The Radio and the Next Elections

By: Bushuben M. Keita

The Perspective

January 11, 2002

I read with some interest a few accounts of the current discussions in Monrovia concerning the availability of short wave radio for use by opposition political parties in the run up to the presidential and general elections in Liberia which should be scheduled for July 2003. The accounts I read spoke of a general agreement on the part of President Taylor that the short wave radio forum was not only expedient but absolutely necessary for a successful election campaign. I know from experience during my tenure as Director General of the Liberian Broadcasting System in the period immediately before and after the elections of 1997 that it was the short wave radio more than anything else that delivered the vast inaccessible countryside to the NPP at that time. I would like to share some of my experiences with you.

I remember when I was invited to speak at the opening of the new short wave radio service of the Liberian Communications Network in Totota, Bong County. The LCN is owned and controlled by President Taylor and was set up in its present form when he served on the Council of State of the Liberian National Transitional Government as one of its Vice Chairmen. This auspicious opening of the short wave service was attended by then Vice Chairman Taylor and the Council's Chairman Wilton Sankanwolo. I spoke in my capacity as Director General of the state-owned media with less than half the facilities and equipment of the new LCN set up. My remarks were laced with competitive envy and marvel at the farsightedness of the short wave initiative.

In my brief remarks I commented that the short wave service was certain to hand the elections to the NPP. I based this observation on the high illiteracy rate in the country, the absence of free travel, the unwillingness of opposition politicians to venture into certain parts of the country, and the ardent desire of the people to be informed. Then as now, I emphasized that the Liberian people had a knowledge vacuum which they will fill from the radio if for no other reason then because vacuums have the tendency to suck up what's available. It is not ignorance so much as it is the desire to be informed.

For our part at the LBS, we tried in the period leading up to the elections, to establish a viable short wave radio service at the ECOMOG base where a mobile set donated to the government of former President Amos Sawyer was located. The equipment was badly damaged and needed components not available in Monrovia. We made numerous appeals to the international community asking for new equipment or the required parts to fix the old one. Even at its functioning best our 10 kilowatts transmitter was inadequate for the job. The LCN's 25 kilowatts was better. But we could try.

I say all of this to say, absent the money we could get from the Government of Liberia at the time, no one in the international community believed in our project although they claimed to see the need for it. The transitional government under which we operated was arranged so that various factions appointed portions of the government and the public and international perception was that the appointees owed their loyalty not to the public at large but to the appointing power. This made a powerful case for detractors who sought to deny the LBS the assistance it would otherwise have gotten from the international community. We did what we could to allay this fear but apparently to no avail. The belated consensus was that instead of donating new radio equipment to the state-owned LBS, an independent entity should be set up to receive the equipment and run a private short wave service in Liberia. I canvassed against this idea, meeting a few times with the Elections Commission Chairman Andrews, a former LBS boss, and others involved in the 1997 elections. We tried to sell the idea that the LBS was already set up and could put the new equipment to the best use in the shortest possible time. The end result of the backbiting against the LBS was that the international financing which we needed was diverted to an expensive short wave set up under the control of non Liberians. It took so long to put together that it was actually opened a week before elections day.

Meanwhile, we had continued with what little we had, and had provided air time to all of the political parties, as well as organized a system for country-wide news coverage. We did receive some commendations but by and large we felt short changed. The culmination of our humiliation was when a consignment of parts donated to LBS by the United Nations was inexplicably detained by some UN staffers in Monrovia as a sabotage. I remember getting on the radio and raising an alarm so loud that the higher ups in the local UN structure quickly released the parts.

After the elections, a forum for discussing the role of the media in the elections process was put together by an American NGO at the St. Theresa Convent School in Monrovia, and I was invited to speak. The head of the new international radio station was also present. With deference to his age, I nonetheless made some harsh analyses of the manner and purpose of their broadcast service. My conclusion was that the NPP leadership understood too well the value of the short wave service in Liberia, and therefore their venture was certain to be shortlived. I have been vindicated in more ways than that. Not only has Star Radio been closed, every other short wave station in Liberia is closed today except the one run by the LCN. If this is the situation leading up to the next elections, I do not expect a result different from 1997.

What would I recommend? I would recommend that opposition political parties intending to make a serious challenge in 2003 meet now in some place and agree on the setting up of a private radio and television network fashioned after the LCN. I would also recommend that they have the same structure as the LCN, the same kind of Board of Directors and the same kind of Liberian broadcasters. This is to prevent the government from shutting it down and keeping the LCN open. At least if this is the case the discrimination will be obvious. I would recommend starting with a 25 kilowatts shortwave transmitter from the beginning. FM radio and TV could come later since broadcast can be capital intensive. Another recommendation will be that this station give equal air time to all opposition parties regardless of their level of contribution to the initial establishment effort. A final recommendation would be that the short wave service begin its broadcast at least six months before elections day in order to be effective. Do I think this is necessary to launch a successful election bid in 2003? Yes.

About the author: The author is a former Director General of the Liberian Broadcasting System, and former General Manager of Telama Fishing Corporation in Monrovia. Mr. Keita is an Attorney who practised with the law firm of David A.B. Jallah and Associates from 1998 to 2000. He presently lives in Maryland, USA.

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