Press Freedom and Democracy in Liberia


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 13 2006


Many sighed with relief when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said last week that she had no intention of using heavy handedness on the press and went on to say that she looked forward to working with the media through dialogue to reach the common national objective of peace, security and development. The press in Liberia and everywhere else is foremost a medium, or as some people would say, the messenger” of the people. It is a mirror of society, reflecting its tendencies and its vision.

During the campaign in 2005 for the presidency, a certain press specialized in anti-Ellenism. That wrote every imaginable and despicable thing about her, portraying her as a warmonger and described her in other not-so-friendly and acceptable terms. She stayed above the fray, ran a professional campaign and won the elections. It would be a disaster that such a woman, who enjoys a great popular support, would lose her cool and start bashing the media for a few bad stories. Along with scores of Liberians who dedicated their lives to the search of freedom and democracy, she has been victims of censorship and had to run for her life.

Structurally, the press can but express what exists in society. A mirror can only reflect what it is shown. The issues that one hears or reads in the press are those that make sense to the reading and listening audience. If the press spreads lies, it is certainly because there is a tendency in the society to buy those lies. It always reflects the state of mind of the readership or the audience. Therefore, rather then try to muzzle the press, the most constructive approach for any government is to listen carefully, read beyond the “dirty” headline, and understand the underlying factors that make certain subjects attractive to the readership or the audience.

Totalitarian regimes always try to define the nature of the press. In general, it starts with benign attempts to assign a political role to the press, such as the “press should be a partner…” or “the press must reflect this or that” and later “the press must be responsible.” In all these situations, what is prevalent is the fact that a certain political class tries to impose its values on the press and the rest of the society. In general, the first freedom lost under authoritarian regimes is press freedom. Slowly, the authoritarian regime starts to describe certain members as “enemies of the state,” “subversive elements” and finally those who press people who cannot be coerced into submission or bought are simply thrown in the gallows. Hassan Billity had a bitter experience under Charles Taylor.

In the 1980s, the press in Liberia paid a great dividend for exposing the shortcomings of the military dictatorship. It was beaten, imprisoned and dragged in the mud. By the time the war started in 1989, the majority of Liberian journalists had sought refuge abroad. One had to write what the government wanted to hear or could understand. And even prior to 1980s, press freedom became a reality only and sporadically under the Tolbert regime. Charles Gbenyon paid the ultimate price. His case epitomizes what is expected of the press under a totalitarian regime. While as a paid state journalist he had to tow the line of the regime, as a Liberian he felt the wind of freedom when the news of the coup reached him. Had he been free to speak up prior to the Quiwonkpa invasion, he might have expressed his disagreement with the military regime.

Caught between sycophants, job seekers and adept of imperial president, Samuel Doe fell prey to manipulations and very soon, a climate of suspicion, intimidation and state terror took the front seat. Journalists were thrown in jail, media houses were set on fire as experienced by The Daily Observer whose editorial staff went to jail more than once, sometimes for just publishing the picture of CIC Doe on a certain page. It all started slowly. First, in the aftermath of the coup, the press was expected to tow the line. Then it was supposed to support the “revolution” and later it was just keep quiet as Doe and his henchmen bled the nation and ruined it.

Sycophancy, greed and the false notion of godly mission are the recipe for social disaster. Because of the nature of its work, the press is always the first one to perceive the dysfunctional nature of totalitarian regimes and when it speaks up, it is punished. After the press, small individual freedoms come under attack, and in the end, the entire society is policed around the clock. Older Liberians remember those days of the 1970s when leaflets circulated in dark corners where the only source of truth about government activities. Then it was the 1980s when people were literally cut to pieces for saying that Samuel Doe had limitations, something Dr. Chester Crocker finally admitted on Africa World, the famed television program of Cllr. Kwame Clement, another Liberian journalist who also ran away from Liberia.

When a journalist writes or airs a story that is misleading, that is constructed on lies or that attempts to smear the character of a person, the recourse is not and must not be to slap the entire institution, but rather to make that individual face the consequences of his or her action in the court of law. If certain individuals have a political agenda and want to make their views known, either in support or in disagreement with what the government does or say, they should not be viewed as enemies. The fact that 40 percent of the electorate did not vote for the Unity Party in the elections means that close to half of the voters had different opinions. And that difference will always be expressed somehow in the press.

Those who have a different opinion of the Sirleaf government would express that disagreement in many ways, and sometimes this would be done in ways that certain people might consider “immature,” “obscene” or otherwise “subversive.” They must not be punished nor castigated for their opinion. The strength of an institution is displayed through its capacity to work through contradiction and dissent rather than try to suppress contrary opinions.

Expressions such as “the press is corrupt…” or the “press is full of lies…” are value-loaded judgments and lead to wanting to take corrective measures. This is what leads to guilt by association. Something Liberia has had enough. This must not happen again in Liberia and surely not under the watch of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and she must be aware of those who might want to push her in that deadly direction.

The press is what it is, a medium, and a mirror of society. One cannot have an honest press in a corrupt society. One cannot expect to have an educated press in an un-educated society. And certainly, one must not expect a responsible press in a society where irresponsibility is rampant. Liberia press is what Liberia is, no better no worse. It will correct itself when society takes measures to put itself on the right path.

A government in a democracy is primarily composed of people who have won a political contest. But its members do not necessarily represent every aspect of society. Therefore, its values are not the same throughout the entire society. Hence it cannot regulate the press.

The other aspect of the press is that it is also a business. People invest money in newspapers, magazines and websites and television stations. Although they intent to make their opinions known, these investors also are looking at making some type of profit. “What sells and what the public wants.” Therefore, the press only survives on lies if society finds a reason to want to believe in lies. This should help government to take corrective measures, not by targeting the press, but rather by looking at its own shortcomings.

Press freedom in Liberia will really take hold when the Press Union becomes the sole regulator of press matters in the country, when journalists are no longer required to file at the Ministry of Information for accreditation and when newspapers and other media houses no longer have to receive government approval to start operating. Maybe it is time to redefine the functions of the Ministry of Information and allow such entities as LINA to carry on its functions while tourism and culture are given a priority….

Liberia has a long way to go in attaining democracy. One of the most important pillars in building democracy is the press. Its freedom to operate and speak will serve as milestones on the road to a new society based on dialogue and respect. The President did the right thing by softening her position. This is a decision she will not regret. Because in a country with rampant poverty, hundreds of thousands of people traumatized by years of violence, hunger and humiliation, it will be so easy to find “enemies.” A job some people are good at, and necessarily for the common good.

Almost a century ago, while Liberia was still in its infancy, a journalist was arrested, tortured, stripped of his Liberian citizenship and deported. His name was… Charles Taylor! And just five years ago, another journalist, named Musa Billity was arrested, tortured and deported by another Charles Taylor, who was president… After 300,000 dead and a country in ruins, Liberia needs to close this chapter and move on.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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