The Practice of Yellow Journalism Is Putting Liberian Democracy at Risk (Part II)

By John S. Morlu II

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 5, 2006


In part one, I argued that President Sirleaf is not alone in thinking about the state of the media in Liberia. Ambassador, some members of the Black Journalist Association, the New Democrat, veteran Liberian journalists and the a large numbers of Liberians agreed with the president. All is not lost. The Liberian media will move from the position of being defensive to one of reflection, because reasonable voices would continue to emerge on this issue.

After all, we all want to see an independent media reports information that can be relied upon to form the basis of sound decision making for the good of the nation. But I believe there are immediate things that needs to be done to arrest the calculated bad reporting in Liberian papers.

Solving the Problem of Yellow Journalism

It is far preferable for the Press Union of Liberia to get involved and set up a punishment mechanism, as is done in America. If a man is caught in spreading lies and making up stories like former Journalist Jason Blair of the New York Times, he should never be allowed, again to become a journalist in Liberia. But if the PUL cannot engage in this simple ‘self policing’ of its members, arguably it is time for the government to crackdown on some of the makeshift media houses. For the Web-based media outlet, suing them in America is the way forward. Let their employers know what they are doing when they use company computers to spread lies about people on the Web.

In any democracy, the promotion of the greater good is paramount. Jefferson and Hamilton both came to that sober conclusion with respect to cracking down on political machinery masquerading as media outlets. The Sirleaf administration must take the courage as Jefferson did to save our democracy, even though people will cry and accuse her as a hypocrite. The same was said about Jefferson. But he is still revered by many, today including me. The administration must pulled the Articles of Incorporation for all newspapers and ask them to reapply.

Another solution is for the government to deal with the radio stations and the major ‘credible’ newspapers. The publishers of these major papers could be encouraged by providing them with information on government activities. In my opinion, the major credible papers, not in any particular order are:

1. The Newdemocrat: www.
2. The Analyst:
3. The Heritage :
4. The News :
5. The Daily Observer:
6. The Perspective:
7. The Inquirer:
9. Star radio :
10. The Chronicle

The Corruption Estate must be turned back into the 4th Estate. The above papers could play a major role. These papers have struggled to build a mainstream media institutions. It would be sad to see their respective reputations drag down with the makeshifts ones like the Public Agenda, the Informer, the FORUM, etc.

The New Democrat Got It Correct, The Analyst On The Wrong Side

I have seen some of the editorial pages of major Liberian papers, but The Analyst editorial was interesting. I believe The Analyst is a responsible paper. I read it regularly. But I believe that it is on the wrong side of this debate. First, the paper’s editorial on this issue reflects a group of people living in state of self denial. Most Liberians know the President is correct on this issue. It bothers the mind that The Analyst would choose to defend the state of ‘paid agent’ and ‘Kato’ journalism in Liberia. Read the pages of the New Democrat. It was right on point that the President was saying what people already know to be the state of affairs.

The Analyst is correct that not all papers are guilty, but a significant portion is paid agents. And for most reasonable people, one bad paper is just too many.

It also would have been a miscalculation on the President’s part to single out any paper. As President she should focus on the issues, something that some in the journalism community have failed to do. She properly suggested that the self regulating profession take the lead in investigating and promoting ethical journalism.

In America, when the Association of Certified Public Accountants failed to self regulate, the government took over the oversight of the auditing business by establishing a government sponsored Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), rendering the AICPA almost useless as an institution. So if PUL cannot do it, in the interest of the nation, an independent agency must be established in its place.

In another surprising manner, The Analyst editorial shamelessly attempts to sidestep the issue by blaming the Kato and Paid Agent journalism on the lack of government officials to come up with information and then suggest that the administration should pass a law mandating that these government officials be required to produce. The Analyst will only be correct if one were to assume that the only thing driving the Paid Agent and Kato journalism is the lack of information. This is far from the truth.

No amount of information will convince the Milton Teajay and Liberty Party (unholy alliance) sensitizing efforts, through the use the Public Agenda. Nor will any amount of information from public officials will survive the financial problems of journalists in Liberia. Most would agree that only a government agency that regulates the profession will do the trick. Why this might view as a draconian option, it necessary for the greater good of the nation. It is also in the interest of the mainstream papers.

The Danger of Inaction

There are several dangers to our democracy from yellow journalism. Even publishers of the major papers can agree this Kato and Paid Agent journalism have turned the 4th Estate into the “Corruption Estate.” As a result, it is becoming difficult for anyone interested in combating corruption in Liberia to rely on the papers, as a source of solid news. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Liberian people, the Americans, the United Nations, ECOWAS, the European Union and practically all Liberia’s international partners cannot rely on the papers to inform the public about the activities of their government in an honest, fair and balanced manner. No wonder President Sirleaf has demanded to see proof whenever someone is accused of corruption, because she has been a target of misinformation.

Another danger of the Kato and Paid Agent journalism is that it has the propensity to create civil unrest, putting our people lives at risk, again. The Liberian people refused to be bystanders in the quest for some in the media business to bring down another government. President Sirleaf was correct that the reportage is not just sensational but rather it is meant to sensitize the public and turn them against their government. I rather see a politicians bashing the government than a political newspapers hiding behind the notion of independent media.

Liberians also argue that we need to build a vibrant private sector. But I wonder how business people are supposed to invest in Liberia to create jobs that will hire the large pool of college graduates and the unemployed when some in the journalist’s community have chosen to spread lies and untruths with the intention of damaging the government’s reputation. Business people do not like bad PR, especially when it is the result of lies and intentional character assignations.

In fact how can a business be assured that some day, some makeshift media institution will not write lies about them and cause great damage to their reputation. So even if one does not like the Sirleaf administration, it is in the nation’s interest for her to succeed. And we can all do that by giving her information that she can rely on to make good decisions for the nation; journalists must make policy makers believe in the information provided.

Imagine if Ellen Johnson Sirleaf were not in power, the power struggle that would engulf Liberia. A scramble to hell will be an apt description of the situation. April 6 will be small by comparison, so journalists must understand Liberians will not stand for it. If the government cannot do it and rein this sickening media industry, the citizens will do so.

But in the meantime, Tom Kamara, Philip Wisseh, Stanley Seakor, Mohammed Kanneh, Adama Sheriff, Kenneth Best, George Nubo, and Philip Best Brown can lead the change. All of you can save the Liberian print media. They cannot allow some media institutions to ruin your industry.

A Letter From A Veteran Liberian Journalist in Monrovia

I have received quite a large pool of letters from journalists and concerned Liberians in and outside of Liberia. I have chosen to publish this one from a long time Liberian journalist, living in Liberia and working for a private firm.


Thanks for the reply. Just returned from Gbarnga.

On my views, about the latter part of your e-mail, the media in Liberia has become more or less a dumping ground for anyone - high school and college dropouts to enter. Very few college products remain actively practicing in the profession mainly because the salary or incentives provided by media institutions for someone of the educational level is extremely small. These college graduates move on to other better paying jobs. That's one of the problems.

Since media institutions can't afford to pay journalists with a college education a good salary, they opt for those with far less education to serve as reporters and freelance reporters and pay them little or nothing. As such, these drop-outs depend on the "kato" or gifts provided by the newsmakers to make ends meets. They come into the profession with the sole aim of getting money and not for the love of the profession. Those adequately trained in the profession, will never act as those who are prostituting the profession.

As a union, the PUL must set standards as to how one becomes a member and practice the profession. If we look at other professional organizations - Medical and Dental Association, the Liberia National Bar Association - they have set standards as to who can practice the profession.

The PUL , in collaboration with the Ministry of Information, also has to step up the standards as to who can establish and run a media institution in this country. A reporter today, can overnight become a Publisher or Managing Editor of a newspaper tomorrow. As such, his staff will be misfits, and all you see in his paper are misspelled words and misplaced headlines, run-on sentences, subject/verb agreement problems, and other things that discredit the profession.

I know for sure, that there are those who have some capital that are investing in the newspaper business because the criteria set to establish one is not difficult at all. All one needs to get is an Article of Incorporation and a clearance from the Ministry of Information, which doesn't need much scrutiny at all.

Though some of the papers do die a natural death after a while, those with good invincible financial backing stay the course and remain to cause embarrassment for the profession, twisting facts to suit their own selfish motives and forget about the tenets of journalism - fair, balanced, and objective.

None the less, in a democracy one has to encourage a free, but a responsible press; a press that is socially responsible. Candidly, the PUL and the Ministry of Information needs to revisit the standards set for the establishment of media institutions as well as for those who wish to practice journalism in the country, especially those heading print media institutions. Once higher standards are set, there'll be a more responsible press that will be able to take into account its social responsibility.

Candidly, the statement made by the President is quite fair and true. There are media institutions that will take anything (bribe, Kato) to tarnish the reputation of others and also distort the facts of a story. This, we have to discourage. If we have within our midst those who have been schooled in the profession, they will not be as irresponsible as those who have joined the profession for a few dollars and cents and will play to the whim and caprices of politicians or others. They'll be able to think and act responsibly.

I know, it's the responsibility of the PUL to protect and reprimand journalists for ethical transgressions; but the Secretary General jumped the gun by speaking out a little bit too fast. He should have soberly reflected and cautiously chosen his words in responding to the President's accusations; maybe cataloguing what the PUL has done and continues to do when cases of ethical transgressions are brought to its attention.

Let me rest here. These are just thoughts off the cuff, since you just wanted me to share my view.

In any case, let's keep in contact.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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