All Is Not Lost
November 28, 2000
The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) has concluded its regular elections. The process was marred by the Government's crusade to confiscate the Union through infusion of money to elect its propagandists in key positions. This would have transformed this credible institution into its pathetic mouthpiece, thus rendering it useless.
The Government candidates, working for President Charles Taylor's private media outlets established through looted equipment, and clearly financed through public resources, were heavily defeated despite all the money thrown on them to buy votes and sing their master's songs. The ingrained poverty in the country convinced some state sponsored candidates that with used clothing valued at US$100 distributed to journalists, they would have been elected. In the end, such insulting offers were turned down as reason prevailed. In a clear message, the Union's outgoing president told journalists that the result was the beginning of the bigger election expected in 2003.
The election was a clear contest between the "Gbarnga journalists" (Liberia's "Goebels"), meaning those who, during the war, worked within the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia headquartered in the rebel town of Gbarnga justifying atrocities, and those who lived in Monrovia or fled the country ("The Monrovia Press"). The "Gbarnga press", as the rebel journalists became known, was an appendage of the rebels directly controlled by then rebel leader Charles Taylor. Armed with state rural broadcasting entities they seized and others they looted, they established the Liberia Communication Network and proceeded to brazenly justify atrocities such as the splitting of women bellies to determine a child's gender, ethnic cleansing, mass rape, looting of private and public properties, etc. Thus the election result is a triumph of good over evil. We congratulate the PUL for showing maturity, insight and sense of purpose in saying no to the Almighty dollar and opting for integrity and professionalism.
We are overjoyed that Liberian journalists are awakening from their slumber and learning fast. It is now becoming clearer that any marriage of convenience with tyranny, with those who fatten you only to slaughter you later, is foolish and suicidal. The best hope for Liberian journalism is an atmosphere in which threats, intimidation and draconian policies can end to competitive and professional journalism. As indicated by the results, journalists are now convinced of the difference between rhetoric and reality. War and elections rhetoric may have convinced some to see enlightenment, the free exchange of ideas after the butchering of 250,000 people in order to build institutions of freedom which, were told, were lacking under the military junta of Samuel Doe even if all the signals were that an inept and brutal dictatorship was emerging with regional implications.
The current rhetoric is that under the Liberian Constitution, the media is free, answerable only to the law. Ironically, Mr. Taylor, in a sadistic fashion, recently promised he would not descend to the depth of his predecessor by muzzling the media. The reality is that since the 1997 elections, a president who uses public resources to have his own private media outlets for control and command has declared journalists state enemies. Many have fled into exile following kidnapping and attempted kidnapping. While Star Radio remains closed, the rhetoric of upholding press freedom continues. Journalists at the New Democrat, following threats from the President that he would "personally be ferocious" with them for a story he did not like, were forced into exile. Secret funding of so-called independent media outlets at public expense continues while national resources are stolen to prop up the President's discredited media empire. Public show of disgust for such policies has been banned, with Mr. Taylor recently vowing that, "Liberia will not be another Belgrade."
Former US President Jimmy Carter, who succeeded in acquiring
modern radio equipment that made a significant difference in providing
balanced information inside and out side Liberia, has been forced
to abandon dreams of democratization under Mr. Taylor. In a letter
shutting down his pro-democracy institute, Mr. Carter told Taylor
"Much to our dismay, Liberia is a country where reports of serious human rights abuses are common, where journalists, human rights organizations, and political activists work in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and where there is little political space for meaningful democratic debate. Instead of being used to improve education, infrastructure, and development, Liberia's resources have been diverted toward extra-budgetary uses. In addition, it is increasingly evident that Liberia's role in the conflicts of the sub- region has been a destructive one".
Thus from all indications, press freedom under Mr. Taylor may have to wait. But the journalists, through their Union, have shown that integrity can overpower money. By rejecting Mr. Taylor's barren propagandists, they have rejected his programs of totalitarianism. They have shown that no matter how much looted millions one has, people of integrity can make a difference. As 2003 draws nearer, Liberians would do well to learn from the PUL. The question is whether the country's opportunistic political establishment, now scrambling for the crumbs falling from the table of looters, can make a difference. But we congratulate the journalists for setting the pace difficult to reverse in view of prevailing developments. All is not lost.