The Disneyfication of Ellen Sirleaf Johnson

The Liberian president mostly gets away with soft pedal press in the West at odds with how Liberians view her or her legacy.

Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in 2011 (Wiki Commons).

Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is often presented by western media as an avatar of all things good, which is unsurprising. This was the narrative that made her an icon of international development and women’s empowerment. It took a dip in 2011 as foreign journalists arrived in Monrovia during her re-election campaign and found a bitterly divided electorate and stubborn allegations of corruption and nepotism hanging around her administration. A few days ago a curious article came out in Canadian paper of record, ‘The Globe and Mail,’ that seemed to take “Ma Ellen’s” Disneyfication to the next level. Comparing her to Gandhi and giving an airbrushed account of her rise to fame, it left out any detail about Sirleaf being an actual human person, let alone a controversial politician.

Online response was skeptical. As some, including me, pointed out, the author’s own website describes him as an accomplished “communications consultant.” In the comment section, Liberian journalist Abdullai Kamara questioned some of the facts of the piece, including the idea that Sirleaf has done anything admirable in the education sector. And many non-Canadians wanted to know what “We Day” was.

I wrote the Globe’s public editor with my concerns. Here’s our back and forth so far:

Dear Ms. Stead,

I’m very concerned about the article “Liberia’s female president pushing for change” published in today’s Globe and Mail that reads like a press release for “brand Sirleaf.” Many of my colleagues in Liberia and elsewhere have expressed shock that such an uncritical article could ever appear about any politician, especially one embroiled in several scandals around chronic corruption and the imprisonment of Liberia’s top newspaper editor.

It’s no surprise then to find the author explicitly describing himself as a PR professional in online bios. Perhaps this is advertorial copy written for “Me to We,” a for-profit organization that runs high pressure sales seminars for kids on the value of buying expensive overseas “volunteer” trips. If so, why isn’t it clearly marked as such?

This feels like a breach of trust and needs to be addressed.

Thank you,

Aaron Leaf

The Public Editor’s reply (September 16):

Hello Mr. Leaf and thank you for raising this issue with me. You are quite right that the piece on Sirleaf is a very positive one about her involvement in the charity mentioned, written by a freelancer based  in Toronto. Through The Globe’s correspondent in Africa, Geoffrey York, The Globe has published  more complex articles about her politics and these pieces have included critical comments about her leadership. The author is a freelance journalist and former Toronto Star reporter who does both freelance writing and public relations/ communications advice. He has written freelance articles for The Globe before on different subjects. He has not provided any pr/communications work this charity or affiliated groups, I am told.

I have raised this concern with the editors of the section and I appreciate hearing from you on this.

Sylvia Stead I Public Editor

I wrote back:

To Public Editor cc Geoffrey York

Thanks for the response Ms. Stead,

Yes, I’m well aware of York’s often excellent Africa reporting, which makes it all the more strange that a story like this would get published.

It’s one thing to write a “positive” piece, but this story completely depoliticizes a sitting head of state, creating a caricature. The story mentions her winning the Nobel Peace Prize but not how the other Liberian winner Leymah Gbowee has denounced her due to corruption allegations. Or how for reporting on corruption, Liberia’s top newspaper editor, akin to the editor of the Globe and Mail, has been sentenced under an antiquated law to 5000 years in jail or until he pays a 1.5 million dollar libel fine. CPJ has covered it extensively on their blog

Also, it’s still unclear to me how Sirleaf is associated with Free the Children or Me to We. The article doesn’t connect the dots. In fact the entire We Day/Giving section is very confusing. Yes, Free the Children is a charity but their sister organization Me to We isn’t. It’s a business that sells “volunteer” trips to children. It’s one thing to use freelancers who also identify as public relations consultants, that’s the reality of the business these days, but to blur the lines between “charity news” and this kind of advocacy is very unsettling, especially when the result is highly misleading articles like the one we’re discussing.

I look forward to further discussion of the matter.



Then I learned some information about why the sudden attention on Sirleaf Jonhson by the Globe & Mail:

Dear Ms. Stead

I only realised yesterday, through a press release, that Sirleaf would be speaking at Toronto’s We Day event and that these profiles on the Globe site are for all of the speakers. Maybe that should have been obvious but many people on Twitter are only making that connection now and expressing frustration.

Most, including me, are still finding it hard to believe that this isn’t some sort of “custom content” deal with Free the Children/Me to We, especially as it uses the We Day branding which, I believe, is copyrighted.

The bottom line is this: Was that article paid content? If so by whom? Why wasn’t it marked as such? Would the Globe accept paid content if it was about, say, a European politician or an American politician?

Africa’s a Country has asked me to write a post about this.


So The Public Editor wrote back to me:

Good morning Aaron. So, to answer your questions…. The article was not paid content. It was assigned as part of a special newspaper section on Me to We, although for space purposes it ran online only. The Globe does run a number of special sections like a Report on RRSPs (Registered Retirement Savings Program) or Green Initiatives for example. With those special sections, the advertisers know what the section will be about and choose to buy into that section. So if you were to see the particular newspaper section, you would see that all the advertising relates to the subject matter, in this case either We Day or charities.

It is not advertorial content and not paid content.

I’m not sure if you were able to see the full newspaper section, but here are a few links to some other articles which did run in that section.

Then she added a bunch of links of articles from the section; this, this, this, this and this.

That’s the last time we emailed. But then, almost as if they were reacting to all the criticism, there’s a critical piece in the Globe today about Sirleaf by one of its columnists Doug Sanders.

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