Police Director Tate Muzzles The Press

By Omari Jackson

In his provocative response in an interview with the BBC, police director Joe Tate justified his unwarranted detention of journalist Philip N. Wesseh, saying: "In today's Liberia anyone can be ordered arrested and detained with or without an arrest warrant."

Judging from the horrible legacy of the NPFL and its self-proclaimed National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government (NPRAG) in which he served as the commissioner of immigration, that assertion applied as much to that period of gross human rights abuses, as it does to the present era of democratic pluralism.

So, no one should be fooled by the current disguise, so long as there are stooges who are determined to bend backwards to ensure that the confidence they enjoy in the chief executive is protected. Director Tate's arrogant statement is clearly a continuation of the period of purging all those who stand against the aspirations of the so-called popular revolution which began with the cold-blooded murder of two Nigerian journalists, Tayo Awotosun and Imodibie, abducted by the NPFL from the Nigerian embassy compound in Monrovia.

The Joe Tate's over-zealousness resembles an American prime-time drama: startling, assault, armed attack, arbitrarily arrest and usually unexpected midnight murder. It is, therefore, not strange that by his action, he has created doubt on his ability to uphold the challenges of his calling. And by ordering the arrest and detention of managing editor Phillip Wesseh of the independent Inquirer newspaper, he has undercut the democratic gains. Many political observers conclude that this tactic is like president Samuel Doe's political inefficiency, the springboard of our national self destruction.

Truly, we live in challenging times. It is a period of reconciliation, with the independent press taking the lead in reporting, criticizing, commanding, suggesting and exposing the excesses of those in power. It must be the best of times by reconciling our past with the present and making it public the perpetrators of the horrors of the past. In so doing, the operatives and enemies of true democracy will apply the elements of the American prime-time drama, along with intimidation and harassment to silence the people, and constrain their freedom of expression and of the press.

The experience of Philip Wesseh and the brutal assault on Mr. Sando Johnson, upon the orders of the vice president of Liberia, Mr. Enoch Dogolea, are apathetic actions that lacked insight and bereft of logic. Strangely, however, the government has remained silent over the shortsightedness of these men. Where, then, is the law? It's an irredeemable arrogant show of misplaced priorities. The poor nation bleeds!

It is interesting to note the poignant reminder depicted by a full-page advertisement in THE NATIONAL CHRONICLE newspaper (published in Liberia during the week of March 8, 1997) which said: "Don't give me all these excuses. Tell me why the Caravan has been looted. I have no concern with the robbers. It's a question of your leadership. Shall I tell you why the Caravan was looted? Because you were in league with the robbers I've no complaint against the looters. But I regret your leadership."

The Liberian masses did not pay heed to this self-conscious lamentation. Having been abandoned by the world, and facing self-destruction, they opted for peace and democracy at an exorbitant price. But now whatever trust existed between the independent press and the current leadership has now evaporated.

Today, Liberia is counted among the nations that have a form of a representative government. Which means we have a form of government that should seek to respect the autonomy of everyone, in which individuals express themselves freely without any form of hindrance from any source. The form of democracy we have achieved demands that in all practical purposes, everyone is able to have a share in other social activities and to develop as a free and thinking person. It means the ability to speak our mind on issues, both past and present without any prohibition.

Nineteen century English philosopher John Stuart Mill in his essay, "On Liberty" supports freedom of expression on the ground that the truth is most likely to emerge in a society that permits the unrestrained exchange of ideas. That must be the agenda for the media. From our past experience, we should endeavor to create an environment in which our capacities as human beings are encouraged to develop as thinking beings capable of making judgments. As Mr. Justice Jackson of - the U. S., Supreme Court said:"(t)he danger that citizens will think wrongly is serious but less dangerous than atrophy from not thinking at all. In the process of establishing democracy in Liberia, individuals must be protected against arbitrary actions of over-zealous officials.

The late American prelate Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, when facing the end of his life said: "It's wrong to waste the precious gift of time on acrimony and division." It is worth considering. The truth in that statement was reechoed by U. S. president Bill Clinton in his second inaugural address to the American people. He said we are on that same journey of our lives, and our Journey too' will come to an end." And that includes all those whose leadership has caused untold hardship to millions everywhere.