Our Hats and Headties off to the Press Union of Liberia
for Taking a Gallant Stance

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 17, 2006


Being the Fourth Estate, the Media is charged with the responsibilities of checking on the activities of the First Branch of government – the Legislature, which makes Laws; the Second – the Executive, enforces the Laws, and the Third – the Judicial, decides arguments about the meaning of laws, how they are applied, and whether their application violate the Constitution and the rights of citizens. The Media’s role in this arrangement is to act in the interest of the public with the intent of pursuing truth and justice, in order to make society free of abuse and censorship. In other words, the Media whose mandate is to serve as a check on the three branches of government, cannot be seen as only working to make profit or blindly promoting the interest of a particular group or class in society. In order to remain relevant, the Media has to pursue its mandated responsibilities for society as a whole without favoring one individual or group.

This brings me to the points I made recently in one of my recent articles, the reason why Liberians should not tolerate the abuse of power by our elites and elected officials. In the article titled: “Liberia’s Culture of Unlawful Practices Continues Under New Officials”, published in The Perspective’s June 24, 2006 edition, I said, “The practice of government officials or so-called “Big Shots” suppression of free speech was elevated to a higher lever during the administration of William V.S. Tubman. During this era, journalists were not only assaulted and intimidated; supporters of the government took the law into their hands -- they dispensed justice outside of the law”. I went as far to say, “Tubman did not like to be criticized. Criticism to him meant you were against his government”.

Today, this culture of unlawful practices has risen its ugly head with impunity in Liberia. The recent statement made by Mr. Walter T.Y. Winsner, Acting Minister of State and Chief of Staff in response to the flogging of members of the Media, is a classic example of such behavior. Mr. Winsner is alleged to have said, “Let me mention that the Ministry of State is equally unhappy with the manner in which journalists are carrying out their national responsibilities… there have been reports intended to encourage insurrection and dissent, a violation of the spirit and intent of Article 15 of the constitution.” He did not stop here, instead, he added, “In many other cases there have been wide, inaccurate and speculative attacks on the government officials including the President herself”. Can Mr. Winsner prove the INTENT of these articles for which the government securities flogged these journalists? Who determines the just punishment for the so-called violation, the court of laws or the securities? Are we reading the same constitutional provisions of Article 15a – d of the Liberian Constitution?

For example, the great United States that we Liberians emanate for almost everything – ranging from our flag, system of government and what have you -- high court ruled in the case involving the New York Times Company and Sullivan that "the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and press require …a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he [she] proves that the statement was made with `actual malice' - that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." And that the same ruling is applicable to individuals who are not public officials, but who are "public figures" and are involved in issues in which the public has a justified and important interest. The matter has, however, been passed on by a considerable number of state and lower federal courts and has produced a sharp division of opinion as to whether the New York Times rule should apply only in actions brought by public officials or whether it has a longer reach.

Article 15a thru d of the Constitution, which Mr. Winsner grossly misinterprets, states: “Every person shall have the right of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in according with this Constitution.

“b) The right encompasses the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to knowledge. It includes freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom to receive and impact knowledge and information and the right of libraries to make such knowledge is available. It includes no interference with the use of the mail, telephone and telegraph. It likewise includes the right to remain silent.

“c) In pursuance of this right, there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries.

“d) Access to state owned media shall not be denied because of any disagreement with or dislike of the ideas express. Denial of such access may be challenged in a court competent jurisdiction.

“d) This freedom may be limited only by judicial action in proceedings grounded in defamation or invasion of the rights of privacy and publicity or in the commercial aspect of expression in deception, false advertising and copyright infringement”. (Constitution of the Republic of Liberia – January 6, 1986)”

Based on the interpretation of Articles 15a thru d, the government of Liberia, including its elected officials or elite, cannot arbitrarily intimidate, arrest and jail any person, for that matter, a journalist for publishing an article they do not agree with. The birth of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) in 1964 was in response to such practice - the detention of Stanton Peabody who at the time was detained for referring to members of the Legislature as “radicals”. The Tubman administration viewed his expression as a crime against the establishment. If the PUL could work under these difficult circumstances without fear and intimidation - to keep the Liberian people informed regarding the activities of their government and elected officials, the PUL today, cannot and must not allow elected officials and public figures to get away with the arbitrary use of power, intimidation of the opposition and the press. There is no place for such behavior today in the new Liberia.

Therefore, we take our hats and headties off to the Press Union of Liberia for taking such a gallant stance in reminding Mr. Winsner that, “To brush aside the attacks on our members and invite us to discuss other matters is not in our interest and we think, the respect for the fundamental rights of journalists and ordinary people are supreme… the excesses of the past that undermined democratic values and practices must not be repeated." This move by the PUL is in line with the tradition set forth by gallant individuals like Albert Porte, Tuan Wreh, G. Henry Andrews, Stanton Peabody, Rufus Marmoh Darpoh, Hassan Bility, and others who believe in the Fundamental Rights established by the Liberian Constitution (Chapter III).
The question then is, why is it that succeeding governments resuscitate this culture of impunity that the previous government had exercised? This question was answered sometime ago, I believe by H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr., when he said, in order to change society, you must first change the individuals, because it is the individuals that make the rules by which society is governed (paraphrased). By this he meant, if a system is overthrown (in our case – the government), and those who overthrow it do not work on changing the people’s behavior (mindset) in the society, then what you see is old habits being practiced all over again, by the new players – a kind of rude awaken for the society. This is what has been happening to us since April 12, 1980!

The so-called change that took place on that day, April 12, 1980, did not change the behavior of the Liberian people. What took place is the changing of players, which some political observers referred to as, “putting old wine into new bottles”. According to these observers, since the coup did not change the thinking or mindset of the Liberian people, the temporarily change we experienced became a respite awaiting the exploits of various tribalists and money peddlers to exercise their influence over the new leaders, which in the end, they accomplished by assisting the new leaders to rain havoc upon the entire society.

While from the beginning, the military leaders embraced the populist movements, later on, they came to rely upon these tribalists and money peddlers on policy matters. As a result, they failed to translate the slogan of the populist movements, such as, “In the cause of the people, the struggle continues” into concrete programs that could have provided the orientation and direction for the new government. Instead, these ‘bounty hunters’ and ‘influence peddlers’ exploited their “…tribal connections in a country where tribal loyalties emerged after the coup as the safest insurance against harassment, intimidation and imprisonment, the True Whig Party members purveyed the fable that their foreign business friends were leaving because there were socialists in the new government. For the new military leaders, socialism was what the late Tolbert and his cohorts had said it was: a system that takes away from you everything you have. Next, the True Whig Party members impressed upon the military leaders that if only they could be brought back into government, they would check on the socialists and convince their foreign business friends to return to the country. (Amos Sawyer, Effective Immediately: Dictatorship in Liberia, 1980 – 1986: A Personal Perspective, 1988 & Gedebbo Sie a.k.a. Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr., “Liberia and Democracy: An Analysis of the Restoration of the Old Order and the Betrayal of the People’s Democratic Aspirations”, 1986)
These ‘bounty hunters’ and ‘influence peddlers’ resorted to Tubman’s cold war antics, which he delivered in 1963 in a speech in Kolahun. He said:

“We wage no war against socialism… if it is kept within the territories and among people that are so inclined, but we shall fight till death any attempt to impose and force upon us what we consider a mystical illusion.” (Thomas D. Roberts, et al, Area Handbook for Liberia, 2nd Edition, p. 216, 1972)

The new leaders did not understand that the Liberian people’s struggle was about “Rights and Rice” as it was simply put. It was not over Socialism (Communism) vs. Capitalism, as they were misled to believe. This made it easy for the new leaders to go after and get rid of the so-called socialist elements in the new government that were planning to “take away from you everything you have”. For Doe and his associates, this was their point of departure from the populist movements. As the result, the PRC became to exercise a dictatorial approach in dealing with members of the populist movements, students and the Media. “…At one point Doe put a student activist under the same sort of banning order that is commonly used in South Africa against government opposition considered dangerous. He shut down a new independent newspaper, the Daily Observer, and jailed its entire staff for ten days for printing letters critical of the ban. Later it was closed altogether. Even the government-owned New Liberian was routinely scrutinized and its staff harassed. In 1984 Rufus Darpoh, a well-known Liberian Journalist, was arrested after writing unsigned articles exposing the plans of some members of the military to try to remain in power; government agents accused him of ‘transmitting news clandestinely against the interest of the government.’ Darpoh was released after five months in Liberian prisons, after torture had prompted him to confess that he was the author of the controversial articles. Doe ordered the censorship of all incoming publications on Africa, with the aim of removing anything considered ‘derogatory’ to Liberia”, wrote Ungar. (Stanford J. Ungar, Africa: The People and Politics of An Emerging Continent, p. 115, 1986)

I find it quite interesting that the same individuals who condemned Doe and Taylor for the abuse of power, started engaging in the same behavior once they acquired power. Even worse, the culture of unlawful practice did not change.

For instance in 1981, the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) government almost reintroduced the “Operation Production” policy that Tubman initiated at the end of 1963. The aim of his “Operation Production” policy at the time was to eliminate idleness and increase productivity in all sectors of the economy. According to the policy, “a significant provision of the program is the strict enforcement of vagrancy laws under which any man who cannot show that he is actively working for his own account or for someone else will be subjected to arrest and returned to his home village”. (Thomas D. Roberts, et al, Area Handbook for Liberia, 2nd Edition, p. 298, 1972)

Ironically in 1981, the PRC had intended to control the influx of idle people from the interior in Monrovia. A meeting was convened by the PRC’s Chair responsible for Ministry. The Minister of that Ministry, some PRC members of that Committee, several ministers of the government, and few of their deputies attended that meeting.

It is s reported by reliable sources that the Minister who chaired the meeting, opened the meeting with the following statement: “This meeting is called at the request of the PRC to address the influx of too many people from upcountry who are in Monrovia, not engaging in meaning activities, which makes it difficult for the smooth operation of the government, therefore, the government wants something done about this over crowdedness”.

At that moment, the PRC Chair for the Committee interrupted the Minister. “Your the book people, you mean, your called us here for this sample palava? This is a sample matter!” The Minister then asked the PRC Chair, “What will be your suggestion in handling the palava?” His response was, “The government should make army trucks available, with plenty soldiers who will be assigned down Waterside and in the Sinkor area, where they will be stationed. While there, they will ask the people they meet, question like, what you doing here? If the answer they gave is not good enough; they will be asked again, what county you come from, and if the person say Grand Gedeh, you ask him [her] to get in the truck assigned for transporting those persons from that county back to their county of origin. You do so tay, you remove plenty of them from Monrovia. That the way to do it, plain and simple!”

After he got through making his suggestion, someone at the meeting said, “But Chief, how do we make sure that the people we transport to, let say Grand Gedeh or Nimba County will remain there, and will not return to Monrovia?” His response was, “Oh, I didn’t think of it that way! The palava na reach your; your the book people, your come up with the answer”.

These were some of the problems Liberia was faced with because tribalists from the defunct grand old TWP and their money peddlers took advantaged of the innocence of the new leaders, which brought us to where we find ourselves today.

The truth of the matter is, the most important political role in society is that of the private citizen. We cannot shirk our responsibilities, we must preserve our freedoms. If we do not do so, they will be lost. The unlawful use of power will then undermine democratic values and practices. We must not allow this to happen! When we allow it to happen, there will always be inequality and injustice in society.

Therefore, both the press and the Liberian people need to follow the advice of T. Nelson Williams, who as President of the PUL in 1984 urged Liberian journalists to be “courageous, honest, truthful, and objective in their profession and that the march toward the return to democratic civilian rule, journalists should seek the truth, whether in hell or in heaven… the years ahead may be difficult but with faith in God and determination to serve our county and people, we shall not relent in our efforts until total freedom for the press in Liberia is assured”.

While on the other hand, the late G. Henry Andrews, challenged us, “…Never again should we allow a president to maintain four to five security forces, stock them with his people, and mold them into robots that do his every wish and command, good or bad, right or wrong, legal or illegal. Liberians must learn and live by the principle that the greatest right in the world is the right to be left alone as long as you don’t break the law. This is followed closely by the right to freely and fairly choose those who will govern you. The third great right is the right to hold your leaders accountable for their actions. In those rights lies the essence of democracy, no matter of what kind”. (from CRY, LIBERIA, CRY, the book written by G. Henry Andrews)

Regrettably, these are rough times in Liberia. In order to honestly serve the interests of the general public, journalists will have to separate their financial interests from the public’s legitimate right to receive unbiased news. They must guard against using their privileged position for the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement or obtaining political favors. To do so will compromise their responsibilities and obligation to seek and report the truth. We must continue to fight for free speech and expression because, ”…Just laws, justly enforced and justly administered are a credit to any nation, and is the mortar by which it is kept together; and responsibility rests upon each citizen to insist that these conditions prevail at all times. …” (The prophetic words of the late Albert Porte, November 1, 1945). Therefore, justice must not be allowed to remain asleep or sleepwalk; it must be made to wake up – with it eyes wide-opened to the reality of OUR time. This we must demand unequivocally, without any compromise.

© 2006 by The Perspective
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