The Tragedy of Liberian Media: In Defense of Press Freedom
May 3rd of each year is set aside to pay special homage to journalists worldwide who have gone beyond the call of duty to unveil hidden truths and disseminate accurate, balance and credible report on global and local issues. This day renews the inspiration and strength of those who have steadfastly stood in defense of press freedom and freedom of expression. It salutes outstanding institutions and individuals that have made immense contribution to promoting a free press amidst coercion and censorship.
The media in every nation is an essential embodiment of nation-building. It drives or destroys the overall agenda of any country. The media in Liberia has been playing a very pivotal role in transforming our country, consolidating our fragile peace, sustaining our emerging democracy and promoting genuine national development. A prosperous nation is anchored to press freedom and free speech. No one should be subjected to criminal charges for expressing his/her view or thought on a specific issue.
Whenever state-actors and politicians gruesomely pursue journalists for independently reporting all forms of unethical practices in government, it hampers genuine progress. Even though the government of Liberia under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has made some gains to ensure Press Freedom, but it remains a serious embarrassment for Liberia to rank 89 on the World Press Freedom Index. The government needs to take stronger and more proactive steps toward ensuring press freedom.
Liberian Journalists have been through a lot. There are voluminous of untold stories and terrifying accounts. For more than seven decades now, they have stood up as watchdogs and gatekeepers of our society. They continue to make ultimate sacrifices for the growth and improvement of our nation. Our nation must honor them and reverence their courage and commitment. We must celebrate them and all those who have been standing up to defend press freedom. We must protect them and their families against potential coercion. They deserve a golden space in our national Gazette.
It is a tragedy for a Liberian journalist to be severely whipped for reporting the truth. It is a tragedy for a newspaper to be banned simply because it exposed corruption. It is a tragedy for a radio station to be shut down for broadcasting critical news. It is a tragedy to detain and jail a journalist for speaking against bad governance. It is a tragedy to target the family members of investigative reporters. It is a tragedy to invade printing houses for publishing credible and balance news stories. It is a national tragedy for our judiciary system to be used as a conduit of manipulation to muzzle free press.
It is a tragedy for Editor Roland Worwee of the Corruption Watch Newspaper and Television Manager Joe Wandah of Truth FM to be spending their fourth night in prison on charges of libel and defamation. It is a tragedy when publishers, editors, columnists, newscasters, talk-show hosts and political commentators are chased, handcuffed and sometimes beaten with gun-butts for speaking truth to power.
It is a tragedy for our government to remain tightlipped on repealing libel and defamation in Liberia, but at the same time brags about signing the Declaration of Table Mountain. The tragedy of the Liberian media is too despicable to narrate. This is a tragedy that keeps on making our nation to mourn. This is a tragedy that has kept our country in pandemonium.
This is a tragedy that continues to weaken our democracy and threaten our security. This tragedy is even visible today. If we truly desire an all-inclusive CHANGE in our country, we must consider this tragedy as a common enemy. This is a tragedy that we must confront together as a nation and a people.
For too long, press freedom and freedom of expression have been restricted. It is time for all of us (ordinary and prominent citizens) to stand up in defense of press freedom. If our government fails to immediately revise laws criminalizing press freedom and free speech, our nation stands to risk a lot.
We must stand with the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) to ensure the decriminalization of these antiquated and vicious laws. We must march together with Liberian journalists and lift our banners up high against these draconian laws that continue to pierce our democracy. We must stand steadfastly with the leadership of President Abdullah Kamara to defeat these laws before 2016 ends.
The teeth of these outdated laws are even sharper than a two-edged sword. They are used to protect the interest of politicians and shield corruption. They are used to protect the rich and influential against the overall agenda of the country. These statutes continue to stifle Liberian journalists and strangulate press freedom. They are completely contrary to the Table Mountain Declaration that was signed by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in July 2012.
On this World Press Freedom Day in post-conflict Liberia, continuing this article without eulogizing a national hero like Albert Port would be unjust. Albert Port was a journalist par excellence with uncompromising principles and ethics. While serving as Chief Editor of the Crozerville Observer, he was sent to jail several times for exposing bad governance under the hegemony of the True Whig Party.
The pen of Porte was a powerful tool he used to broadcast prevailing realities amidst intimidation and harassment. The following publications are famous memories of Porte’s powerful pen: Thinking about Unthinkable Things—The Democratic Way (1967), Liberianization or Gobbling Business? (1975), Explaining Why (1976), Thoughts on Change (1977) and The Day Monrovia Stood Still (1979). As a result of Porte’s invaluable contribution to journalism, this generation of Liberian journalists now has a unique space to at least practice a profession that was totally seen by despotic and dictatorial regimes as a taboo.
The celebration of this year’s World Press Freedom Day in Liberia will never achieve its actual purpose if Charles Gbenyon is not remembered. The death of this fallen Liberian broadcast journalist who worked for ELBC still remains a mystery since November 14, 1985. Gbenyon is no more with us today simply because he chose to be a journalist, which was never a wrong path to pursue. The blood of Gbenyon continues to cry out for justice. Those in political offices and high places need to understand that JOURNALISM is not a CRIME or TABOO. For decades now, the press in Liberia has been muzzled by successive regimes.
Overtime, Liberian journalists have been severely intimidated, flogged, harassed and censored by State security for performing their reportorial duty. Yesteryear, some of them were even killed for publicizing factual information on critical issues while others were imprisoned at Belle Yalla and the Post Stockade for a crime they did not commit. The media in Liberia has endured tough times to reach this far. In 1955 under Tubman’s administration, 9 Liberian journalists were arrested and sent to prison for publishing editorials against President William V. S. Tubman and the True Whig Party.
The persistent attack on the media by Tubman’s administration created a gloomy cloud over press freedom in Liberia. This horrifying approach gave rise to serious media restriction and repression. Press Freedom and Freedom of Speech were no longer seen as fundamental instruments to solidify our democracy. Those in authority saw journalists as frontline impediments to their socio-economic and political interest. As a result, they did everything humanly possible to slaughter the media and exterminate free speech.
Under the presidency of William R. Tolbert, the Liberian media became a direct victim of political censorship, subjugation and machination. The brother of President Tolbert and other higher-ups in government misused public offices to castrate the media through widespread intimidation. The primary motive of Stephen A. Tolbert who served as Minister of Finance was to isolate the media and subdue free speech. The Revelation newspaper was shut down for publishing an editorial about his growing business interest and abuse of public resources.
Even though, Liberian journalists were compelled to undergo harsh and hostile treatment during the domineering era of the True Whig Party, but history could not allow terror to extinct this noble profession. All through these difficult days, the media remained unshaken in pursuing a new Liberia of equal opportunities for all. Determined as Liberian journalists were, nothing could undermine their collective sense of duty to Liberia – not even guns, flogging, imprisonment or death.
As our nation was transitioning towards a period of military rule after a bloody coup by 17 enlisted men of the armed forces on April 12, 1980, some saw this transition as an era of democratic renaissance after many years of media clampdown. Notwithstanding, this was never the case as journalists were even targeted more under the regime of President Doe. The administration of Doe can be widely remembered for torturing and murdering journalists. During an interview in June 1986, President Doe said to Editor Rufus Darpoh of the Sun Times newspaper “God has given you long life, but you are acting careless with it.”
Famous journalists who were perceived to have been critical of government were apprehended and maltreated by security forces loyal to ex-President Doe. Some of these journalists who suffered such treatment include: Momolu Sirleaf, publisher of Footprints Today; Kenneth Best, manager director of the Daily Observer; Rufus Darpoh, editor of the Sun Times; Willis Knuckles, reporter of the Daily Observer; Charles Gbenyon, broadcaster of ELBC; James Momoh of the Inquirer newspaper; Tom Kamara, editor-in-chief of the New Liberian newspaper; and Isaac D. E. Bantu, BBC-Liberia correspondent; etc.
After almost 9 years of despotic rule under Doe’s control, the nation was plunged into another crisis due to anti-democratic precedents. This ‘revolution’ led to the ascendancy of an ex-Warlord Charles Taylor as President of Liberia. During the NPP led government, journalists as well as citizens were harassed by ATU and SOD for speaking freely. Journalist Hassan Bility, an editor of The Analyst newspaper was a major victim of Taylor’s crackdown on the Liberian media. Several other journalists received death threats through phone calls and text messages. Some of them were arbitrarily arrested and detained.
Even in post-conflict Liberia, there are emerging challenges facing the media and free speech. After almost 13 years of uninterrupted peace, journalists are still being threatened for reporting accurate, balance and credible stories that reveal wrongdoings in public service. In 2012, Seward Korner of the Daily Observer and Edward Mortee of the National Chronicle were picked up, handcuffed and put behind bars by police officers. In 2013, the head of security for President Sirleaf said that “The Executive Protection Service (EPS) will go after journalists because you are terrorists without facts. You have your pens, we have our guns.” On August 21, 2013, the Publisher of FrontPage Africa, Rodney Sieh was jailed for libel.
It is time to institute a more collective action in order to protect Liberian journalists and ensure their overall safety. Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution guarantees press freedom and free speech. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration also guarantees media freedom. The Declaration of Windhoek signed in Namibia on May 3, 1991 promotes a free, independent and pluralistic media in Africa and worldwide. We must use these laws to adequately enhance press freedom across Liberia. It is time for us to cease this moment and apply genuine effort in defending press freedom. The next generation of journalists must not suffer persecution.
As the carnival of this year’s World Press Freedom Day continues, I want to wish all Liberian media practitioners a wonderful celebration. May you never forget this 2016 theme “Promoting a Free Press to ensure sustainable Development in Liberia.”
About The Author:
Martin K. N. Kollie is a Liberian youth activist, a student leader, an emerging economist and a young writer. He currently reads Economics with distinction at UL and is a loyal stalwart of the Student Unification Party (SUP). He can be reached at: [email protected]