When Media Suffer Abuse
By Ekena Wesley
Zenger was thrown in court and ironically no lawyer preferred venturing in defense of this journalist whose professional role was seen as an affront to the British crown. But as in the words of Mandela: “True friends avail themselves when you are beset by trouble”. A radical New York-based lawyer called Hamilton rose to the occasion and volunteered to serve as Zenger’s defense lawyer.
In a case dogged by extensive legal wrangling and dramatic maneuvers, lawyer Hamilton remained resolute in defense of Zenger. On the day of the historic ruling, Hamilton delivered an emotional but passionate speech to the jury.
In an apparent reference to the jury, lawyer Hamilton said: “This is not a case of just an innocent man. It is a fundamental issue that borders on protecting the civil liberties of all Americans. Today could be Zenger and tomorrow it might be yet another American. You have a sacred duty to preserve the values our forebears fought to uphold. History will judge you if your actions or inactions tend to compromise the interest of our liberty, rights and civilization”.
The reverberations contained in Hamilton’s address to the twelve-man jury invariably contributed to a ‘NO GUILTY’ verdict. That landmark case marked the beginning of press freedom in American History as Zenger walked out of a packed courtroom as a free man.
Similarly, in pre-independence Ghana, Nigerian scholar and politician Nmadi Azikwe was whisked out of the then Gold Coast apparently due to an article he authored entitled: HAS THE BLACK MAN A GOD? Zik as he became popularly known did not get any opportunity, as was the case of Zenger.
No non-sense social commentator and journalist Albert Porte regrettably experienced prison life as a second home during the Tubman era. Successive governments in Liberia showcased empty and baseless public relations gimmicks in a bid to display inventive pretext through spins that lack any form of nationalistic inclinations.
While the history of journalism in Liberia cannot be likened to the revolutionary tendencies witnessed in pre-independence Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, etc, our historical cum political evolution to a larger extent bears considerable responsibility for the initially timid culture of journalistic practice over the years. Owing to our inherent many years of single party domination, muzzling the press was a whimsical pattern for successive leaderships.
The advent and proliferation of independent media remained inconspicuous in Liberia between 1847 thru 1980. Our national experience on the media landscape has been one of state-sanctioned and censored information, which fell short of the tenets of Libertarian Theory of the press. Attempts made to present independent, objective analysis or as it were alternative opinions regarding issues that tended to shape our common destiny either got nib in the bud or if ever allowed to exist operated under very rigid conditions, which were virtually undemocratic.
Throughout the military regime, and what emerged as a subterfuge transitional cum political metamorphosis (soldier turned civilian president), a number of independent media initiatives sprung up but owing to the background of the soldiers who had seized power, a more draconian approach was employed to muzzle dissenting voices or views uncharacteristic of the junta and its extension.
While Sawyer-led IGNU cannot be adjudged as one of the best success stories in terms of good governance, its adherence to a liberal, independent, user-friendly media environment, marked the dawn of a new day in Liberia to say the least. Sawyer’s only enrage although less furious, at the media obtained when S. Slewion Togba, one time News Editor of the Independent Inquirer by-lined a story, which investigated the former’s purchase of a house in the U.S. Tempers quite frankly did not flare up beyond that point.
Successive leaderships beyond Sawyer followed in his footsteps even though we cannot entirely issue a blanket statement especially on the basis of those with grotesquely fascinating factional-driven colorations of the sort.
Press freedom and an affront to democratic credentials dismally plummeted after Taylor’s controversial victory in the 1997 elections. Taylor made no secret of his iron-fist styled state-sponsored repression against the independent media. Liberia has awoken to the dawn of autocratic traits pursuant to the institutionalization of sheer reckless and flagrant abuse of the civil liberties of the governed. Several media houses and journalists were subjected to torture of unimaginable proportions, dozen imprisoned while others coerced to flee their country for safe haven elsewhere.
Democratic forces at home and abroad networked and collaborated endlessly to reverse what was then a product of pseudo democratic establishment. The struggle was internationalized thus invoking sub-regional alliances that hasten the demise of a 21st century African dictator.
In all of this the Liberian media, remained forthright and unperturbed despite its numerous challenges by rising gallantly to the occasion in defense of democracy and our common patrimony. At the time, those who vehemently opposed the status quo wined and dined with the media and branded them as true patriots. It is important to emphasize here that the media is no ‘friend’ to any segment, tradition, beliefs or hold no allegiance whatsoever to any quarter but owes it to Liberia as a common denominator.
The UP-led government, like many of its contending counterparts in the 2005 elections depended on the media largely to convey campaign messages and utopian promises in any case. The media provided the platforms for the electorate to raise those salient questions, concerns and queries that had conditioned their plight and the prospect for a sound systematic recovery. It was again the very media that reported and relayed up to the minute elections results as they emerged from the several dozens polling stations throughout the country. The media reckoned no regrets because all the media did, it knew, was in the interest of democracy.
Eyebrows were raised barely a couple of hours after the official announcement certifying the Unity Party as winner of the presidential run-off to the effect that top aides to the president-in-waiting began a ‘select media’ kind of gate-keeping process. That process sifted and invited media organizations, who were considered as ‘those who matter or better still UP-sympathetic.
Those who presumably were not served invitations ostensibly proved the most critical and balanced. In a democracy, when electoral results get announced, the governor celebrates with all and commits her/himself to serving the collective good of the governed. That initial disposition of divide and rule tactics was not only premature but an unguided public relations judgment.
Of course and more worrisome the last couple of weeks have seen media reports about state security-inspired brutality meted out on media personnel. The trend begets a damning undemocratic signal for Liberia nascent democracy. The media will reflect at all times different however critical shades of opinion because we all cannot seek solutions to our most pressing problems from similar lens. Is there anyone today, either within or without government who at some time or the other did not badmouth, criticize or demonize government through the very media?
The issue that confronts us to today is not who’s in or out but an abuse of the fundament rights of journalists who are simply doing their country a service. We encourage the PUL to dialogue with government but such discussions must not hold at the caprices of government. We join other Liberians and pro-democracy forces in condemning such unacceptable form of barbarism and strongly believe it is an indictment on government to mend-fences and rescue its scarred PR image.
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