It took just one day for journalist Emmanuel Degleh to restore access for 12,000 Liberians to the only health clinic in their area.
Residents of the mountainous Gibi district had been pleading with government officials to repair a collapsed culvert that was cutting off their only road to emergency health services and the rest of the country. For weeks the requests were ignored. But when Degleh picked his way up the muddy pass on a motorbike to tell the story on community radio and online at Local Voices Liberia, his report caught the public’s attention.
“The news is not dominated by the voices of the ordinary people, but my persistent reporting forced the government to implement changes,” Degleh says. Within days officials had fixed the road.
Degleh’s story represents a small but powerful shift in Liberia’s media landscape since the 2014 Ebola outbreak. In an industry long dominated by politics, newly trained health journalists are strengthening the country’s health infrastructure through reporting that educates communities and catalyses action.
When the largest Ebola virus outbreak in history tore through Liberia three years ago, it unveiled to the world a tragically broken and underdeveloped healthcare system. Two decades of political instability and civil war had depleted the country’s health infrastructure, and 4,810 Liberians died from Ebola – more than in any other country.
But just as much of a factor in the devastation – at least initially – was the spread of unverified information and a fragile press. For months, Liberians bought into rumours that the virus wasn’t real, or that it was a biological weapon of the west. Many people didn’t know how to recognise symptoms of the virus until it was too late.
Unfortunately, most of Liberia’s journalists were also ill-equipped to report on the outbreak. According to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press country report, about a dozen newspapers were published regularly in Liberia in 2014, although low literacy rates combined with the cost of a paper meant that most Liberians got their information from the radio.
But the media in Liberia usually depends on government advertising, and contributions from politicians and international donors. With scarce resources most newsrooms skimped on salaries, resources and training for journalists. Reporters, who earn about 3,000 Liberian dollars (less than $30) a month, have little incentive to fork out for travel to rural communities when politicians in Monrovia will pay for stories.
Meanwhile, the government has faced accusations of trying to influence editorial content by withholding advertising.
A coalition of press associations and international organisations decided to assist journalists to fill the void. With the help of Internews, a non-profit international media-training organisation, the coalition launched a health programme called Information Saves Lives, which recruited 24 journalists – including Degleh – from newspapers and radio stations across the country to undergo an intensive training programme.
“The very clear need for information during Ebola raised the profile and power of journalism and information infrastructures,” says Internews’ global health adviser, Ida Jooste.
Internews set up an SMS service for people to text in health-related rumours, which became an invaluable source of stories. The Information Saves Lives journalists, in their newsrooms, researched the reports and distributed the facts.
The journalists’ specialised training and strong relationships with health officials has enabled them to report health issues in an unsensationalised manner, and to become health experts in newsrooms, including at GNN Liberia, FrontPage Africaand community radio stations across rural Liberia. Some are going on to do paid fellowships. Degleh, for example, is on the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s programme, Reporting After the Epidemic, while his Local Voices Liberia colleague Alpha Daffae Senkpeni is doing a fellowship in China.
But perhaps most important, these newly trained health journalists have earned the trust of rural Liberians.
If there’s an armed robbery, they call a journalist. They see us as more reliable than the government
“In rural Liberia, if there’s a traffic accident along the highway, they prefer to call me as a journalist instead of the the police,” Degleh says. “If there’s an armed robbery and people need help, they prefer to call a journalist, because they see us as more reliable than the government.” It’s not that the government doesn’t know what needs to be done. But according to Degleh, officials are just content to let these issues get lost in bureaucracy until a reporter shines a spotlight on them.
For example, Liberia wants to lower its maternal mortality rate, which is one of the highest in the world at 1,072 deaths per 100,000 live births. Yet the government has largely ignored the fact that bad roads are one of the biggest obstacles to rural pregnant women’s access to emergency care.
Although reporters like Degleh are now carving out a space for health reporting, they are still a minority among Liberia’s more than 500 journalists, the best of whom often leave the industry for more lucrative careers in public relations.
“There is a huge ‘brain drain’ in the media sector,” says Samuka Konneh, Internews’ health communications officer in Liberia.
Still, rural health reporting is beginning to take root as young reporters pioneer new paths to successful journalism through international fellowships. “Homegrown” independent news outlets, like The Bush Chicken or Local Voices Liberia, are expanding across the country. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also honoured the press for its “outstanding role” in the fight against Ebola, despite her crackdown on the media during the outbreak.
“As really everywhere else in the world, change is not something that one can expect to happen overnight,” Jooste says. “It happens incrementally.”
But even more lasting than official accolades or immediate responses to watchdog reporting is the steady, incremental empowerment of communities as they become more informed. From learning where they can receive treatment without leaving the country, to their basic democratic rights, Liberia’s “ordinary people” are slowly finding their voice. Community health workers, the first responders in rural areas, have also risen in status. Internews suspended the Information Saves Lives programme in December due to lack of funding, but it is still running a large five-year Liberia Media Development programme funded by USAid.
“I’m praying this doesn’t happen, but if there is a new outbreak [of Ebola], at least Liberia now has journalists who can effectively report on health epidemics,” says Konneh.