Daily Observer, Liberia’s First Independent Daily Celebrates 40th Anniversary; Dedicates Digital Newspaper Archive
MONROVIA – The Publisher of Liberia’s first independent newspaper, Mr. Kenneth Y. Best, has recounted the “costly pains and challenges” him and several of his staffs suffered and encountered for establishing a news organ and reporting critical and balance stories in keeping with their reportorial duties in the country.
The Daily Observer newspaper was established in January 1981 during the brutal and cruel regime of military dictator Samuel K. Doe.
Mr. Best recalled that the beginning of the paper second month in existence, the “erratic, powerful and tyrannical Justice Minister, Chea Cheapoo” during the Doe, summoned him at his office on a Monday morning, and with loaded guns pointed at him from every direction and blasted for nearly two hours, because his paper had published a story about that was displeasing to him.
According to him, the Liberian Justice Minister at the time also threatened to “hunt” him from door to door and “shoot” him.
“He sent for me the following Wednesday and demanded that I bring to his office “all those foreigners you got working for you.” He immediately imprisoned them, without due process of law, demanded that I feed them three meals a day for the two weeks he held them in prison; that I pay the fines of US$500 each for working without work permits (which I told the Minister were in process); and that I buy airline tickets for them to be deported back to their countries—two to Ghana and one to Nigeria”.
“Cheapoo was determined that I, too, would sleep in jail that weekend. He sent Immigration officers to the Daily Observer office at around six o’clock that Friday evening, when all the banks were closed, demanding that I pay the US$1,500 fines immediately or go to jail”.
He disclosed that as the Immigration officers were eagerly about to whisk him off to jail, his brother-in-law, identified as J. Mamadee Dorbor, husband of his younger sister Genevieve Best-Dorbor, suddenly showed up.
According to him, Dorbor had already withdrawn nearly US$3000 from the bank to buy building materials to continue work the following day, on the home he and his wife were building.
“Mamadee accompanied me to the Immigration office and paid the US$1,500 fines they demanded cash down! Cheapoo was still in his office at the Justice Ministry at 6:30 that Friday evening, waiting to order me imprisoned for the weekend in the event I did not pay the fines”.
Mr. Best disclosed that the situation masterminded by Cheapoo at the time gave rise to multiple troubles that his newspaper and staffs encountered.
He added that three months later, on June 29, 1981, most of the staff, including his wife Mae Gene, Secretary, Mrs. Frances Crusoe, female reporter, Ms. Cynthia Greaves, and Advertising lady, Ms. Bindu Fahnbulleh, were whisked off to jail.
He named the other reporters and editors who were also imprisoned with him as Sando Moore, Kloh Hinneh, T. Max Teah, Sam Van Kesselly, Isaac Thompson, among others.
Mr. Best further recalled that the action was triggered after the Daily Observer newspaper had published three Letters to the Editor from elementary students of the Monrovia Central High, appealing to Head of State Doe, to lift the ban he had imposed on Conmany Wesseh, President of the Liberia National Students Union (LINSU), who is now Senator of River Gee County in the 54th National Legislature.
He noted that ex-President Doe had left the country the very morning for Nairobi, Kenya to attend the summit conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)—now African Union.
“We were in prison for 10 days. But guess what! Head of State Doe did not know that Kenneth Y. Best and his wife Mae Gene had worked in Nairobi for six and a half years—from 1973-1980—and were very well known and respected in Kenya. Thanks to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and other world media, the news of our imprisonment had spread throughout the world. We later learned that Head of State Doe and his delegation could go nowhere in the conference building—the Kenyatta Conference Center—or anywhere else in Nairobi without being confronted every hour by the press and by OAU officials with the issue of the Daily Observer people’s imprisonment, most especially Kenneth Y. Best and his wife”.
“The Bests had worked in Nairobi for six and a half years—from 1973 to 1980—Kenneth as Information Director of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), the powerful pan-African church body headquartered there. The Bests were, therefore, well known and respected in Kenya. But Samuel Doe did not know that”.
He stated that few days later following their arrest, the Vice Head of State at the time, Thomas Weh Syen, sent for him and the others and order their release from the Post Stockade.
Mr. Best furthered that in November of that same year, the Daily Observer again published a story on a teacher from neighboring Guinea, Sheik Mohammed Kone, calling on President Sekou Toure to release all of the hundreds of political prisoners he had jailed and open up the country to democracy so that the thousands of Guinean intellectuals and technocrats all over the world could return and help develop their country.
“We had withheld this story from publication because we needed to contact the Guinean envoy to Liberia, Ambassador Cisse, for his government’s reaction, which I did in person. But I warned this Guinean teacher that he would get into big trouble with President Toure if the story were published”.
“After several such warnings and withholding the story from publication for nearly two months, the teacher told me one day, “Mr. Best, there comes a time in the life of a man when he should be prepared to die for his country. If my time has come, I am ready to go.”
Mr. Best disclosed that he had no reason any longer to hold on the story, but took a decision to publish on the frontpage of his newspaper, and the back page of the same edition carried a composite photograph showing the worst dumpsites in Monrovia taken by Chief Photographer, Sando Moore, under the caption, “Monrovia Stinks”.
Mr. Moore is now the Publisher of the Images magazine.
“At 20 minutes past eight that morning the Minister of Justice, Isaac Nyeplu, called me. “What kind of major embarrassment have you caused our government today? he asked”. What embarrassment? I enquired. “Don’t you see today’s headline? Anyway, you will hear from me.”
Mr. Best pointed out that 10 minutes later, “a busload of red capped, strapping police entered our office. “Get out, get out!” they shouted. “We are closing this damned place down.”
He added that he was arrested and taken to the Justice Minister office where he met the Guinean Ambassador, Mr. Cisse, seated.
“As I explained myself, how I had first contacted the Guinean ambassador and given him two weeks to contact his government in Conakry for its reaction to the teacher’s letter, Ambassador Cisse told Justice Minister Nyeplu that he, the ambassador, “had never seen this man (Mr. Best) before!”
“I was immediately imprisoned at the Post Stockade, the maximum security prison at the Barclay Training Center (BTC) and later at the National Security Agency (NSA). The Daily Observer newspaper was again closed down”.
He continued: “One evening while seated at NSA a car brought in the Guinean teacher. They sat him next to me. As soon as he saw me, Teacher Konneh came over and hugged me apologizing profusely “for all this trouble I have caused you and your newspaper.” I told him not to worry about us, for we felt we had done our professional duty by telling his story to the world”.
While still at the NSA, Mr. Best recalled that Doe sent him a three-page letter describing him as a “unpatriotic and a counter revolutionary” on the back page caption story headlined “Monrovia Stinks”.
“I replied the letter the following day, saying we thought we were doing President Toure a favor by letting him knows what his people were thinking of him and his government. On the back page caption, I told Master Sergeant Doe it was intended to alert the Ministries of Health and of Public Works to do something urgently to clean up the capital city and save the population from an epidemic”.
“In all we were closed down five times, the fifth time for nearly two years. And once Head of State Doe and his Defense Minister, Gray D. Allison, who also held the other powerful position of Chairman of the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC), ordered the electricity at our newspaper office and printing press disconnected! Our lights were restored three weeks later, in time for the Daily Observer to cover the state visit of the Nigerian Head of State, Ibrihima Babangida, to Liberia”.
After the presidential election of 1985 when Doe was declared the winner by the “notoriously corrupt” Elections Commissioner, Emmet Harmon, Mr. Best added that, the Daily Observer gave the new democratic government two months to make good their pledge to “uphold, protect and defend the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia.”
He noted that despite the stance, the government did not reopen the newspaper, choosing to ignore the democratic Constitution that had brought them to power.
He narrated that in mid-March 1986 the Board of Directors of the Liberian Observer Corporation decided that in the exercise of their constitutional rights, they would reopen the Daily Observer newspaper, since the new Constitution said nothing about closing down newspapers.
“We reopened the office on Friday morning, March 16 and held a press conference in which we told the world why we had reopened our newspaper. Our Statement was drafted by our Legal Counsel, Counselor Phillip A.Z. Banks. At around five o’clock p.m. we closed the office and went home, hoping to return for work the following morning”.
But early the next day, he pointed out that he and his staffs woke up to news that the Daily Observer office had been set afire the night before.
“Our office suffered two more arson attacks perpetrated by the Samuel Doe government and several other imprisonments of the publisher, Mr. Best. The last vicious attack on our premises occurred in September 1990, when forces loyal to Samuel Doe, now deceased, threw hand grenades into our building and this time completely destroyed it. We lost everything. By that time the Best family had departed for Banjul, The Gambia to plan the launch that country’s first modern and first daily newspaper”.
“We can never forget the challenging, critical and costly pains we endured during our formative years—pains, yea crises we suffered”.
At the same time, Mr. Best has paid homage to former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for approving a loan opportunity for the Daily Observer to establish and operate in Liberia when she served as the President of the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI).
Madam Sirleaf, the political leader of the opposition Alternative National Congress (ANC), Mr. Alexander B. Cummings, the President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), Charles Coffey, local and international entrepreneurs, former staffs, including the Mr. Sando Moore and the Managing Editor of the Frontpage Newspaper, Rodney Sieh, were in attendance.
Speaking at the occasion briefly, Madam Sirleaf recalled that both Mr. Best and Mr. Stanton Peabody were journalists, who spoke truth, regardless of fear or favor.
But she, however, observed that present circumstances, conditions and terrains have changed everything.