A presentation by Tiawan S. Gongloe
As a panelist at a lecture series marking
The Celebration of the 25th Anniversary
Of the News Newspaper at the University of Liberia
Let me first congratulate, Attorney Wilson Tarpeh, founder and the management and staff of this time-tested media entity for keeping it alive for 25 years. To survive as a private media entity in Liberia for even one year takes a lot of will-power. This achievement may not have been possible without the efforts of Kloh Hinneh, the first Managing Editor of the Newspaper and Sam Van Kesselly, its Editor-in-chief. May we rise in moment of silence to the memory of the Late Kloh Hinneh who died during the war due to the lack of proper medical care. The life of the Daily Observer can help us understand this better. The Observer came into being on February 16, 1981, but by June of that year, less than six months later, the life of its founder, Kenneth Y. Best had been publicly threatened by the Minister of Justice, its staff arrested and the paper shut down as detailed by Best in his book, Albert Porte: A lifetime trying to save Liberia. Fortunately, the News Newspaper did not have the same experience as the Daily Observer during its first year of existence. Perhaps, it was spared the wrath of the Doe regime because its founder was then considered a close ally of the regime.
The organizers of this event have asked me to speak to this audience on the topic: The Liberian Media, 25 years back: A comparative analysis. Twenty five years back from today will take us to April 18, 1989.This means that The News Newspaper came into being during the last days of the regime of Samuel K. Doe. By 1989, Liberians had been sufficiently silenced, as many opposition politicians had gone into exile following the 1985 elections and the November 12, 1985, attempted overthrow of the Doe regime by Thomas Quiwonkpa and those remaining in the country were either operating underground or cooperating with the regime, with the exception of Gabriel Kpolleh and leaders of the Liberia Unification Party who were in jail and facing trial for treason. Also, by 1989, members of the military who had fallen out with the regime had gone into exile. The situation in this country was like a pool of water appearing still on the surface, yet boiling under. It was a strange period of silence. It was during that period of strange silence, 25 years ago, that the News Newspaper appeared on the news stand.
So what has happened over the last twenty five years in the life of the Liberian media? The media has struggled relentlessly to survive during fourteen years of armed political conflict and informed the world about the various actors in the contest for power through military means, the suffering of the Liberian people during the conflict, the fall of two brutal dictators, reported on three national elections as well as examined governance, respect for the rule of law and human rights under interim governments and two elected leaders. For the use of the pen and microphone journalists and their institutions have suffered over the past twenty five years and the struggle continues. Journalists who were perceived to be closed to the Doe regime were killed at the beginning of the armed political conflict by armed forces opposed to the regime. Journalists perceived to be opposed to the regime also suffered at the hands of armed forces loyal to the regime in power. Two foreign journalists from Nigeria were killed by the armed forces of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Journalist John Vambo died after being severely beaten by soldiers of the ECOWAS Peacekeeping force known as the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).
During the last twenty five years, journalists have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, physical attacks, confiscation of cameras and recorders. I recall the arbitrary detention of then Managing Editor of Observer, Stanton Peabody and James Seitua, Observer’s editor-in-chief in the mid-1990s during the rule of the first transitional government. I also remember the arbitrary detention of journalist Alex Redd and the confiscation of his recorder for interviews conducted by him in Gbarnga following the killing of Samuel Dokie and three family members by President Taylor, the detention of four journalists of the News Newspaper by President Taylor, the detention of four foreign journalists from Britain by Taylor and detention of many others, some for short periods of time and others for longer periods, just for the purpose of intimidation and instilling fear in them.
Successive regimes in Liberia have been intolerant of free press. However, during the 25 years period under review, the leader who showed the highest degree of tolerance of free press, in my view, was Interim President, Dr. Amos Sawyer. Yet, even he had difficulties with the manner in which the Eye Newspaper reported stories about his regime. At press conferences he often singled out the Eye Newspaper for tongue-lashing. But the Eye Newspaper was not shutdown or any of its reporters arrested, detained or brutalized by his government. The New Democrat was established during his regime, by his own Communication Director and yet it became the most critical of his government. He did not sue or threaten to sue the EYE or the NewDemocrat or any newspaper.
This regime has shown a higher degree of tolerance, than most of the regimes before, it. Journalists have not suffered in the same manner as they did under President Doe or Taylor. But journalists have had problems under this government. There have been several reports done by the Center for Media Studies cataloguing mistreatment of journalists by members of the security forces. Even journalists assigned at the Executive Mansion and the Legislature have had problems. Even the President’s top security officer was popularly reported as saying “You have your pens; we have our guns” threatening the press for its negative reports on the president, in his remarks at a Press Union forum in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, not long ago. Under this regime, government has obtained injunction to close down some media institutions based on the content of their reports. An action of historical importance that most by underscored is President Sirleaf’s action of damages against the New Broom Newspaper. This is the first time that a sitting president has filed an action of damages against any media institution in Liberia. For the President’s intolerance of the content of a story against her, published by the New Broom, she sacrificed her immunity by filing an action of damages against the paper. So, as it stands she can now be sued, as by her action against the New Broom she has waived her immunity.
Today, the President complains that there is too much negative reporting on the government in Liberian newspapers and this is hurting Liberia. When politicians are seeking power, they see the press as a friend and their stories great for the country. The situation changes, most often, when they get political power. However, it should be noted that the press does not create stories. It reports stories created by actors on the public scene, the most important of whom are those who bear the public trust, government functionaries. Instead of our President complaining about negative reporting, she should constitute a small monitoring team in her office to check on what she considers negative reports with the view of examining those stories and taking corrective actions in the interest of the people, where necessary. The Liberian people will be happy if they hear their President say that based on a media report she has taken certain actions or directed an investigation on the content of a media report or has found the report not to be true. Such response from the presidency will gradually develop a strong partnership between the press and the president on national interest. The press is a watch dog of society and must not be perceived by our government as a foe, but a true friend. The press helps the people and the government to know the truth. I appeal to President Sirleaf to develop a positive relationship with the press for the remaining few years of her second term of office.
I wish the next twenty five years will be a period in which our politicians, in and out of government, will have a full understanding of the role of the press and see the press as a friend and not a foe.
I thank you.