A consortium of investigative journalists in Liberia are shining a spotlight on the country’s forest sector – with some remarkable results.
Starting at 4pm every Thursday, one of Liberia’s best-known radio stations, OK FM 99.5, broadcasts a live one-hour show that’s possibly the only one of its kind in the world.
Combining listener phone-ins, interviews and reports from a network of 15 reporters embedded in communities the length and breadth of Liberia, Forest Hour shines a light into the hidden corners of the country’s forest sector.
Broadcasting from a cramped studio in Monrovia, the show’s presenter Moses R. Quollin and technical assistant Dioda Wreh delve into the critical issues facing Liberia’s forests: exposing everything from environmental crimes to dodgy timber deals; from companies failing to pay communities for logging in their areas to illegal harvesting; from forest laws being flouted to women being denied their rights and side-lined from making decisions that affect them.
The weekly show, which is simultaneously broadcast on community radio and Facebook, is said to have the potential to reach up to 500,000 listeners, and is a model of public service broadcasting: acting as a watchdog over how one of Liberia’s most precious - and threatened - natural resources is governed.
Forests are the fourth largest contributor to Liberia’s formal economy.
Half of Liberia’s population live within 2.5 kilometres of a forest. Most Liberians, in one way or another, rely on them for their livelihoods. They are also a bulwark against climate change and home to a remarkable array of wildlife.
Yet Liberia’s forests have been destroyed at a staggering rate. Between 2001 and 2020, the country lost 20 per cent of its tree cover. And during its civil war, they were ruthlessly exploited to fund arms deals which helped prolong the conflict.
To help chart a different course for Liberia’s forests, in 2019 Paul M. Kanneh and Quollin founded Liberia Forest Media Watch (LFMW), the group of journalists behind Forest Hour. LFMW also produce in-depth newspaper forests’ related stories.
“I realised there was an overwhelming need for a specific media group to report on forests,” Kanneh explains. “I thought this could be a paradigm shift in the way the media covers forest governance in Liberia.”
Funding has so far come from Tropenbos International and the EU, with Fern acting as the contract holder. “Through Saskia [Ozinga], Fern has been very supportive of the work we do,” Kanneh says.
For Quollin, LFMW acts as a bridge connecting forest communities to the wider world, in order to help end the illegality that has plagued the sector. Journalistic rigour, he insists, is at the heart of all they do. “We are not a court passing judgement. We want to be very careful, verifying our reports, telling both sides of the story.”
To this end, LFMW’s reporters, some of them volunteers, use old-fashioned ‘shoe leather’ journalism (meeting and talking to people, rather than sitting at desks and staring at screens) as well as modern technology, (such as the ForestLink a real time monitoring mobile phone app), to uncover what’s happening in often remote parts of Liberia’s 15 counties.
A common refrain from local communities to the journalists, is that companies aren’t providing them with the funds, amenities or other benefits they have been promised - and are legally entitled to - such as bridges or latrines, which remain unbuilt after many years.
“Forest Hour flags these issues and puts pressure on the companies and the authorities to respond. Communities alone don’t always have the power to make them act,” Quollin says.
Hostility and Plaudits
LFMW also exposes scandals on a broader scale, such as the misappropriation of US$200,000 by two people charged with handling funds intended for community development.
Not surprisingly, such stories can provoke a pushback, says Quollin: “There can be security implications to this kind of work, and some people refuse to talk to us, or say we are anti the government.”
Yet as well as attracting hostility, LFMW has also received awards and plaudits in its short life.
In December 2021, Saah A David, who leads the work on forests and climate change at Liberia’s Forest Development Authority, said: “[Forest Hour] is unique. I advise that we all listen to this programme. It is educative and informative. The good thing... is [that] communities have the opportunity to call in – and there are things that we normally pick up from that show – that we when we are sitting in our offices, discuss on policy issues.”
Perhaps even more remarkable than LFMW’s meteoric rise, are the unlikely journeys into the media of some of its journalists.
Quollin, for instance, grew up in a large family in the Samuel K Doe Community, an impoverished ghetto area of Monrovia. His father died when he was 12, and the family struggled to survive. To help make ends meet, Quollin sold charcoal and mosquito oil for his mother, who has also since died.
His route to a better life came via the short educational ‘pop quizzes’ he had an unlikely talent for, and his willingness to do chores for neighbours. These respectively helped him get a scholarship and sponsorship to attend school, which his mother couldn’t afford. There his interest in politics and the environment blossomed.
Later Quollin volunteered for five years without a salary at the Catholic Media Centre, absorbing all the knowledge on journalism that he could, while working as a night security guard, including at Monrovia’s Freeport, where he slept at night.
By 2019 he was establishing himself as a producer and presenter at Radio Maria, when Kanneh spotted his talent and they decided to work together, initially as part of a WhatsApp group. They were both driven by the knowledge that corruption and bad management were keeping many Liberians trapped in poverty, despite the country’s abundant natural riches.
Now - as Forest Hour listeners and readers of LFMW’s newspaper exposés can confirm - they are proving the truth of the old adage that sunlight really is the best disinfectant, as they work to tackle problems that have thwarted Liberia’s development throughout much of its history.