By Tamba Jean-Matthew
It can be difficult to understand the rationale behind the ‘mad rush’ by aspirant journalists to training schools in Liberia, especially when one considers the high rate of unemployment in the sector.
It was in 1826 exactly 197 years ago, that Charles Force introduced the newspaper in Liberia, but the phenomenon of journalism schools waited for 147 years later.
Up until 1979, with the return of the first batch of Liberians trained at the Ghana Institute of Journalism, the innovation to launch a journalism school in Liberia had not taken wings, until 1983 when UNESCO backed the University of Liberia to set up the mass communication department at the state-run institution.
Subsequently, the department patented the first batch of graduates in 1987 at the threshold of the 15-year-long fratricidal war, which completely battered Africa’s first independent republic by the time the civil strife ended in 2003.
By 2005, journalism training schools were mushrooming in Liberia, triggered by an endless wave of aspiring journalists in spite of a widening gap in the job market.
The umbrella Press Union of Liberia (PUL) which oversees the conduct of practitioners, qualifies the ‘mad rush’ as a healthy sign of progress and even though the sector is male-dominated, several female journalists occupy senior editorial positions in the industry.
Reflecting on the ‘mad rush’ phenomenon, Professor Weade Kobbah Borley of the University of Liberia, blamed it on the lack of space that limited enrolment at the mass communication department.
That constraint, in turn, led to both the relocation of the mass communication department away from the main campus on Capital Hill in Monrovia to the university’s annex at Fendell, and the ascendance of privately-owned media training institutions in the country.
Professor Kobbah Borley is a US-trained media illuminary who, along with a few colleagues, launched Liberia’s first media training innovation at the University of Liberia in 1983 where she taught broadcast journalism for several years, and is now vice president of the University for Institutional Development.
But Jefferson Collins, a sociologist trained at the University of Liberia observes that besides the constraint raised by Prof. Borley, it was the mass failure of aspiring journalists at the university’s entrance exams, that occasioned the ‘mad rush’ to privately-owned training schools and their exponential rise in recent times.
Enrolment at the University of Liberia’s department of mass communication requires graduation from high school and passes in English, mathematics, and general knowledge which are not mandatory in most privately-owned schools.
However, PUL which is the umbrella organisation that oversees the conduct of journalists in the country, recognises that the predominantly male aspiring journalists were leading the ‘mad rush’ and blames it on the dire socio-economic situation in the country rather than the demand for practitioners.
It is in a bid to unravel that mystery that Jamlab reached out to several employed and unemployed journalists whose views are in perfect consonance with those of Solomon Dewudu Neor, trained by the Peter Quaqua School of Journalism, one of the leading privately-owned institutions.
“Well, to be frank with you, there are many reasons why many of my colleagues including myself, have opted to become journalists. Firstly, journalism offers easy and quick job opportunities, even though the salaries are negligible,” Neor said.
In Liberia, there are no fixed salary scales like in many African and developing countries, and as such a reporter in Monrovia can earn anywhere between US$50 and US$100 per month and slightly higher for an editor.
There are up to a dozen newspapers published in the capital alone, and more than one hundred radio stations in the small country on a land surface of 111,370 square kilometres, with approximately six million inhabitants.
“Another attractive feature to journalism in Liberia is the traditional practice of soliciting and receiving a ‘cato’ or tips for work … this helps our subsistence, in the absence of regular and slim salaries,” he said.
“For female journalists, many of my colleagues opt for the electronic media with the television as their preference in order to become celebrities, but they won’t tell people,” he said.
A few exceptions could be Mae Azango, a female print journalist with significant popularity and reverence. “I simply like the profession, not for money or celebrity,” she said.
What is trending now, Dewu said, is the overture in public relations or communications work. Most of the training schools do not offer a single module in communication.
“But whether one has the requisite skill from a training school or not, we are taking the job, and we learn on the job by performing the task,” he concluded.
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