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October 24, 2002 UN peacekeeper Innes investigates Liberian radio propaganda



Michael Innes

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Frank Kuin

Academically, Michael Innes has examined the effects of mass murder from written sources; as a soldier, he has witnessed some of them first hand.

Innes, a graduate student at Concordia, has been studying the role of radio broadcasting in the civil war of Liberia, a conflict that raged through most of the 1990s and cost an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 lives.

The master’s candidate in history at the Montreal Institute of Genocide Studies has analyzed propaganda use in that war, which saw “troops of one faction or another slaughtering their ethnic enemies on a huge scale.”

As a UN peacekeeper, he has seen evidence of genocide in another part of the world: Bosnia, where he served a six-month tour of duty in 1997. While enforcing the Dayton peace accord in the Balkans, his team came across a pit that had been a mass grave.

“It was after about a week in theatre,” Innes recalled. “One of the locals who had been in the area told us the story of how 53 people had been unearthed.

“I remember standing around it, looking down, not really being able to see the bottom. We had not been witness to the actual event, but it served to anchor our interest for the tour.”

It also fired up his academic interest in the subject. Back in Montreal, Innes, now an army reservist, took history professor Frank Chalk’s course, The History and Sociology of Genocide.

“I’ve always been interested in security-oriented subjects,” he said. “Since coming back, the focus has been mainly on the history and dynamics of genocide, especially looking at post-Cold War incidences, like in Rwanda in 1994 and in the Balkans throughout the 1990s.”

Innes sees “a real role for historical research in documenting occurrences of mass human rights abuses. The process of discovery and analysis of evidence of relatively recent cases gives this kind of work a contemporary relevance that I think is extremely satisfying.”

Taking a cue from the conflict in Rwanda, where radio broadcasting played an important part in inciting ethnic hatred in the run-up to the 1994 genocide, Innes decided to examine the role of radio propaganda in the 1990-1997 civil war in Liberia and the decade preceding it.

He analyzed years’ worth of transcripts of Liberian radio broadcasts kept by the U.S.-based Foreign Broadcast Information Service, as well as the BBC Worldwide Monitor.

Although he found that Charles Taylor, a Liberian warlord who is now the country’s president, was a “master manipulator” of the media, his efforts were “not as overt in terms of driving a wedge between groups using media images,” Innes said.

“He did target ethnic groups, but it was not of the same variety that you saw in Rwanda.” The ethnic mix in Liberia is much more fragmented.

Rather, Taylor’s propaganda was primarily aimed at foreigners in Liberia, such as Nigerians and Ghanaians, who made up a multinational intervention force to stabilize the country organized by ECOWAS, an organization of West African States. This force stood in the way of Taylor’s domination of the country.

“The propaganda would target the Nigerians, try to discredit them, question their legitimacy, and impute all sorts of abuses to them.”

Innes is under some pressure to finish his thesis. Several weeks ago he was called upon to return to Bosnia for another peacekeeping tour. He’ll be heading for the Balkans in April for six months and wants to complete his work before then.

“My field experience is in Bosnia and my academic focus is on Africa,” Innes said. “At some point it would be interesting to switch the two.”

Michael Innes will be presenting his paper, “Scorched Ether: Radio Broadcasting in the Liberian Civil War,” on Feb. 14 at 12 p.m. in LB-608, in the J.W. McConnell Library Building.