It is thus our pleasure to be collaborating with Internews, USAID and other media development partners in the launch of this forum that seeks to ensure that media links with businesses in promoting growth of the media and by extension the Liberian economy.
The market that sustains the media in Liberia is a mix of factors and circumstances, including some that threaten the freedom and opportunities of the media. This environment has all that is available to make media work better and in the interest of the community, but it all the same have circumstances that cam limit media work.
Organizing a specialized forum to discuss possibilities of sustaining media - in the face of freedom, rights and accountability is a crucial step in the development of the media. However one sees this, any effective media environment requires an audience. In addition, media requires a market to purchase the service, and a market to be sold through the media services.
A lot of factors thus come together to ensure that media - and the market that sustains it – succeeds!
The first in this category is actually the diversity of options, technologies and convergences that today represent the media. Unlike the past where media would have ultimately been a newspaper, and at another time a broadcast entity, the media of today could be reflected in all of these technologies in one sitting, as well as a variety of what have been known traditionally. On the other hand, media today considers instant feedbacks that have its own effect on the market.
So, as we get together today to launch a partnership to share perspectives on how media and business community can work together in ensuring mutual growth and opportunities, we will attempt to speak of the various circumstances that make media work. While we may cite instances that limit media, our objective is the more affirmative points.
Quality & Stability
Technology and the End of Regulations
Technology is making the media landscape a lot more wonderland. While traditional media is itself an advancement of technology - like the printer, and ages later the radio - the evolution of technology, including the convergence has changed the mediascape quite revolutionarily.
Technology has made media a new thing, restricting possibilities of limiting speech and thought - in fact expanding opportunities for greater diversity of thought and idea. More interestingly, technology is now, more than ever before, poised to limit regulations, especially in regards to content.
With the advancement in technology, quality, choice and taste will remain the factors that cause media to grow or gain adherents or following. Of course, this will contribute to income.
Currently, there have been lots of debates about how fair it is for a radio hosted in Monrovia by broadcasters in the USA to be relayed in Lofa. This debate counters the age old reality of VoA and BBC beamed from Washington and London into Zwedru and Gbarnga. The debate here should rather be about choice and taste, as opposed to the content. In effect, every case considered the level of technology available.
Reach As motivation for Advertisement
Mr. Kenneth Best has repeatedly indicated that at a point in 1988 he was distributing 5,000+ copies of The Daily Observer across Liberia each day. The story is quite different today. Distribution cannot be as much as 2,000 daily. The latter scenario is true for a number of other media houses. To an extent, sales is a lot lesser than 500 copies. This low figure does not inspire advertisers. To pay for their materials in any paper, advertisers need the guarantee that readers will have access to their wares and perhaps buy from them.
Worse, papers are largely distributed in a few offices in the greater Monrovia area. A better distribution of news papers in concession areas, in growing urban centers will be further guarantees for advertisers.
Perhaps due to this scenario, papers in Liberia have lesser advertisements. The typical 12-page paper often has 2 pages of adverts. Because of this low market, the cost of advert space is quite low - in comparison with neighboring states, and gets lower to guarantee some of the market.
An interesting and positive side of adverts in Liberia today is the requirement for government agencies to advertise tender calls. This is an exciting part of the governance reform that affects the media positively. Unfortunately, this rolls out in a few papers and a lot of papers insist that they do not benefit.
The key argument in the advert business is following tender for media services. A couple of months ago the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission invited media houses to understand the public procurement process and to participate in getting a share of local content in purchases by Government Ministries, Agencies and Commissions (MAC's). After a long drawn invitation and engagement, very few entities filled out the forms. This leaves media houses in a difficult situation - a limitation in getting contracts from government.
Today at the Press Union of Liberia, we have a complaint from nearly 20 newspapers, claiming that the Central Bank of Liberia owes them together in excess of US$100,000 - some dating back to 2014. Our initial observation of this claim has identified a few anomalies:
• There are no authorization on most of the claims;
• Some of the media houses are so informal - with no offices;
• There is no paper trail, to prove anything. There are not even copies of the claimed publications.
Despite these malfunctions, many have proven that the Central Bank often gave them verbal authority to publish and eventually paid them. With a new governance structure at the Bank, there is a new policy measure requiring media houses to get a written authorization before running an advert. But this measure came up with many debts still unpaid.
While the procedure provided needed revenue and growth for some media houses, it actually encouraged disorganization and informality in a sector that needs much coordination, orderliness and accountability.
A similar dispute had been seen with several other Ministries and agencies, resulting in a notorious Golden Handshake. In this scenario, firms claiming in excess of $50,000 were pressured into getting as low as $15,000 alongside other - some without offices or staff - and had previously claimed $5,000 or lesser. Some firms saw this as a loss and regretted that they had to be a part of a joint payment demand.
Ethics as a Guarantee of Good Business
Corporate entities with the need and capacity to advertise often have interests to protect. Their motives are clearly profit and do not want any situation to divert their customers' attention. They sometimes use this to the disadvantage of media houses. A key advertiser with broadcast media in Liberia with a rich spread across the country serves as an important partner of many community radio stations.
They provide jingles of their programs to community radio at really low prices and much needed electricity for the radio stations. Unfortunately, this corporation insists that the stations cannot carry adverts for rival firms. This often limits capacities of the radios to earn much needed additional revenue.
In another scenario, this corporation even pressured media houses to avoid reference to a specific national brand as it may look like promoting a rival firm. This is bullying and a despicable business practice. Our attempt to raise this issue a few months ago resulted in further hushing of the media partners - so sad!
On the other hand, Media houses and journalists have variously been accused of blackmail. This has made a number of business houses skeptical of dealing with media. To this effect, such businesses limit their adverts to a few trusted partners.
We do not back this! We however do not like to restrain media from reporting on corporate malpractices, which are properly recognizable under the law. We are however cautious that whatever reports we pursue must be based on facts, including those that can stand the test of the law.
To address this, the Press Union of Liberia has strengthened its Grievance and Ethics process, by inviting representatives from government and civil society to assist. This is meant to provide further guarantees that media people will not gang up against complainants, simply to protect their colleagues accused of wrongdoing.
Truth is - corporations and media need each other, and this needs to be discussed on even terms. Ours is an open market, and nothing can be done today to recreate any semblance of a monopoly in any sector. As a matter of further facts, even sectors that were once state managed have been opened up for private ownership and competition.
Media is about telling the stories of our society. Even if this is a promotional material, media has the obligation to report only what is true. No amount of advertisement will cover the reality of your falsehood when the market reveals you as a peddler of lies and deceit. Likewise, no business will survive the related public loss of confidence. Media must also make efforts to ensure that the messages are carried far and wide. The advertisers need her message heard by the most people.
Media must strengthen their corporate face and seek to form partnerships and links to spread the word.
Newspapers must move beyond the boundaries of a few offices in Monrovia and find creative ways - including new media - to engage students, farmers, plantation workers and people in the various concessions. It is sad that people in the concessions - LAC- Arcelor Mittal - Sime Darby know more about the US and Europe as reflected by CNN & BBC, as opposed to news from Monrovia – Liberian Government and areas outside the range of their stations. Thanks to community radio - and the internet - a few local things are known.
There may be a lot more issues affecting the interplay between media and businesses. A forum of this nature helps us to understand them and take cue. Media tells the stories of our society and makes announcements about products. Similarly, businesses and corporate interests rely upon media to promote their wares. This is a relationship that must be fostered.
This forum thus helps us all to identify the commonalities and discern our differences. In this way, we can always see the means of discussing our common concerns and finding a solution.
We applaud this forum and hereby invite corporate Liberia to join us at this forum as an opportunity to engage media and contribute to the process of telling the full Liberian story of investment and commerce; of industry and intellectual property, as well as revealing the various qualities of commodities that are available on our markets.
Thank you- please join us in strengthening the media to telling the full Liberian Story.