MICAT: The Perils of a "State-Run" Media Institution

The Perspective
July 3, 2001

In April of 1998, The Perspective in an editorial captioned: "The Need For A Fresh Start" advanced a set of proposals, which the editorial board believed, was appropriate to streamline the bloated Liberian bureaucracy that existed before the civil conflict. The Perspective called on President Taylor to take advantage of the collapse administrative structure made possible by the civil war by eliminating and consolidating certain ministries.

At that time, we gave a detailed reasoning why we felt the time was not only right, but also the devastated situation demanded a radical approach which would be economically prudent, and provide effective, sensible management of limited public resources. It was a golden opportunity to put in place a reduced but adequate bureaucracy to better serve the Liberian people. Unfortunately, Mr. Taylor ignored our initiatives. The recommendations were to satisfy the commitment we made to pursue a balanced approach in dealing with issues in Liberia.

One of the reasons that prompted The Perspective to call for trimming "the existence of a social 'economy of affection,' that encourages dependency rather than productivity," is that such a system is often laden with abuse and corruption. Nowhere is this so profound than the Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs & Tourism (MICAT) in Monrovia. The Ministry of Information, by the way, was at the top of our list for elimination.

We urged the abolition of this ministry because we believed then as now that its use, not purpose, had been counterproductive to the advancement of democratic practices in the past, and we feared it would become the gateway of Mr. Taylor's propaganda apparatus. And behold we were right!

Since President Taylor took office, he has used the ministry to effectively encroach upon the freedom of expression rights enumerated by Article 15 of the Liberian constitution. By directives, special press releases and other means, the regime has rendered freedom of the press nonexistent. Most independent journalists had fled the country for fear of their safety. Most of the journalists who remain in Liberia have been reduced to nothing more than compliant disseminators of the sugarcoated official "news".

In addition to suffocating the local independent media, Mr. Taylor, through the Ministry of Information, has embarked on a campaign of limiting the international media access to cover events in the country. The first casualty of his disdain for the free flow of information was Star Radio, an independent radio station, set up by the international community during the 1997 special elections to reach thousands of Liberians in the interior of the country. Beside English, Star radio also provided news and special features in 14 different indigenous Liberian languages.

The station was besieged with questionable official arguments, including intimidation of legal action, sporadic interference, to justify why it should cease operation. And after much hassling over licensing rights to broadcast via short wave frequency to deliver the news to Liberians in upland villages, Mr. Taylor ordered the Ministry of Information, his point agency for infringing on free speech, to close the station.

In a letter delivered to Star Radio manager on March 16, 2000, then Minister Joe W. Mulbah said: "Your station was officially brought in our country by some members of the international community to establish a leveled playing field for the participation of all political actors."

"Although the playing field has been leveled, and elections successfully held," Minister Mulbah continued, "we continue to see your institution more involved in activities such as broadcasting and hosting of political talk shows, news, interviews and programs that have damaging political effects that tend to undermine the peace, security and stability of Liberia."

"In view of the foregoing, we hereby revoke your permit to operate a radio station in Liberia until otherwise", Mr. Mulbah concluded.

Taylor's ostensible reason for the closure was that Star Radio was foreign-owned; though, most of the station staff members were Liberians except for a couple of foreign supervisors. Some analysts believe, however, that his real motive was to prevent the citizenry from being exposed to free, nonpartisan views about developments in the country.

With its daily news bulletins from Monrovia, Star Radio was one of the popular spots on the world wide web for Liberians in the Diaspora as a source for reliable information about developments in their homeland as well as a resource center for other individuals and organizations with interest in the country.

But like other Liberian dictators before him, Mr. Taylor loathes the idea of an informed populace that is critical for a functioning democratic society. What's more, he has done something more than just emulating his predecessors. While other Liberian autocrats used the state-run media to convey their edicts and other presidential ceremonies, Mr. Taylor opted to set up his own modern media facility, the Liberian Communication Network (LCN), to compete with, some say supplant, the obsolete flagging public establishment.

The United States, the Hirondelle Foundation, a Swiss-based NGO and the Netherlands, which funded Star Radio and other international media institutions pleaded with the former guerrilla leader to re-open the station but to no avail. Up to this date no one knows exactly what happened to the station's equipment that was confiscated when the closure order was executed and the station surrounded by armed men.

Since Star Radio was shut down, Liberian and foreign journalists invariably have come under intense scrutiny, and are subject to harassment and intimidation, including prison terms and extraction of confession and apology. As a result of this increasing assault against the media, most Liberian journalists have imposed self-censorship in order to survive in the country. Unfortunately, this unjustified, knee-jerk interference has affected the quality and verity of news coverage.

Besides constantly threatening reporters and newspapers for trying to accurately report developments as they occurred, the Ministry of Information has put up other roadblocks that make the journalists' work more difficult. These include requiring reporters and their newspapers to clear certain stories with the ministry before they can be published. And warning reporters and newspaper editors who repeat unfavorable foreign news articles about the government. The Ministry of Information claims this sort of reporting gives the country negative image abroad. But the ministry fails to distinguish between the state and government. It's the failure to recognize the simple difference between the state of Liberia and its tyrannical leader that breeds the kind of intrusion which undermines the confidence of a reporter as well as compromises the integrity of his work.

With a series of articles by foreign journalists exposing his failed presidency, the regime's antipathy to human rights, the rule of law and his sinister design to destabilize West Africa, Taylor found himself on the defensive. Realizing that his bag of shenanigans may be running out of tricks, with the international community zeroing in on him for his involvement in Sierra Leone, the former warlord has fought back with a set of counter measures to further isolate Liberia. In a scheme designed to conceal the deteriorating conditions in the country, and his regime's lack of any strategic policy objectives to alleviate the economic doldrums, and a persistent dissident movement dogging his forces, Taylor issued entry restrictions on foreign journalists wishing to visit the country.

Taylor's latest decree or so-called new guidelines mandate that, among other things, a foreign journalist wishing to visit Liberia must submit an intent application, detailing his purpose for the visit and "a minimum of 72 hours notice will be required prior to the journalist visiting Liberia, and a 24 hour waiting period will be instituted before accreditation is granted." Accordingly, the regime "reserves the right to conduct background checks on all journalists and to reject the request for accreditation if their credentials are not bona fide."

In this edict, the ministry did not to define what constitutes "bona fide" credentials. Essentially, what we are seeing is a tyrant who spurns transparency in government. What is intriguing about Taylor's attempt to hide the mess that he has done in our country is his unwillingness to come to grips with the fact that world now is a global village. And with the advent of the internet and advancement of other communication technologies, those tactics that were used successfully by other Liberian rulers to censor the truth about their misrule cannot succeed today.

But while Taylor has stifled the independent media in Liberia, so also he has put together a team of stooges, whose job is to engage his critics in a war of words on the internet. So far as we can determine their implied mission, as evidenced by the bitterness in their writing, is to counteract any article or statement that is critical of Taylor's policies, and offer, through questionable logic, a defense on his behalf.

Taylor regards any news story that accurately portrays the reality of the situation in Liberia as "negative" article designed to further damage the image of Liberia. In that light, their assignment is indeed an ignoble undertaking. What these faceless characters do has nothing to do with setting the facts straight. Their job is to ignore the merits of the issue at hand but attack the adversaries. We do not know if Peter Kieh Doe, John R. Dennis, Augustine Boakai and James B. Bleetan II are real or phantom, but whatever their identities, they certainly have a difficult job of defending a dictator, who has driven his country and its people into the abyss of destruction.

It may sound trite, but the defense of arguably one of Africa's most ruthless former warlords is an affront to most Liberians. But the efforts of these hired pens, along with the repeated assault on freedom of the press, human rights abuses and infringing civil liberties by their client, have given new impetus and renewed energy to the drive for genuine democracy in Liberia.

While we cannot fathom a reason to support Mr. Taylor after all that he has done to Liberia, we believe that other Liberians have the right to make their own decisions and choose for themselves as to what they think is best for the country. And we commend the group for being courageous enough to undertake this unenviable role, and cast their lot with Mr. Taylor.

Our only hope was that the debate they have joined would be based on the merits of the various issues that confront our people, so as to derive some meaningful benefits for Liberia. Unfortunately, however, we are disappointed that the Taylor's loyalists have chosen to engage in merely disingenuous rhetoric, using incredibly twisted logic and downright lies to distort any issue of discussion. When they came on the scene, they were given the benefit of the doubt so they could present their argument, though the facts and scars are in the public domain, they chose to ignore them, but rather attack their opponents. This is a debating tactic used by those whose argument is not supported by the facts. It's designed to distract and confuse the audience. But make no mistake, Taylor's imprints on Liberia and its people are indelible and no one can be confused about them.

And where their attack strategy seems unconvincing, they're apt to invent their own stories and characters to make the case for their benefactor. Such was the case of the interview that James B. Bleetan supposedly conducted with the consort of the U.S. Sgt. James Michael Newton (a U.S. Embassy's official who was recently shot by Taylor's Anti-Terrorist Unit) in Monrovia, which was carried by government web site on June 19, 2001.

Simply put, Mr. Bleetan made up a story in which he created a female character as the girlfriend of the U.S. Embassy official who was shot by Taylor's extortionist goons at a Monrovia checkpoint.

According to Mr. Bleetan, he conducted an "exclusive interview" with the woman and her account fully supported the ATU's version; hence, the government's official statement. The bogus interview contained extensive quotes by the alleged Liberian woman. But as it turned out, there was no interview or a Liberian girlfriend of the wounded U. S. official. James Bleetan had made up the whole thing that was published by a local newspaper and carried on the government's official web site, allaboutliberia.com.

A few days later, James Bleetan retracted the fraudulent story and offered an apology to all concerned and he regretted "the embarrassment and inconvenience the story may have caused the government of Liberia, the U.S. government and others concerned."

Surprised? Don't be! This is routine and standard operating procedure of the Taylor regime. There is a catalogue of instances for which we have neither the time nor space to discuss here. But what prompted the unconventional retraction? No one knows for sure, but the key word is unconventional, which brings us to the parties involved here.

The victim is a U.S. citizen and not a Zoegar from Bassa Community. And you can rest assured that American officials demanded concrete, verifiable proof of this absurdity, which, presumably, forced Czar Taylor to demand the truth.

We hope that this experience would serve as a deterrent to the team of hired pens who have used fraudulent tactics to manipulate public opinion to think twice and desist from that practice. And we urge all Liberians to understand the seriousness of our situation to treat it with the utmost of honesty.

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