Internet provides unofficial real-time feed of war crimes trial of former Liberian President

Technology & Convergence

Liberians and Sierra Leoneans are taking a close interest in the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor through a mixture of radio programmes and blogs, writes Shelby Grossman from the Hague.

The finger-pointing, mockery, and dialogue started just a few hours after former Liberian president Moses Blah began testifying. A blogger calling himself Zobon asserted that Blah’s name would soon be synonymous with “Traitor in Liberia.” An ex-Maritime Commissioner, speaking to a West African radio station, asked Liberians “to stop listening to people whose intention is to divide citizens of the country.” That does not seem likely.

Because of big-name witnesses like Blah, along with creative, systematic, and tailored outreach strategies, Liberians and Sierra Leoneans increasingly are paying attention to the war crimes trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, and seeing the process as legitimate.

“Interest is growing,” said Alphonsus Zeon, a Senior Producer with Search for Common Ground/Talking Drum Studio, a West African group that uses media to promote peace. “People are starting to follow the trial on a daily basis.”

Taylor is facing eleven counts of war crimes charges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, including murder of civilians, sexual slavery, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers. These charges stem from his support for Sierra Leonean rebel groups while he was president of Liberia.

The Special Court, a hybrid international and Sierra Leonean court, is prosecuting those most responsible for violations of international humanitarian and Sierra Leonean law in the country between 1996 and 2002. While eight trials are being conducted at the Special Court in Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, Taylor’s trial is taking place in The Hague, a town in the Netherlands, to reduce the possibility of destabilizing West Africa.

Zeon, and his Sierra Leonean counterpart Adolphus Williams, are temporarily based in The Hague to create locally-driven news reports on Taylor’s trial. Every week they develop thirty-minute radio programs providing an overview of the trial’s highlights. These reports are sent to Freetown and the Liberian capital Monrovia. After being translated into local languages, call-in discussions are added, and the programs are distributed to community radio stations throughout both countries.

“Initially Sierra Leoneans were not following the trial,” Williams said, but he believes the weekly radio programs have made the trial more engaging. “People up-country hear their voices on the radio,” he added, referring to the call-in component of the shows, “and this is having positive and tremendous effects.”

A 2006 University of Sierra survey found that 79 percent of Sierra Leoneans understand the role of the Special Court. 83 percent said they first heard about the Court on the radio, and the majority said they continue to get information about Court activities through this medium.

Live video feed of the trial, streamed through the Special Court website, has engaged many Liberians and Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora. In West Africa, though, this tool’s usefulness is limited. Lack of internet access, combined with high illiteracy rates, has meant that using the internet to raise awareness about the trial in Liberia is a “complete flop,” according to Zeon.

Talking Drum Studio’s radio programs, along with Special Court outreach efforts that bring Court officials directly to villages for town hall-style meetings, are especially important for reaching rural communities. Few Liberian community radio stations relay foreign stations, according to William Selmah, a producer with West Africa Democracy Radio in Monrovia. This makes even the occasional BBC report on the trial inaccessible to many. Moreover, newspaper circulation in Liberia and Sierra Leone is rare outside of the few main cities. This problem is exacerbated during the rainy season when roads to the interior become unusable, hampering any effort at timely paper distribution.

Since Taylor’s indictment in 2003 myths about the Special Court have spread swiftly. Barward Johnson, a program officer at Liberia Democracy Watch and member of a Special Court outreach coalition in Liberia, said many believe the trial is “America and Europe’s strategy to subdue and disgrace any African leader who is not subservient to them.” Zeon also noted this problem, saying Liberians often think the international community does not like Taylor because he was a strong leader, and that many young ex-combatants see the trial as a “US thing.” A perception of presupposed guilt only increased when Britain agreed to incarcerate Taylor if he was found guilty, before the trial had started.

Concerted efforts by local journalists, civil society representatives, and the Special Court have quelled some of these concerns. When Taylor asked for a different defense team in 2007, the Court granted his request, gave his new lawyers a higher salary package, and permitted a long recess for the team’s trial preparation. According to Williams, these Court decisions, which local media covered extensively, were all “good signs of justice” for Sierra Leoneans.

As the trial and accompanying outreach continue, conversations among Liberians and Sierra Leoneans likely will shift away from issues of procedure and fairness toward the substantive revelations from witness testimony.

Zeon, for one, seems determined to continue spreading reliable and relevant information about the trial in his home country. “If we don’t do our job,” he said, “Taylor’s people will manipulate public opinion.”