wide range of stories. What I gave them was a 10-page document of story ideas, both positive and negative. Looking at the challenges of life in West Point, life in some of the remaining squats, and talking to ex-child soldiers and generals and the struggles they were facing, but also involving tons of other positive elements, like music, nightlife, soccer, religion, community leaders and some of the stories you find in my ‘Gettin’ By’ series about real people working exceptionally hard to make ends meet in an honest manner.


New Liberia newspaper/website

A veteran Liberian investigative reporter has started a fantastic newspaper called The New Dawn.  The website is user-friendly and has lots of content.

The articles are newsworthy and concise.  To whet your appetite, check out this story on how Liberia’s Anti-Corruption Commission considered recommending prosecution of the current Minister of Gender.