Rebel radio broadcasting in the Liberian Civil War (1989-1997)

I’ve published three items on rebel radio broadcasting in the Liberian war:

‘Denial-of-Resource Operations and NPFL Radio Dominance in the Liberian Civil War.’ Civil Wars Vol. 7, No. 3 (Autumn 2005): 94-115. URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13698280500423973

‘Reading Guerrilla Radio In Wartime Liberia.’ Small Wars and Insurgencies Vol. 16, No. 2 (2005): 241-251. URL:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09592310500130818 

‘Political Communication in Wartime Liberia: Themes and Concepts.’ CEPES Occasional Paper Series. Montreal: Centre d’Études des Politiques Étrangères et de Sécurité, May 2004. [PDF Download]

As with all research, none of these is the final word, especially since in the fifteen years that followed, plenty new information emerged through the efforts of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

My research question at the time was “Did Charles Taylor and his rebel forces perpetrate genocide?” Taylor was infamous for being a publicity-hound and propagandist. In Liberia (and West Africa more generally), where illiteracy rates were extremely high and culture has traditionally been orally-based, radio was the preferred medium for talking to the masses.  So one way to get at the answers was to approach the issue in terms of incitement – that is, to look at the record of Taylor’s speeches, interviews and broadcasts for evidence that he called on Liberians to commit acts of genocide, war crimes or other crimes against humanity.

I owe it to my supervisor for pointing me in the right direction. Based on the source material that was then available – transcripts of radio broadcasts, eyewitness testimony, local and foreign press coverage, and anecdotal evidence – I was able to do three things:

1) trace the overall pattern of guerrilla warfare and political violence between late 1989 and Taylor’s electoral victory in the 1997 Presidential election;

2) map the pattern of resource acquisition that gave Taylor and his forces access to the country’s radio stations and transmitters – in effect, giving them the physical resources needed to communicate country-wide; and

3) match what Taylor and his spokesmen said (or were alleged to have said) to windows of opportunity  in their broadcasting capabilities, and undertake a close reading of the content of  their messages.

The project was part of a landscape in which the prominent foreign policy interests of the time included the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (another case involving genocide and radio broadcasting) and the 1991-1995 wars in the Western Balkans (which involved significant levels of newspaper and television incitement).  It also immediately preceded the growth of easily available internet and web presence. Foreign policy priorities changed after 2001, and the growth of social media catapulted communications technologies into a new space. But the  Liberia case and its contemporaries contain important lessons, even today – about the broader dynamics of conflict, communication, and foreign policy priorities, and about the sources and methods we use to critically evaluate and understand them.