Women and the Media in Liberia: The Uneven Course

Torwon Sulonteh-Brown is the Senior Radio Adviser with Internews’ Liberia Media Development (LMD) program. She was a President of the Female Journalists Association of Liberia for more than 6 years, and a senior radio producer for 12 years with the United Nations Mission in Liberia’s Radio.

In this article, Sulonteh-Brown reflects on women’s participation in media in her country.

Liberia is one of the few African countries led by a woman – Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was democratically elected to the presidency in 2005 and 2011. She was elected after two brutal civil wars during that resulted in over 200,000 people dead, thousands injured for life, and millions pushed into exile inside or outside of Liberia.

Unfortunately her presidency has not yet translated into increased numbers and status of women in media.

Women are only 13 to 16% of Media Practitioners

After nearly 12 years of relative peace, the problems propelled by centuries of tradition and generally accepted societal norms still persist. Women continue to be at the lower end of the economic ladder, of level of education, and political inclusion.

As a former president of the Female Journalists Association of Liberia (FeJAL), I am well positioned to assess this situation. Studies conducted by various media development organizations show that women account for a mere 13 to 16% of the total number of journalists in Liberia. In fact, media assessments revealed that many outlets have less than three women performing editorial or managerial roles, out of an average staff of 25. The situation is even worse at the community radio level.

From a personal point of view as a veteran woman journalist with more than 20 years of experience in the sector, I have experienced these travails of women struggling to create a significant space for themselves in the Liberian media. I started my journalism career in late 1990 at the Liberia Rural Communications Network Radio Voinjama in Lofa County, in the northern part of Liberia, as a novice with no prior training in journalism, relying only on my good reading ability and high school reporting experience.

Because of the Liberian civil war, many media professionals had migrated away from Lofa County, which created a vacuum that was filled by available, but inexperienced people like me. I was accepted as a full time journalist and expected to perform reporting tasks immediately, such as gathering news content from the field, writing news stories, interviewing sources and so forth.

These tasks were very challenging, and owing to the fact that I did not know where to begin, made it even more worrisome. Mentorship at that time was not in the books and everyone was expected to hit the ground running as you got started in the newsroom.

Furthermore, we were practicing wartime journalism, meaning less regard to professional ethics. Although there were one or two male colleagues willing to help, being the only female novice in a male dominated profession made the chances of exploitation and sexual harassment high. Many of those who offered assistance wanted something in return. I must admit that even many of the male colleagues who were seniors also had no previous professional background but because of their ego and bravery, they managed to get their work done.

While we were on the field I was compelled to ask the interviewees questions and the questions that I asked were many times closed ended, repetitious and ignorant; all because I did not know what to say. Back in the newsroom I had to write a story for the newscast. The question I used to ask myself then was: “where do I start?” In the end, my colleagues would do the story.

With the experience I went through during my early days as a novice journalist, my heart goes out to young Liberian female journalists of this generation who have the passion for the profession but lack the necessary skills to even begin the job. This has created the burning desire in me to advocate for a safer environment and capacity building trainings for women in the media.

Women can be what they want to be when they are given the space to perform. The two term leadership role I held as the President of FeJAL helped me give women the confidence to perform as well as their male counterparts. Some of them are now assigned beats that were traditionally tagged as “male beats;” a few are serving as sub-editors and many are reporting from the fields. Even with that, there are many more men than women performing those tasks because the bottlenecks are still present. Sustained capacity building and mentoring, disparity in assignments and salaries are all lacking. Stereotypes, sexual harassment and exploitation are still prevalent.

Over the last eight years, there have been only three female station managers and they have since left those positions for various reasons, while in the print media, there is a lone woman managing editor, running a newspaper and printing press.

“It is even more difficult for me as a woman in a newsprint industry and I eagerly need support,” she told me.

A female journalist colleague, E. B once told me, “It is much easier for a female journalist to enter university than to become an editor or director in a newsroom, simply because of stereotypes, sexual harassment and the high demands placed on top positions in the newsroom if a woman wants to occupy any of those positions.”

Fast Paced Growth in the Last Few Years

To compound these challenges, many of the women themselves lack the motivation to perform, due to low skills, limited education and lack of mentorship. The few who have managed to obtain higher education and professional levels and could serve as mentors to the younger ones have all left mainstream media for greener pastures, serving as public relations officers in the public and private sectors, as well as in NGOs.

The number of younger women in the media especially in the nation’s capital Monrovia, is growing at a fast pace but many of them are in universities and journalism schools; some are just coming out of high school. Within FeJAL, at just one sitting during a meeting in 2015, we were able to register over 75 media women excluding those from community radios, who were not present; this figure could be higher if we had access to nationwide data.

A broad-based approach is needed to raise the journalism standards of these young women who have the passion for the profession, but lack experience.

Internews through the Liberia Media Development Program (LMD), is taking on the challenge to narrow the inequality gap between men and women in the media. The LMD has a comprehensive and inclusive training strategy that will build Liberian media women’s capacity and create the space for their advancement in the sector. This will require short and long term trainings and one-on-one mentoring, as well as sensitizing media gatekeepers such as managers, editors-in-chief, editors, directors and other senior or junior male journalists on gender issues. To accomplish this, the organization will partner with FeJAL and other media development organizations that are interested in building women’s capacity and empowerment.

The Liberia Media Development program is a 5-year effort funded by the United States Agency for International Development in Liberia and implemented by Internews.