Paying Off

The problem of bribes in the Liberian press
May 1, 2011

After two civil wars, Liberian journalists are enjoying unprecedented freedoms but struggling to maintain independence. The business of news is not yet financially viable there: the media market is oversaturated, advertising is weak, and readership is low with a low-hanging ceiling—only 58 percent of the population is literate. Some reporters earn as little as US $25 a year. In this environment, cato (pronounced “cat-oh”), Liberian vernacular for petty bribes, is rampant, with cash-stuffed envelopes exchanged for favorable coverage. In February, Emily Schmall spoke with Rodney Sieh, co-founder and editor in chief of the country’s most widely circulated newspaper, FrontPage Africa, which started as a US-based website in 2005 before moving to Liberia in 2009. Sieh is taking a stand against the entrenched practice of cato. A longer version of their conversation is here.

How is cato practiced?

People will call a newspaper asking if they can publish something on the front page and offer a fee for that coverage. And there are journalists who blackmail officials when they have something on them—they can negotiate a price between $300 to $1,000, depending on the gravity. It’s a sad commentary but that’s how most newspapers survive.

Do readers care?

I think it matters what caliber of reporters report the news. Readers want to feel that they are being fed objective news. They want to make sure that stories aren’t tainted or influenced by money.

Who’s offered you cato for favorable coverage?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

I got a call from the former chairman of the transitional government. He wanted to publish commentary and he asked, “Well, how much would it cost?” You can’t blame him because they’re used to paying people to get things in the paper, but that’s not how we operate. I got a call recently from the United Nations Development Program—they had a program coming up and were wondering what it would take to get coverage in the paper.

How has your paper’s “no cato” policy worked out?

We’ve fired three or four reporters who took money from people.

Has it improved FrontPage’s credibility?

Our credibility is solid, thanks to a number of extensive investigative pieces that led to government action. Readers appreciate our efforts in exposing corrupt officials.

Is the media taken seriously in Liberia?

Some media. It comes down to a journalist’s body of work. No one can take that away.

It’s up to the independent media to set themselves above the rest. With the incident in Ghana [in February, violence broke out at a refugee camp killing one girl] we’ve been able to get photos from the camp that nobody else had. People said they appreciated it: when the government of Liberia said nobody was killed and they were just using rubber bullets, we showed actual pictures of people being shot with actual bullets.

Why did you leave the US to start this newspaper?

We figured that to become more effective, in terms of getting our message not only to the diaspora audience and beyond Monrovia [Liberia’s capital], we would have to get it into the counties. That’s our biggest push right now: getting everyone in Liberia to read, and educate them about politics, culture, corruption, and poverty. We’ve done some good work in terms of exposing corrupt people, and we’re going to keep doing it. I think it’s something Liberia needs.

Emily Schmall is a freelance journalist living in Mexico City. Her reporting about the earthquake in Haiti can be found here.