By Hannah N. Geterminah with Journalists for Human Rights
The impact of Covid-19, a global nemesis, is being felt acutely. Loss of advertising revenue and low sales forced newsrooms across the world, during the peak of the outbreak announce staff layoffs, newspapers suspended or cancelled their print operations and downsized significantly.
The news industry is, no doubt, under immense stress and the Liberian media is one of the worst affected.
The strained economic conditions that reporters, who are the core of the journalism profession or its lifeblood, have endured for decades are being exacerbated by the unceasing health crisis.
Being some of the least paid globally, Liberian journalists also have no access to health insurance or any other benefits that come with their jobs. Compounding this, the meagre they should be earning is now taking forever to come.
Many of them were owed between five to a year months before the pandemic—a condition precipitated by the chaotic economic conditions the country has come to brace itself with since the ascendency of the George Weah administration.
Those same journalists, as it stands, have now gone more than a year without getting a penny from their employers—who takes the blame for the journalists’ precarious economic situation…obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Employees and freelancers at the Daily Observer, the nation’s biggest and oldest surviving newspaper, find themselves at the center of this predicament.
They are some of the worst affected.
“We have not taken pay for several months,” an employee who prefers not to be named told this reporter, “Sadly management is doing nothing to address this situation.”
The employee said they have not been paid for the past ten months. “I’m lucky because some of my colleagues have gone more than a year.”
There has been a series of go-slow actions on the premises of the entity led by officers of a private security firm that man the compound, reporters, as well as other employees but quitting is the last decision anyone would want to take.
The Chief Editor of the newspaper, Joaquin M. Sendolo, says the economic independence for journalists in Liberia has no magnitude for discussion because it is not possible to happen now.
“The persistent nonpayment of salaries were getting embarrassing but with Coronavirus, it is worsening,” the head of the newsroom discloses, “We want a solution to this problem but I get no idea where that solution would come from.”
The pandemic has affected all sectors of society, Sendolo said, but the media has its issue before the COVID-19 virus.
Journalists are the most underpaid and humiliated people in society. They cannot afford to purchase a car or build a house from their legal earnings unless they promote politicians or private individuals and institutions in return for gratuity,” Sendolo notes, “If a journalist had worked for a year without pay, you don’t expect him or her to do more than what will bring the person money. I can’t tell when I took pay over the last two years.”
The Daily Observer, a few years ago, was among few media institutions that regularly pay their staffs, provide weekly communication stipends, as well as transportation—but the latter, were the initial ones to be relaxed followed by salary payment months afterward.
The situation has left some of the reporters, who somehow enjoyed Observer’s glorious days embarrassed to leave now that things are difficult.
The lack of a stable income to cater to one’s family, especially for media practitioners, as indicated by the Daily Observer editor, is breeding unethical behaviours in the media. The president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), Charles Coffey, cannot agree more.
Coffey says media owners’ refusal to pay their employees are undermining the integrity and prestige of not just the journalists but the profession as a whole.
“The question of who watches the watchdogs of the society has gone unanswered for years.”
He describes as sad, the economic condition of reporters who are the front-liners of the profession. “Some of them who are employed, their salaries hardly come.”
Media executives complain about the poor economy of the country when they were confronted at a recent meeting held with the PUL at which time the well-being of Journalists was a point of focus. “They told us that things are very difficult and they too are feeling the stress of the poor economy,”
Reporters at Truth F. M., another nationally renowned media outlet, were involved in strike action over salary delay recently. They, too, have not been paid for several months.
The Inquirer is also one of the oldest media institutions in the country. The newspaper, founded and published by veteran journalist, Philip Wesseh, also a product of the Daily Observer, is one of the entities that are struggling to keep salary current. A reporter, who asked not to be named, says employees are not been paid for six to eight months.
Inquirer’s editor-In-Chief, C. Winnie Saywah Jimmy, describes the practice of journalism in Liberia as an act of volunteerism.
“Businesses is done in United States Dollars while reporters who worked tirelessly to ensure that the media houses remain respected are paid in Liberian Dollars,” she says, terming the act as ‘corruption.’
She said the issues of bank transfers for advertisement have even made it more difficult for reporters to understand whether the institutions are making money; adding that “If you leave the reporters in suspicious, they will think that you are making money and want to pay. So, it is good to always have the staff updated.”
She wants media owners to motivate journalists while at the same time investing in investigative journalism. “This is what should be done if the media must stay independent.”
Fabine Kwiah, a broadcast journalist and Judiciary Reporter at the state-run Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS), says reporters are far from being independent.
“We are not paid adequately for the work we do and qualifications remain a challenge. It has even gone difficult since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus,” she said.
Some journalists are paid as low as US$30.00 to US$ 50.00. These meagre salaries contravene 16.1 of the Decent Work Act that says worker/employee is entitled to be paid a minimum wage of United States Sixty-eight cents (Us$0.68) per hour – United States Five Dollars – Fifty Cents (US$5.50) per day for work that the employee is employed to perform.
Garmah Lomo, a reporter of the News Public Trust, an online platform, says journalists’ economic quagmire leads to media practitioners begging government officials for money at press conferences.”
She blames the “unfortunate situation” on the failure of many media executives to pay their workers.
The president of the Reporters Association of Liberia, Cecelia Clarke, agrees with Lomo. She says it is difficult for a journalist who is not being paid rightly to be independent or ethical in their reportage.
“While being unethical is condemnable, it is also incumbent upon media managers to pay their reporters to avoid such,” says the RAL head.
A former editor at the Women Voices Newspaper, operated by the lone female publisher in the country, G. Mensiegar Karnga, says “Media managers woefully pay reporters while some do not pay at all.”
Discouraged by his experiences at both Women Voices, owned by Helen G. Nah, and The Analyst Newspapers, Karnga has since left the media. He described the persistent nonpayment of reporters’ salaries as “cruel.”
“I worked as a journalist for a little over a decade, debuting with The Analysts before going to Women Voices as Editor-In-Chief,” Karnga says. “Journalists are not treated fairly in this country.”
It is however no doubt that the COVID-19 devastation is having a huge toll on newspapers in particular and the Liberian media landscape in general.
The traditional business model for newspapers, underpinned by advertising and circulation, has imploded since.
This is not a new occurrence or due to COVID-19: revenue from these two sources has been steadily declining in recent years due to the uptake of digital news and the challenging economic environment in the country. The pandemic has added fuel to the fire.
“Unless we take swift and decisive measures, the newspaper industry will be decimated,” Dapo Olorunyomi, Executive Director of the Nigerian Outlet, Premium Times Center for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), warned. Dapo told reporters in Monrovia recently, “There is a need for radical and urgent measures to mitigate the impact of not just Covid-19, but also the threats posed by the internet.
Newspapers have been the lifeblood of democracy for centuries. Local, independent publishers have pushed for strong and credible journalism; developing a public good that is now under threat.
“Newspapers are still an invaluable medium in our African. We must work to ensure its survival,” Dapo said.
Even though a lot of media institutions have struggled to pay their staff over the years, a few have managed to pay regularly.
According to reporters from both Spoon F.M/TV and FrontPage Africa (FPA), they receive their regular salaries on time.
FPA’s publisher, Rodney Sieh also echoed the issue of lack of advertisement, low sales, and the emergence of internet journalism as major challenges that have plagued the traditional media industry.
“Most media institutions depend on the government for advertisement and those are hardly coming. If it comes, it is very limited to run the day-to-day activities of the institution,” the veteran journalist says.
He said even though his newspaper tries to pay their employees on time, provide funding for investigation, and tried to provide when there is a need, but that is not enough to cope with the reporters’ economic challenges.
“We tried to make our staff happy by paying rent, tuition, and medical when the need arises. We know that it is not enough, but we are limited to what we can do. We want to do more, but we cannot because newspaper sale is not doing well in Liberia. In the 80s the Observer used to sell up to twenty, thirty thousand copies which are not happening today,” Sieh, a nephew of the Daily Observer’s Managing Publisher, Kenneth Best, says. He worked with his uncle for some time before going solo.
“People try to blame the media owners but things are tough for everyone.”
Many people nowadays get the news from the internet which indicates that media outlets have to change their strategies and news content if they must stay relevant. “But this is also difficult in Liberia.”
The Publisher of the News Public Trust Newspaper, Frank Sainworla, says Liberia’s media has been in a bad shape economically for so long which has worsened due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Sainworla said because reporters have not been able to receive their monthly salaries, journalists have turned to mix public relations with journalism.
“Only the independent media can build a vibrant democracy, not public relation media. That is something we should be able to understand,” he stressed.
Sainworla says aiding the media to be the voice of the voiceless requires more attention, referring to the need for a media development group to come up with ideas for grants that will promote independence.