Too Many Ideas, Too Little Time and My Adventures with the LNP

I was looking at the calendar the other day, and I couldn’t believe it — I have just two more weeks left here! It’s very bittersweet, and I kind of don’t know how I feel about it. On one hand, it will be great to go home and see all my loved ones, but on the other hand, I am definitely going to miss this place. I’ve been thinking of more story ideas that I don’t know I’ll be able to do between now and the time I leave, but I’ll make a brave attempt at it anyhow.

The past two-and-a-half weeks has been extremely busy — busier than most of the weeks I’ve been here. Because of this, my sense of time has been warped somewhat, and things have flown by quicker than I expected. I’ve been juggling something like 3 stories at a time plus a couple other projects for Front Page Africa, and because of the general pace of things in Liberia and getting interviews or the information I need, most of the time things have moved slower than I’ve wanted them to, but I’ve still been able to get some work done. Poor Alvin has had to drive me absolutely everywhere! (Emily was out of the country for about 10 days and just recently got back to Monrovia.) He’s accompanied me to several interviews, the Ministry of Gender, the police station in Congotown (twice!) and so on… but I’ve let him know how much I appreciate it.

To add to this, I just found out a couple of days ago that one of the security guards in my building — George — added me on his mobile phone under the name, “RUNNING GIRL.” When he told me this, I couldnt’ stop laughing. When I asked him why he named me that he just said matter-of-factly, “Cuz you always running everywhere! You go fast!” It seems like only yesterday that I just got to Monrovia, and I didn’t even know how to start doing what I needed to do — I was completely clueless. And now, according to George’s mobile phone, I’ve been speeding up to something close to the crazy New York City pace I’m used to. I’m not entirely sure I can ever reach that kind of pace here, though, only because of technology constraints and difficulty in sometimes acquiring even the most basic information.

But honestly? It’s all good with me. When I get back to New York, I’ll have plenty of time to work too hard, lose sleep and pull my hair out because I’m on tight deadlines for everything. Right now, even though I have that instinctual urgency to work, it’s felt more like a creative boost than anything… and it feels great, even though I’m usually exhausted by the end of the day.

It’s ironic in a sense because I’ve been doing more reporting here than I have time for in New York (thanks to school), but there’s been less writing. However, some of the stories are a little difficult to put together and finding the right people to talk to can prove to be a challenge… particularly when it is at odds with journalism ethics, leaving me completely clueless as to how to proceed in the right way. But I’ll get more into that later…

Right now, a story that one of the fellows (Mae Azango) and I published last week at Front Page Africa is blowing up a bit of a storm. Rodney assigned us to go out and report on a woman whose 12-year-old daughter was raped by a young man living in her vicinity. When the mother went to the police station in Congo Town to report the rape, the police allegedly taunted her, and they refused to believe her. After some heated verbal exchanges in which the Liberian National Police (LNP) officers felt insulted, they decided to put her in a cell. She told us that about five officers assaulted her, and then kept her in jail for three days.

Meanwhile, her daughter stayed at home without any assistance after her ordeal. The woman was released after a friend bailed her out, and one way or another, she was able to get in touch with Rodney. I believe that the woman’s friend — Kumba — might have been the one to be in touch. When Mae and I went to meet the woman  (Emma) at Rose Garden Plaza, where she usually buys water from Kumba to sell and make her money for the day, she brought along her daughter as well.

The little girl sat on the couch and put her head down on the armrest as her mother talked to us. One of her legs was restless, and her knee moved left and right, almost like the movements were comforting. She didn’t talk much — and when I asked her something, like if she was in school, and what grade she’s in, she’d respond very quietly in one or two word answers.

The entire story seemed so wrong on so many levels, and Mae and I knew the LNP would deny everything. But I also thought that if Emma couldn’t get real justice for what happened to her daughter as well as what happened to her, at least she could talk to us so that we could do some more reporting, get her story out and send out a red flag that something very unfair might have happened here. (And that events like these, unfortunately, are very common.)

So Mae and I set off to the Congo Town police station, Zone Three Depot, and looked for the officers whose names Emma had remembered – there were three of them, and I had all their names written down in my notepad. As soon as we got to the station, we found one of the officers – a man named Amara Kamara. As soon as we told him what our business there was, he immediately got defensive and slightly tongue-tied. As we suspected, he denied everything fervently. First he told us that it was all a lie, only to then tell us that he wasn’t allowed to speak with us without the permission of his commanding officer (who was, by the way, another man that Emma named during her interview). After this confrontation, and an attempt to talk to the commanding officer without luck, Mae and I decided to return the next day. Besides, I think that we made Officer Kamara sufficiently nervous for the day – Mae was laughing afterward when Alvin picked us up, noting how Kamara practically followed us into the station to see what else we would get up to. The man was clearly worried and not hiding it well…

So, I have a confession to make, because I can’t really lie about this one: I made a mistake when reporting for this story. And the reason I made a mistake was because I got tied up into this story believing everything our primary source Emma told Mae and I from the start. Under any circumstance, this is highly unadvised, and not a great use of judgment as a journalist. However, the story Emma told us was just so twisted and so backwards, it didn’t make sense for her to make it up or lie about the details. And this was not the first time Mae or I heard about the LNP being completely careless and cruel with people… there are countless other stories. Also, Emma had nothing to lose – in her case, she is extremely poor and has no money to bribe people with (which is what happens around here if you want to get anyone’s attention), and pursuing a crime around here costs triple the energy and more money than people have/it’s worth. And even if a case is completed, people are left with a lack of satisfaction for the amount of energy put in versus acquiring actual justice. It’s enough to make anyone frustrated beyond reason, and wonder why the justice system here is in such shambles. In Liberia, when you report a crime, it’s up to you to pursue your case until the end, because the LNP sure won’t. It’s pretty rare for them to keep those kinds of tabs on people. Mae was telling me that if the LNP arrests someone one day for a crime that was reported, if that same person doesn’t continue to pursue the case, the perpetrator just gets released several days later… she sees this happen all the time.

What made my mind put those thoughts about bias aside was that in the next two days, it became more and more clear that the LNP was lying to our faces, and coming up with any excuse possible to get off the hook.

Mae and I returned to Zone Three Depot the next day (after our encounter with Officer Kamara). Sure enough, he was there again, and this time, Commanding Officer Three was in his office. So we went in and had another interesting talk with him.

The conversation with C.O. Three was extremely frustrating, and gave me the feeling that Mae and I were charging headfirst into a brick wall – repeatedly. However, even with the present obstacles, it made us also feel more secure that the story had to be published. C.O. Three refused to so much as tell us a single thing about what happened with Emma the day she came to the station. He not only pulled the “I’m not allowed to talk to the press” card on us like Officer Kamara, but he also told us that this was a policy, and that “police have ethics, and these ethics prevent us from talking to the press about any cases.” And so he delegated the responsibility of making a statement to George Bardu, who is the communications chief and press affairs at the LNP Headquarters.

Throughout our conversation, Mae, who was sitting directly across from me, would catch my eye, raise her eyebrow, and sometimes laugh outloud when C.O. Three would make a comment that was absolutely absurd and unbelievable. So I grilled him a quite a bit, and asked him some hard questions throughout his stream of excuses. One of the things I told him was that his absolute refusal to make any statements about this story or explain his side of things could potentially make this look highly suspicious to other people. I also told him that while we would really prefer to get statements from him on his side of the story, we were going to run the story either way. “So you might as well talk with us, so we can run a fair and balanced article,” I remember telling him. But he wasn’t swayed at all.

So when he told us about getting George Bardu’s permission to talk, I paused for a moment, smiled at him and said, “So let me get this straight. If anyone from any news agency wishes to talk to any officer in this country about a case they were involved in – whether it’s a rape, a theft, a high profile case or whatever – they are not allowed to talk to the officers involved in these cases? They have to get in touch with George Bardu, the head communications, even though he will have no clue as to what’s going on, or know any details about these cases?” When C.O. Three answered, “Yes” with a straight face, Mae just burst out laughing again. He even went further with this point, saying that if he spoke he could get in “trouble”.

So I played along and said, “Okay! You want me to get George Bardu’s permission? We’ll do it. I have his number right here. I’ll talk to him right now…”. So I dialed Bardu’s number while Mae sat with her hand resting on her head looking worn out and extremely amused, with C.O. Three and his assistant staring intently.

Once on the phone with Bardu, I asked permission to get the statements of all three officers Emma named in her story… and then Bardu asked me what the story was about. I explained to him what Emma told us, and why we wanted to talk to the officers, when Bardu immediately replied, “No, you are not allowed to speak with them to get statements.” And that’s when I had to laugh – these guys were just incredible.

I asked Bardu to talk to us instead, and he made some very general statements about where Emma could go to proceed with her rape and police brutality cases, since they have to be filed at the headquarters in two separate departments: the Women and Children’s Safety Division, and the Professional Standards Division.

Needless to say, we didn’t get much out of those guys, but a part of me was a little bit satisfied at having made their lives a little more difficult by arguing with them.

Mae and I decided to wrap things up at C.O. Three’s office, and right before we left, we told him that we were taking a picture of the front of the station. This is supposedly not allowed for whatever reason, but he didn’t put up a fight with us.

When Mae and I went outside to take the picture, an officer stopped me and asked me for I.D. (I almost didn’t believe him and had to repeat his question) but then he quickly changed track and told us we weren’t allowed to take pictures. When we told him we had gotten C.O. Three’s permission, he said, “Stay right here, I’m going to go check and see if that’s true.” Mae was laughing again at the ridiculousness of the situation – it was just one ludicrous thing after another.

Mae motioned for us to leave when the officer went in the building, but I said, “No, wait, I want to see if he actually comes back outside to tell us not to take pictures.” And she responded, “Ichi, the guy isn’t coming back! You’ll see….”. We stood out front for five minutes and waited, and the officer never came back outside. Mae and I got into the car with Alvin, who was waiting at the side of the road, and we talked about the entire experience just to process everything that had happened in the last hour or so.

We came up with a plan to talk to George Bardu the next day, and get some statistics on child rape from the LNP, as well as a copy of the LNP ethics and rulebook. I wanted to prove that the officers had lied to us about this no talking to the press policy, and we wanted to make sure to include it in the article so there would be no question in anyone’s mind that these guys were hiding something.

To be continued….

A Weekend in Gbarnga…

Happy Belated 4th of July, folks!

I know it’s been a while since I last updated, but part of it had to do with me being out of town two weekends ago, followed by Internet troubles at home and in general. I’m back now — and ready to share some more updates! I can’t even tell you how surprising it is to find time just whizzing by here…. I’ve been doing some pretty interesting work, and generally feeling over the moon with the amazing people I’ve been spending time with this summer.

First of all, the weekend of June 24, New Narratives fellow Clara and I went to Gbarnga (three hours out of Monrovia) to get some leads and possible interviews on a story Emily and I heard from one of the expats. We left on Friday to investigate whether young, local prostitutes were sleeping with United Nations workers in exchange for rice and other provisions. Clara has a cousin in Gbarnga , so we asked her if there were any women’s organizations in the area that we could get in touch with that might have caught wind of this happening. In addition to that, we planned to go out at night to try to talk to some of these young women at bars and local nightclubs.

Prostitution in Liberia continues to be a large problem, and is sadly still on the rise. Thanks to scarce educational opportunities and jobs, plus human trafficking, women are forced to sell the most valuable thing they own: their bodies.

It was definitely an interesting venture for many reasons; I expected this story to be extremely hard to prove, and I believed getting a prostitute to talk to us would be pretty difficult — after all, there was no reason for them to trust us at all. But luckily Clara had already done a few stories on the subject (not related to the UN, though), including one with Emily and another fellow, and had figured out a way to get the interviews and conduct them in such a way that established some sort of trust or safety for the women.

So we went out at night with our driver — Alvin — and a companion he found who knew all the local hangouts where these young women would be. The way in which we got the interviews was pretty well thought-out, and had proven successful for Clara’s previous stories: Alvin and the other man (I believe his name is William), acted as “potential clients” and strolled into the bars and hangouts looking for young women who would show an interest in hanging out, thinking they were looking for a good time. When they found a woman to talk to, they would then walk back and tell them that Clara and I just wanted to chat with them for a few minutes in the car. However, the New Narratives car has a clearly marked “press” sign on the windshield corner, so they had an idea of what they would be getting into if they chose. (One thing I found out through this thanks to Clara was that the people here tend to trust the press a little more than people in the U.S. trust their press, so long as you respected them.)

The first young woman to talk to us was a very beautiful 20-something from Sierra Leone, who hopped into the backseat with us and listened quietly as Clara and I introduced ourselves and explained what we were trying to do. We promised that all the girls’ identities would be kept a secret, and that we would only need a snapshot of them from the waist down. However, as Clara continued to talk about the kind of story we were looking to do and why we wanted to talk to her, I noticed an immediate change in her demeanor.

Although the young woman’s large, almond-shaped eyes were completely devoid of negative emotion as she listened raptly, her energy changed drastically in about 40 seconds from somewhat hesitant to completely closed off. I felt waves of discomfort and defensiveness coming off of her body, and I knew before she opened her mouth that she would not comply to an interview.

And my instincts were correct — when it was her turn to speak, she told Clara and I that it’s not something that she does, that she was there with a friend, but that she knew other girls — friends of hers — who are prostitutes, and they would probably be comfortable with talking to us. We let her get out of the car after she chatted with us for a few minutes, and she went back outside and returned to the small crowd of people scattered around the front of the little club. Although I knew we would have plenty of other opportunities to talk to some of these women, I was a little disappointed the Sierra Leonian girl wouldn’t talk with us; I had to wonder at how someone so beautiful and young ended up in such a troubled situation, and I wanted to know about her life.

But Clara and I let things be because it’s normal for the women to lie about what they do — oftentimes, if anyone who isn’t a potential or regular customer asks, they just say they’re out having drinks with their boyfriends or fiancées.

That night there were a few girls who showed an initial interest in talking with Clara and I, but ended up backing out at the last minute. After a few tries, we luckily managed to get an interview with a woman who decided that the story we were looking into was important, and that somebody needed to get the word out, since she felt the government wasn’t really doing anything for the women in her situation. Although a little nervous in the beginning, she was very sweet, answered all of the questions thrown her way, and provided a brief overview of her life. Listening in, I admired her frankness about her life, and the fact that she was supporting her children. And I believe that the interviews we got the next night (we were able to talk to three more women on Saturday) were because she told her companions that the interview wasn’t scary, intrusive or damaging in any way and that we were ok to talk to, and we asked her for a false name to protect her.

To my surprise, our first interview confirmed most of our leads: A group of UN workers definitely come regularly and hire the women for their services — but they don’t pay them in provisions, only in money. I couldn’t believe that we were able to uncover this information pretty much immediately. One of the other girls we talked to even mentioned that the workers in Gbarnga drive to the bars or clubs in the UN cars (an all-white van with large black letters on the sides) and remove their license plates beforehand so they wouldn’t be identified. Suddenly, I remembered seeing one of those vehicles outside the club earlier on in the night, though it was parked outside briefly.

Although the United Nations has had trouble in the past with Peacekeepers hiring prostitutes in the various countries where they are stationed, and they have initiated investigations into such cases, the situation is definitely ongoing, and not just in Liberia.

So now that we’ve gotten the interviews, we are doing some further reporting and looking into talking to more people sometime soon. I’ve been making phone calls to various women’s organizations to figure out if any of these women are being given food or other provisions as well. I’ll let you know as the story unfolds…

On another less serious tangent, I spent most of last week preparing an Intro to Multimedia Journalism Workshop for the reporters at Front Page Africa. Last Friday, I talked for almost three hours about multimedia, new media, social networking, online portfolios, online journalism/reporting tools and more. I don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t for my Interactive I and II classes! It definitely would have taken me forever to figure out what to say/include, and find the materials I needed. In the end, I prepared a five-page hand-out filled with information blurbs on how to start off as a multimedia journalist, plus a list of resources for each topic, and I sent them e-mails on other information before and after the presentation. The journalists were wonderful — they asked many questions, joined in discussions enthusiastically and have even asked for more workshops on other things they’d like help with!

So I will be teaching more in the near-future, going over WordPress with people interested in making their own online portfolios, and doing another workshop on Internet and social network basics for some others. It’s funny, because I never considered myself to be knowledgeable enough about a subject that I could teach it formally. But here it’s different — all the things I learned before and during grad school are completely new here. So it’s interesting to have a different perspective of things, and be in the position of standing in front of a room as opposed to sitting and listening, as I have been for most of my life. It is definitely as rewarding as they say!

One way or another toward the end of the workshop, we got on the topic of copyright law for the Web thanks to someone’s question. I was pretty stumped because Liberia doesn’t have any Web laws about this. Someone helpfully volunteered that if Liberia doesn’t have a written law about an issue, it embraces the U.S. equivalent of it by default. If this is true, then the journalists here are also subject to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, but the truth is no one is 100 percent certain of this… so that’s something to figure out. Another point someone also made to me in the past is that Liberia’s libel laws aren’t really that clear, if known at all. I thought this was strange — that Liberia has libel laws, but people don’t have access to what they are. I’m going to see if I can do some more digging around on that…

Anyway, on my next update I’ll hopefully be able to tell you more about what I’m going to start working on toward my capstone project. I’m hoping to work out a better focus for it before I start making calls to set up those interviews. Once I do that, it’s going to be a crazy week! I’ll let you guys know about it soon…

Lastly, the National Elections Commission announced yesterday the official presidential candidates for this fall’s elections. There are something like 22 registered political parties! I’ve been trying to look for all of the information online, but it’s hard to find right now, seeing as the main local news coverage has been on the stronger candidates. I think that more information will be trickling in real soon. Rodney at Front Page Africa has asked me to do a little project for the elections, so I’m thinking of doing a Flash presentation on the main candidates. Once I have all of the information available, I’ll be starting on it at the end of the week. It’s been a little while since I’ve done a Flash project, so I’m happy I’ll get to do something creative.

Before I sign out for the night, let me just say one more thing: the 4th of July in Liberia is definitely the silliest celebration of Independence Day I’ve had so far. A simple get-together next door at Sasha and Erica’s turned into a room full of almost 30 people with chicken, pumpkin, beans, corn bread, a cake with red, white and blue layers (which Sasha and I hoped wouldn’t mix as it baked!), and of course, lots of Savannahs. Someone also had the brilliant idea of printing out a copy of the Declaration of Independence and reading it out loud, and we all had the pleasure of taking a hearty gulp of our drinks whenever we heard words like “freedom,” “liberty,” etc. Even without the fireworks, what a lovely night…

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