Suffocating the Media in Terror

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective
February 28, 2001

"There is freedom of the press here and it will growThere are no journalists or political prisoners in jail like in other African countries", President Charles Taylor thundered recently, his high-pitch, emotion ridden voice consumed in cheers from believers. But the reality is that his canons dominating free speech are built around instilling terror to obtain silence. Threats, intimidation, savage inquisitions, have all become his footprints in ensuring the triumph of tyranny. His announcement of the dawn of press freedom did not stop him from throwing four journalists in prison on espionage charge and banning four newspapers for alleged tax delinquency.

That his perception of press freedom runs contrary to standard, global perceptions is indicated in the US State Department report on Human Rights Practices for 2000:

"Reporting that criticized the Government brought threats of violence, closure, or directives from powerful government figures to advertisers that they should discontinue business with that media outlet. For example, another respected newspaper ceased publication, and most of the management left the country after repeated threats were made against them because of editorials written by the newspaper's publisher from his home abroad Management of the one printing facility capable of producing newspapers is subject to pressure from the Government"

The report said despite the existence of Internet service, only the "few persons with sufficient funds can access. Because of the ties between the provider and the Government, some potential patrons believed that their use of the Internet was monitored by government security personnel and choose not to use it". The Provider is the wife of the country's Maritime head, running one of the few money foreign exchange generating entities.

The State Department report did not depart from others issued since Taylor's presidency. It paints a horrific picture of abuses, summary and extrajudicial executions, intolerance of ideas contrary to those of the Government, self-imposed censorship in the media - all of these despite war promises of burying the Samuel Doe dictatorship and the warlord's unending pledges of rekindling fading hopes of democratisation after one of Africa most horrific wars.

This strategy of silence in intimidation has worked well, and may continue to produce the required results. Success stories include four British journalists arrested last year on charges of "espionage", and now Liberia's sufficiently intimidated journalists who have apologised for printing the truth.

For a while now, Taylor has been uneasy with the journalists at The News. He angrily reacted to the paper's coverage of his diamond and gold rings presentation to South African musician Brenda Fassie (and her entourage) who had praised the President for the manner in which he was caring for his people, consoling him for what she regards as unjust demonisation. The News' investigative report revealing that not all of his criminal aircrafts have been grounded as he claimed was another "espionage" crime awaiting punishment.

"All your little tricks", Taylor warned, "I see them and I smile, like Christ said when he was on the cross. Father forgive them for they know [not] what they do because if we were to return to the days of the yesteryearsyou know, let me tell you something, look don't, don't, don't look, if we decided that we want too...we are not going to return to that."

In all fairness to Taylor, this is a remarkable improvement, for had he returned to his immediate past, the men would have been shot, mutilated and dumped in an unmarked grave like many others with presidential apologies and promises to "investigate." This improvement has been possible because of increased international focus on Liberia for its criminal enterprises, pending UN sanctions, bold journalists and human rights campaigners who have all helped to dilute the ex-warlord's appetite for unchallenged killings.

Nevertheless, in this process of suffocating free speech, the charge has become the same: "espionage". The trial procedure similar: apology and then freedom. The result: never again use truth as a defence in this West African country founded by freed slaves as a laughable beacon of hope on a continent then sunk in colonialism. "Even if you enter your mother's womb, I will get you", Taylor had repeatedly warned. But he didn't need his bayonet to search the journalists' mothers. He has told confidantes that from now onwards, he will slap opponents with unbailable charges. "Espionage" under so-called Liberian law is a charge that keeps you in jail without bail, with an apology not sin again as a possible way to freedom.

Digging out and exposing unparalleled theft and plunder, which in normal societies is called probing or investigative journalism, has become espionage punishable by death. With all eyes on Liberia for its unstoppable plunder of Sierra Leone diamonds and leaving colonies of amputated children in the process, the media, and local human rights organizations, have become special targets in the unsuccessful conspiracy to conceal the truth. This entire mindset, geared towards cementing criminality on the political plane, was one of the principal objectives of the war. And for some strange reasons, Liberians bought the wisdom that men and women who had plundered the country for over a decade, serving inept soldiers in key financial and economic positions, and now plastering what they regarded as a political agenda coloured in blood on their heads, would make a difference. But once operating as foot soldiers, these men are now officers of the general staff setting the rules and learning from their mistakes under the junta they overthrew.

The moral force behind the war, its accepted justification, was that the destruction and killings were necessary for the birth of freedom in plenty. For this, a nationally known, flamboyant felon like Taylor, funded by an entourage of like-minded operatives, would fulfil the promise of democratisation and accountability for which they were executing tens of thousands and getting wealthier in the process. Few opted to question the premise of whether armed robbers were the best in providing security where money is the issue. The bandwagon to rid the country of Doe, even if individuals, who provided the fuel for the Master Sergeant to drive his bandwagon of excesses, kept rolling in unwarranted optimism. The confused saw only progress without wondering if men accustomed to theft and nothing else would be the best guardians of the economy or whether such individuals would simply criminalize politics, permitting any crook with the required price to use the Republic of Liberia as a legal base of criminal operations. The promise of liberty, equality and plenty for all, impossible to keep when crime is the focus of political decision-making, meant that the media would be targeted for carrying the message of failures and plunder.

Thus when The News reported that Taylor, (who had just told a cheering squad that he was wealthier than the state and could therefore not siphone money from it as widely believed) had authorized US$50,000 for repair of helicopters, and before that taken US$23,000 for personal greeting cards, this became a case of espionage. He had earlier told journalists to countercheck his claims with the Ministry of Finance. When they did and discovered he lied big time, he slapped them with "espionage".

As he would confess, Taylor admired Doe, liked what he called man's bravery and brutality, his ability to sustain personal pain to prove his manhood. He liked the manner in which Doe handled opponents, which was marred with brutality. Taylor had no ideas, no agenda, other than what he learned in practical form when he was at Doe's side looting the economy and advising the soldiers on how to handle opposition and wreck a country. Thus now in charge of the country, he recruited like-minded, most corrupt and brutal members of Doe's team, packing them in various state institutions as his trusted lieutenants. He also perfected Doe's mechanisms in dealing with the media.

As "a born again capitalist", he looted every state media outlet he could, starting with the American financed rural broadcasting network. Somehow, the Americans believed that by having multiple mini FM stations in rural communities, mass communication would be enhanced in a country barely 43,000 square miles. Although one of Liberia's most viable, most purposeful broadcasting entities, the Christian-owned ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa), which Taylor and ECOMOG would thoroughly loot, beamed news and other programmes with reliability throughout Liberia and beyond, "projects partners" thought this was not a good enough example. So US-financed little FM stations emerged under state control. In the end, lacking good programmers and broadcasting materials relevant to their communities, these FM stations became the mouthpieces of corrupt local officials. By December 1989, as Taylor's kid soldiers roamed the land, these stations would serve a more useful purpose as mouthpieces of the rebel National Patriotic Front.

Taylor immediately seized the stations, including one belonging to the Catholic Church. These would form the nucleus of his Liberia Communication Network using ELWA and the state-owned ELBC short-wave transmitters. Indeed "a born again capitalist," ruthlessly arm-robbing from others and justifying it, saw no crime in this spree of looting.

By 1990, Taylor's looted broadcast outlets, manned by journalists such as his former information minister Joe Mulbah and others, were beaming to the rest of the country and beyond. Misinformation and fabrications formed a daily diet. Nigerian President Ibrahim Banbangida was known as "Black Hitler". West African troops were described as human eating, rapists and mad killers. The capital Monrovia was known as living a hell. In 1992 during his failed campaign to seize the capital, his radio stations told child soldiers facing experienced ECOMOG troops that the city had been liberated and they should assemble at some parts to receive rice and gifts. They entered ECOMOG ambushes and were moored down in their hundreds.

On storming Monrovia under ECOMOG escort in 1995, he swiftly established his FM station next-door to where he lived to ensure content and direction. The station became so offensive in lies and misinformation that most Monrovians avoided tuning it. This was followed by the appearance of The Patriot, which again hardly sold. By 1996, Taylor conceived another idea: burn down or loot Monrovia's independent existing media entities. The New Democrat building was particularly targeted and burnt down, with ECOMOG soldiers shipping many of the paper's computers and printers home. The Catholic FM building was burnt down. Offices of several other newspapers were severely looted. By 1997, Taylor had an environment free of competitive media as elections were planned. A number of the papers that re-emerged, now bankrupt in a destroyed economy, opened themselves for the highest bidder - Taylor with his looted millions. Except for the few such as The News and Daily Observer, it was impossible finding a news outlet that was not backing the warlord and therefore accepting his money.

Now victorious after the elections, he promised to uphold the Constitution, which entailed protecting the freedom of speech and of the press. But the man's character and values would soon make this promise, like all others, difficult to keep. Imbued with the notion of invincibility, he warned the media: "stop your mischief. If you think you are mischievous, I am the most mischievous man in this country." Al Jerome Chady, a creative and bold young broadcaster at Radio Monrovia, survived a kidnapping attempt and secretly fled the country with his family. The "General" accused of the kidnap attempt, a Cocoo Dennis, now commands Taylor's troops in Nimba. Another young journalist returning from covering the funeral of Opposition politician Samuel Dokie, his wife and two family members was arrested and tortured. He, too, fled the country. Medina Wesseh, one of the few professional women journalists in the country, was attacked by the same group who would nearly kill her husband, pro-democracy activist Commany Wesseh, 2 years later. Her belongings were looted as she escaped rape. She fled the country to be joined by her husband this year. The New Democrat, which had been allowed to register only after international and national protests, was again particularly targeted. A series of intimidation and warnings to the few businessmen there are not to get close to the paper, meant problems. Individuals seen reading the paper were assumed to be anti-Taylor and this carried uncertain penalties. Several arrests and intimidation, in the form of death threats given to their colleagues for delivery and ominous visits by the feared, ruthless Anti-Terrorist Unit, forced the entire staff to flee at midnight.

The case of Star Radio gained more international attention because of the forces that created it. Run by a British journalist for some time, the station was partly created through former US President Jimmy Carter efforts. Carter was convinced of the existing one-sided information flow in the country. Thus the idea was to have Star Radio beaming before the elections under the structure of Radio Monrovia. This however changed as Taylor, opposed to Radio Monrovia, protested. In the end, Star Radio began beaming, but beaming the wrong messages by Taylor's standards. Apart from its broadcasts in various Liberian languages, its Internet service fed tens of thousands of Liberians outside the country with daily news. Such a service was inimical to Taylor's conception of free speech and of the press. He ordered the station closed because, he claimed, it was brought into the country to oppose his government. Prior to its final closure, his officials launched a crusade of fines against the station, but finally decided it had to be shutdown.

With these developments, the landscape for independent journalism remains a dangerous one, as the dictator gets more desperate in the midst of international condemnations for diamond smuggling and gunrunning within West Africa.

The paper [The News] is crazy. Even if those were diamonds, we don't cut diamonds here; obviously, they must have been bought", Taylor said.

"With all the talks around about diamonds, we have our own gold and diamonds, never found anywhere else in the world", added his First Lady.

The News, like others before it, may have to stop digging into Government wheeling and dealings, particularly about diamonds and helicopters. In other societies, such is investigative journalism. In Liberia, it is espionage.

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