Ebola goes global: The future of development, accountability, and media empowerment in Liberia

While the Ebola crisis has exerted a significant human cost in Liberia, the unprecedented attention given to the tiny West African country has been a catalyst of local media empowerment. The extent to which this attention can be leveraged for sustainable media development will be a barometer for the ability of the international community to make good on the Ebola opportunity.

(Ir)responsible media & Ebola awareness

In a region of the world that typically receives scant media attention, the Ebola crisis has put Liberia in the limelight. Western media coverage of the virus has been, at times, hysterical, with the crisis often used to score political points against the Obama administration. The media’s reaction, however, was not the same everywhere—as one of the handful of foreign correspondents based in Liberia prior to Ebola, Clair MacDougall noted, “[M]edia did contribute to raising awareness about Ebola on a global scale, but there was also a lot of fearmongering.” In fact, a number of media organizations played a responsible role in raising public awareness about the virus. The role of the media (both domestic and international) leading up to, during, and after the height of the crisis, then, offers insights for practitioners on best practices to make the most out of the attention and funding emanating from a crisis situation.

While many Liberians did not take the disease seriously until after it had proliferated for several months  (international partners and the government even created an Ebola is Real sensitization campaign to combat allegations that the virus not exist or was a biological agent deployed by the West). In fact, MacDougall, an international freelance correspondent resident in Monrovia since 2011, has also noted that the alarmist tone of international coverage played a role in the exodus of many aid workers and business people from Liberia. The mass exit then disrupted the economy and development projects more than the disease itself.

At the same time, journalism spread vital information in the country: Writing for The New York Times, Wade Williams, a leading Liberian investigative journalist, noted that her reporting on the burial of an Ebola victim in June 2014 encouraged people in Liberia to believe that the disease was real. Williams’s case illustrates the (rare) positives from Ebola for Liberia’s journalistic community—after her appearance in the Times, the Associated Press provided her with training in video editing and the increased focus on Liberia provided her with additional reporting and capacity-building opportunities that would have been otherwise unavailable. Other international news training outlets that came to Liberia to respond to the Ebola crisis made an effort to reach beyond the tried and true civil society actors lurking the corridors of power in Monrovia. For example, Internews has hired local female journalists, and its flagship Ebola media training program heavily emphasized participation of journalists from across the country; areas outside of Monrovia are routinely marginalized in the media sphere, with most local stories written by Monrovia-based journalists.  

The Ebola crisis and the internationalization of Liberian media

Indeed, Kate Thomas, the managing editor of Ebola Deeply, an Ebola media portal that aims to more fully explore the currents behind the prevailing narratives, believes that the crisis “has put West Africa on the map in ways people did not see it before” and that it offers “more of a chance for reporters [in Liberia] to come to the forefront.” In other words, Ebola is an opportunity for longstanding Liberia watchers and local writers to ply their craft and connect more effectively with a larger audience. She laments that much of the early international coverage was dominated by health editors (often for safety reasons) who had limited understanding of West Africa, resulting in a situation where “a lot of international journalists didn’t get under the skin as well as they could have if they worked more closely with local reporters.”

By the end of 2014, the virus was strongly in remission. Using music, video, and citizen journalism, Liberian media, often supported by international partners, played a major role in tackling the spread of Ebola by raising awareness, sharing information, and supporting the outreach efforts of health workers. As Liberian independence celebrations passed in late July and the rainy season petered out over the subsequent months, the initial media empowerment drive of writers like Wade Williams and organizations like Internews have started to bear fruit.

Media empowerment—a governance dividend?

Indeed, it seems that the Ebola crisis could have even catalyzed a stronger press in Liberia as a critical component of state-society relations. As MacDougall said, “the Ebola outbreak was a big story, but I don’t think it’s the story…there is the potential that another Ebola outbreak can happen if governance is not improved.” In what is likely a response to the anti-Western sentiment and prevalence of rumors (such as Ebola being a biological agent of the West) that hindered the response to the crisis, USAID announced in January a “Liberia Media Development”  initiative to support “Liberian citizens’ access to independent and reliable information and empowerment to engage in well-informed public discussion of important issues of the day.”  Given the media’s role as a key institution that informs the public, promotes accountability, and strengthens civil society, this initiative is poised to play a significant role in building a more transparent, better-educated Liberia overall. Undoubtedly, the initiative will also both directly and indirectly strengthen governance institutions.

The project has enormous potential, though some risks as well. The $10 million project dwarfs the budget of any local media house, so it will need to be managed very carefully to ensure that the funds can be appropriately and effectively utilized. However, if the project leverages the unity that Liberians demonstrated in combating Ebola; strengthens capacity decimated by civil war and a century of one-party rule; and collaboratively engages the talents of international implementers with local practitioners, this crisis may be a turning point for Liberian media houses in their efforts to build accountability and uphold democracy.

For this to be a reality however, USAID and Liberia’s international partners need to move beyond a series of workshops that focus on data-driven targets and instead prioritize training that supports critical analysis and independent thinking. It should embrace the kind of commentary that asks difficult questions of Liberia’s government and its international partners. If these kinds of questions had been asked before the outbreak, the crisis may not have been as severe.

Note: Brooks Marmon is a program officer at the Accountability Lab in Monrovia, Liberia. You can follow the Lab on Twitter at @accountlab. This blog reflects the views of the author only and does not reflect the views of the Africa Growth Initiative.