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My final phone call with warlord Charles Taylor

Former president of Liberia Charles Taylor called me regularly in the early 1990s when I was the director of Voice of America's English-to-Africa broadcasts. I'll never forget one strange phone call from him. Unfortunately, my hunch about Taylor's connection to Sierra Leone would prove correct.

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Former Liberian President Charles Taylor waits for the start of his sentencing judgement in the courtroom of the Special Court for Sierra Leone near The Hague May 30. Taylor will serve his 50-year sentence for crimes against humanity in a British prison. Op-ed contributor Gregory Alonso Pirio recalls the phone interviews he conducted with Taylor as a Voice of America journalist in Africa.

Toussaint Kluiters/AP

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Charles Taylor would call me on regular basis in the early 1990s. It’s not that I was a friend of the former Liberian rebel leader and later president, whom the International Criminal Court sentenced to 50 years in prison on Wednesday for his role in the bloody Sierra Leone civil war. Rather, Mr. Taylor needed me.

I was a media gatekeeper who could give him access to an audience of millions of African listeners, including Liberians. These were the days before the advent of independent FM radio in Africa, and millions of Africans had no recourse but to tune to international broadcasters like the BBC and Voice of America as credible news alternatives to the government-monopolized radio stations.

For my part, as the director of VOA’s English-to-Africa broadcasts, I pursued newsmakers like Taylor to enrich the news offerings to our listeners. The advent of satellite telephone in the 1980s revolutionized our coverage of African civil conflicts. Rebel leaders were no longer isolated in faraway bush headquarters awaiting the occasional Western reporter to arrive to get their stories out.

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