MONROVIA – When Liberian journalist Gboko Stewart came across a news article criticizing two women for kissing at a football stadium in Liberia earlier this year, he says he was enraged, feeling the article was homophobic and biased against the LGBTQ+ community.
He wrote a letter to the newspaper’s editor, arguing that the article was unprofessional and one-sided. He says he remembered a training session he attended two years earlier on how to report on LGBTQ+ issues in Cape Town, South Africa, and wanted to do something similar for Liberian journalists.
That idea eventually evolved into Journal Rage, an online platform dedicated to Liberia’s LGBTQ+ community. With help from Ken Harper, director of the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement, Stewart and a few of his colleagues were able to launch the site in July.
In addition to covering LGBTQ+ issues in Liberia, the site also has resources for media professionals on how to report on sexual minority groups, says Stewart, who is also a radio talk show host for the Liberian station Hott FM 107.9.
Stewart says LGBTQ+ issues are still a sensitive topic in Liberia. Under Liberian law, people can go to prison for engaging in consensual same-sex sexual activity, and the LGBTQ+ community continues to face harassment daily, he says.
“It’s all about giving a community that has been overlooked and discriminated against a voice,” Stewart says.
But writing about the community wasn’t enough; Stewart also wanted to give journalists resources for talking about LGBTQ+ issues. He reached out to New Narratives, a Liberia-based nonprofit organization that trains independent and investigative journalists in West Africa, looking for someone who could help him and his colleagues build the website and train them in digital storytelling.
New Narratives’ executive director, visual communications graduate student Kathleen Flynn, and co-founder Prue Clarke put him in touch with Harper. An associate professor of visual communications at the Newhouse School, Harper has been the director of digital and visual media at New Narratives since 2012.
“Initially, I just thought that Professor Harper was going to set up [the website] from [Syracuse], and we’d just have a Skype call about it,” Stewart says. But after talking to Stewart about his plans for Journal Rage, Harper flew to Liberia to work with him and his team.
Harper says they worked on the website for a few weeks from an entrepreneurial space in Liberia called iCampus. Not only did he assist Stewart and his team with technical issues, such as customizing a theme and using different features on WordPress, but he also helped them understand their target audience, develop their brand identity and set up their social media accounts. Since LGBTQ+ issues are a controversial topic in Liberia, the website could be a target for hackers, Harper says, so he also worked with them on website security.
Hackers weren’t their only concern, Harper says. Gboko and his team needed to spread the word about their project, especially since they needed to secure funding from non-governmental agencies, but doing so came with the risk that the Liberian government or anyone else who disagreed with their mission could try to shut the site down, or even target the people involved.
“Everybody has a different threshold of how comfortable they feel as far as safety goes, like putting their name on articles about these topics,” Harper says.
Harper says Liberian journalists face other challenges beyond the subject matter they’re reporting on. For example, some were unable to attend the training sessions because of flooding during monsoon season, or because they were battling malaria while not having access to quality healthcare. Also, the aftermath of Liberia’s civil wars and the Ebola outbreak have left many communities traumatized, he says.
Currently, Journal Rage has a staff of three people, including Stewart, and the site’s slate of articles is growing, including how LGBTQ+ youth in Liberia lack access to social support and protection and how a Liberian pastor called for the arrest of members in the LGBTQ+ community.
Harper says he hopes to continue the partnership between Newhouse and Journal Rage, helping to develop a branding campaign and giving Stewart and his team the resources, they need to have the most professional public presentation possible.
Stewart says he’s grateful for all the help he’s received, and he looks forward to working with anyone else who wants to be a part of Journal Rage and assist with staff training. He says his long-term goals are to have correspondents from various West African countries who can write about LGBTQ+ issues specific to their communities, and for Journal Rage to become West Africa’s main LGBTQ+ news site.
“It’s important to understand one of our roles as journalists: that we are [reporting] on the basic human rights of people and making sure [they are] defended,” Stewart says.
Micah Castelo is a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.