Global journalists mentor media in Liberia

Shaw Africa Project: LiberiaGlobal television journalist Laurel Clark works with media in Liberia with Journalists for Human Rights as part of the Shaw Africa Project. Global will send two more journalists to Ghana and Sierra Leone in the coming months as part of the project.(Photo: Barry Acton)

By Laurel Clark

Shaw Africa Project: LiberiaGlobal television journalist Laurel Clark works with media in Liberia with Journalists for Human Rights as part of the Shaw Africa Project. Global will send two more journalists to Ghana and Sierra Leone in the coming months as part of the project.(Photo: Barry Acton)

By Laurel Clark

As a reporter in the non-stop grind of daily local news, you hold on to flickers of inspiration. It usually comes in two forms; the moments when you realize someone’s life is better because of a story you told, or the moments your life is enriched simply by telling a story. Over the last six years, I’ve collected these moments in a kind of mental Rolodex. I pull it out on the days when I’m hung up on, told to F- off or when everything goes sideways for no apparent reason at all.

My Rolodex is bursting with “moments" these days but it has nothing to do with my own reporting.

I recently spent three and a half weeks in Monrovia, Liberia as a trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR). The media development organization trains journalists in Sub-Saharan countries. Over the last 10 years, JHR has trained thousands of journalists and reached an estimated 50 million Africans with human rights information.

Our goal was a little more manageable! Global Ottawa cameraman Barry Acton and I were assigned to mentor journalists from a small TV station called Power TV. The newsroom faces immense challenges compared to what we are used to in Canada. At Global Edmonton, a tough day for resources means arriving late to some news event because the assignment desk is strapped for cameras. An average day at Power TV brings a much longer list of challenges. Still recovering from a 14 year civil war, newsrooms are strapped for funding. Cameramen shoot on outdated or small handheld personal video cameras. You rarely see a tripod and never see a light kit. Reporters are also stretched to come up with their own resources. Many cover the cost of their own cell phone minutes. Some reporters have no choice but to use money from the family's grocery budget. It is also rare for news teams to secure funding for travel and accommodation outside of Monrovia. With the Capital comprising only about one quarter of Liberia's population, many stories in rural areas go untold.

In this context, you can imagine how thrilled we were to give news teams the opportunity to report beyond the borders of Monrovia. With the support of the Shaw Africa Project and JHR, we ventured out with Power TV reporter Henry Sumo and camera operator Issac Freeman. Our first report took us to Kparnyah Town to investigate the state of a nearby water source. Villagers had long complained that Firestone’s industrial chemicals were running into the water and making them sick. We discovered new wells, but most villagers said they still experienced health problems. Henry took these concerns to Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency, but an official told us that department was no longer overseeing the issue as a Presidential Committee had been assigned to look into it.

Our next out-of-town reporting trip took us to a Leprosy Colony near Gbargna, Liberia. Residents told us the health care provided in the village was inconsistent at best, and not at all what the government had promised years before. Henry was able to interview a number of sick villagers before taking the concerns to the local health authority.

Henry and Issac didn’t need guidance asking tough questions or holding the government and industry accountable for health issues. The only thing that kept them from working on these stories sooner was a simple lack of funding for rural news trips. To put things into context, a two-day rural reporting trip including transportation, accommodations and meals for a news team costs about the same as a dinner and  movie date. And that two-day reporting trip can yield two or three solid stories that can potentially change government policy and better locals’ quality of life. It’s invaluable.

One of my first pieces for Global National was about maternal mortality as the rate is one of the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2010, 1200 new mothers died in childbirth. Compare that to 46 deaths in Canada. It’s hard to comprehend that delivering a baby can be a life threatening experience for so many women. A big part of the problem is many villages are hours away from the nearest clinic. While researching the issue – I was blown away by the access. One of our interviews fell through so I went into the Ministry of Health and knocked on doors until I found the country’s Chief Medical Officer.  Within six minutes we were interviewing her on camera. Can you imagine pulling that off in any Canadian city? I’m confident I would need to speak with a few media relations people before I could even dream of lining up an interview with any high-ranking Canadian health official!

We did come across some hurdles in rural Liberia. Some villagers see a cameraman taking their picture and associate it with a foreigner making money off of their face, their body or their experience. Your intentions don’t matter. They want payment for the photo. This didn’t occur often, but it did happen on occasion. Beyond that, I was constantly humbled – even overwhelmed – by how giving Liberians were when it came to sharing their stories and experiences. You might imagine after 14 years of civil war, people would want to lock their painful memories away and never speak of them again. That wasn’t the case. The Liberians I met were open and candid, even when it came to speaking of traumatic experiences.

The Liberian journalists, cameramen and editors we met mirrored that strength. They earn in one month what an average Canadian reporter would make in a day. They work with so few resources but still manage to put out stories that create change – stories they are proud to call their own. As I reflect back on my time in Liberia, I'm confident I have taken away far more than I've left behind. I've gained an appreciation for the tools I utilize while reporting and a profound respect for the "have-not" journalists whose passion allows them to tell powerful stories every day.