Star Radio and the Erosion of Press Freedom
July 27, 2000

After arbitrarily ordering Star Radio to dismantle its equipment and get out of the country within 48 hours, Liberian dictator Charles Taylor is changing his mind. According to press reports from Monrovia, he is indicating that Star Radio may resume broadcasting. Understandably, the station's management and staff, along with their financiers, are jumping with joy and pledging that they view the "President [decision] as a genuine move for the positive resolution of the issues surrounding Star Radio's operation." We are worried, not happy, over these developments because like all things in today's Liberia, they paint a gloomy picture of the road for press freedom and critical journalism. We believe that this is yet another crude betrayal by those who butchered 250,000 people in the name of democracy only to commence constructing the pillars of abysmal tyranny.

We must remind ourselves that upholding the freedom of the press, erecting the cornerstones for the growth of ideas and their free exchange cannot necessarily mean providing transmitters to broadcast, but creating the conditions for the mushrooming of ideas no matter how offensive they may be to some. Without this, we will be rotating within the orbit of tyranny as we now witness in Charles Taylor's Liberia.

A key strategy of all dictators is the effective use of intimidation to acquire submission. Repeatedly, Mr. Taylor has used terror and intimidation to get what he wants. He is using them again with remarkable success. Clearly, when Star Radio reopens, it will sing the master's voice if it wants to remain open. The Taylor sanctioned Star Radio will be nothing more than an appendage of the Ministry of Information. With fear and threats as their guidelines, and knowing that the President is its license for operating, it will not risk reporting news that will be viewed as "against the Government". The question we must ask ourselves is, what constitutes being "against the Government?" The demand that we make is that no individual should have the right to shutdown any media institution because he/she finds its contents offensive. To allow Mr. Taylor to get away with this brutality is to set a terrible precedence.

There are no doubts that Star Radio served the social good. But its establishment began from false and shaky foundations. The donors' guiding principle was that with external funding and foreign trained journalists in charge, news could be reported without subjectivity, without editorializing, for the political good and therefore ensured democratization. To achieve this lofty objective, Liberian journalists were viewed as incapable. Therefore, capable hands that would ensure the freedom of the press and responsible journalism must come from New York and London to implant the seeds of professional journalism in this African backyard. Hence, we encounter one of the burdens of African journalism, which subjects African journalism to value judgment of Westerners, since after all, they provide their money and set the "ethical" conditions.

Along this line of thinking based on centuries of ingrained superiority complex, Westerners see every African journalist as partisan. Although a Western newspaper such as the New York Times or The London Observer can take a political position, endorse presidential candidates and political platforms without suffering the "partisan" label, an African journalist adopting the same position is condemned as partisan and therefore not "credible " in Western eyes. Thus in Liberia, a devastated country in which criminals have assumed political power, the Western panacea for solving the information vacuum, a panacea backed with hundreds of thousands of dollars, was to create their own station manned by themselves with Liberian journalists as workers. With its well-financed operations from generous donors, it was bound to make a difference. No other media entity in the war-ravaged country could match its financial and therefore its productivity prowess, although its news dispatches at times resembled Government bulletins. But with its Internet service, it was letting the world know what was actually happening in the terrorized country, even if it meant reading between the lines. Taylor saw this and decided enough was enough. He declared that the station was broadcasting "filth" to his subjects and that it was brought into the country to oppose him. He therefore shut it down. Now, it seems he will reopen it but under his terms. We believe this is the beginning of the death of press freedom and of independent journalism. One cannot bite the hand that feeds him. In this case, Taylor has decided to feed the station and thus deprive it of its independence.

The contest over Star Radio represents the desire by some in the Western media who apply rules of freedom in accordance with what they regard as cultures. This racism of ascribing one set of rules to Western societies and another for Africa is at the core of our degeneracy in terms of democratic values and stability. The belief that the tenets of journalism as practiced in the West should be different from those practiced in developing countries is a recipe which tyrants like Charles Taylor are prepared to preserve. A media institution operating at the behest of the President must dance his tune, and when the president is a crooked tyrant who deploys the Small Boys Unit to preserve his loot, the results can be devastating. This is when self-censorship replaces critical reporting and media institutions become the cheering squads of the tyrant. To avoid degenerating into such abyss, many professional journalists have simply left the country. Those that refused to leave were driven out through intimidation and threat on their lives. Yet, as men bent on fertilizing the seeds of barren authoritarianism make one concession in allowing a media entity to exist, there is joy in the air. We believe that such a joy is short-lived and sets the stage for eventual death of ethical and professional journalism in the country. There is absolutely no convincing rational for a reputable media entity to exist when it cannot fulfill its objectives without hindrance, and when it must be blessed by the personal authority of a tyrant.

We must reiterate here that the best donors can do for Liberia now is to demand the conditions for the emergence of freedom. Without freedom, freedom to hold ideas different from those in authority, the environment for innovation and hence independence is gone forever.

Our foreign donors must convince themselves that Liberia is worse off politically, and in terms of human rights, than under the PRC government that was overthrown on the corpses of 250,000 and a destroyed economy. Samuel Doe saw it politically prudent to burn down newspaper houses and destroy radio stations. Charles Taylor sees it beneficial to burn down newspaper houses and loot transmitters for propaganda purposes.

The struggle for press freedom in Liberia will not be won by making concessions to dictators, but by creating the conditions for the growth of ideas. This struggle has just begun.

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