"A Crackdown on the Press is a Crackdown
on Democracy" Rev. Jackson
By Tom Kamara
With Liberia's arrest of four journalists from Britain's Channel 4 television team, President Charles Taylor has made it known his capability of maintaining his place as Africa's number one pariah. International attention is again focused on this devastated country, with President Taylor's friend, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, gaining the international spotlight for championing the cause of the oppressed.
On CNN, Rev. Jackson reacting to news of the arrest and his own role in getting the journalists released, denounced the "crackdown of free speech" in Liberia, declaring that a crackdown on the "freedom of journalists and journalism is a crackdown on democracy." He further added that a "crackdown on journalists or free journalism, out of fear, is not a good thing." The Civil Rights activist and President Clinton's Special Democracy Envoy predicted that the journalists would be freed and they will. Asked if he believed in Taylor's commitment to democracy, he was ambivalent, pointing out that as President Clinton's Special Envoy, he had to appeal to all sides in Africa, particularly devastated Liberia and Sierra Leone.
He said Mr. Taylor was only adding to Liberia's isolation by detaining journalists of "international stature." He then urged President Taylor to ally himself with the Government of Sierra Leone's embattled President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and not the RUF who, he said, must now face an international tribunal. This, indeed, is a dramatic turn for a man who just a few months ago said the RUF's Foday Sankoh was a "positive force" in Sierra Leone's search for peace.
Rev. Jackson, from his past encounters, knows Taylor as a friend and he knows his (Taylor's) capabilities. He promised that the journalists will be freed, and before this story appears, they will. Taylor feeds on crisis, and the British crew provided a God-sent opportunity.
Prior to their arrival in Liberia, the Channel 4 television crew head Mr Barrie contacted this writer for background information on Liberia. He said they were interested in doing a film to depict Liberia's emergence from war and the current realities. But then he wanted to know which side this writer was on in Liberia's tragedy. Angry over his question, which is a standard question when Western journalists, black or white, are dealing with African journalists, I asked him which side he was on in British politics. Was he Old Labour, New Labour, Conservative, or a member of the many right-wing fascist parties? In response, with some fun in it, Barrie, I believe, said he was sort of New Labour with some reservations. I made him realize I was offended by his question because African journalists are always requested to prove their integrity while western journalists are not. My standard question to western journalists is the level of neutrality during World War Two or on Milosovich
I offered some pointers as to the organizations he should look for in Liberia, amongst them the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, the Press Union, and Inter-Faith Mediation Committee. I suggested that he should ask to visit the Malaysian-owned Oriental Timber Company because of allegations of the horrendous environmental problems it is causing by alleged indiscriminate logging. He said he didn't know what to look for there. I told him this was the problem because to interpret Liberia now, you must know it before.
He promised his office would be in touch with me and that he was off to Liberia. I could have given him more pointers, particularly so when I noticed that his name - Barrie - was of African derivative. But I didn't because I am convinced that black or white, journalists working in the West have a bias when dealing with African-based journalists or African journalists as a whole. One of the reasons is their privileged status, and the Liberia arrests prove this.
Suddenly, the Rev. Jackson is on CNN, the entire world knows about the need for press freedom in Liberia as a prerequisite for democracy. Liberia is making headlines for the arrest of 4 journalists with "international" stature, in Mr Jackson's words. If four Liberian or African journalists had been placed on the wall and shot for spying, it would have never made CNN or BBC news. A number of Nigerian journalists were arrested and shot by Taylor's forces during the war. Their stories are only the concerns of their immediate families. Armed factions executed scores of Liberian journalists during the war but they remain faceless men, their memories only in the minds of the families they left behind.
The hypocrisy of the world is the pretense of commitment to moral values, democracy and when in fact these values are only accentuated when westerners, black or white, are affected. But the arrest of the British journalists may help in amplifying the cries of Liberian journalists for salvation. Radio stations have been shutdown; newspapers closed; journalists executed, flogged or exiled. No one listens, no one hears. Men like the Rev. Jackson present a human picture of a man (Taylor) who supervises over such tyranny in Liberia after the death of 250,000 people in the civil war he launched in December 24, 1989 in the name of freedom only to erect the cornerstones of tyranny and a criminal empire. We soon forget that this was the same Rev. Jackson who defended Taylor because "he is not" encouraging the war in Sierra Leone. Promoting such people, as Rev. Jackson has repeatedly done for Taylor, for whatever reasons, is the curse of decent humanity.
Defending the arrested journalists, Rev. Jackson emphasized their "international" standing as compared to stories one reads about Liberia "on the internet." Well, thank God to man's ingenuity. Sooner, rather than later, CNN and Rev. Jackson will not be the self-appointed custodian of truth, monopolizing what people see, read, or listen to. This will be our salvation.