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In Chris Toe vs. Rodney Sieh: Daily Observer’s position raises journalistic ethical questions

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James Kokulo Fasuekoi, Excelsior, MN- On Thursday, September 4, 2013, the management of the Liberian Observer Corporation, publisher of the Daily Observer Newspaper, took a rare position never before seen in Liberian press history. Its venoms, this time, were not directed at a dictatorial government as in the past, but against one of its own, jailed editor Rodney Sieh who publishes the rival FrontPage Africa Newspaper. 

L-R: (back roll) Siaka Konneh and Issac Bantu. (front) Thomas Nimely, Arthur Massaquoi and Andrew Robinson. Photograph is copyrighted property of James Kokulo Fasuekoi

L-R: (back roll) Siaka Konneh and Issac Bantu. (front) Thomas Nimely, Arthur Massaquoi and Andrew Robinson. Photograph is copyrighted
property of James Kokulo Fasuekoi

In an editorial entitled “A Publisher’s Moment of Truth,” the paper in her opening paragraphs observed it “has endeavored to stay out of the ongoing libel saga between Rodney Sieh and former Agricultural Minister J. Christopher Toe” out of apparent fear that people might view it as taking side or “backing a relative.”

The Observer is owned and published by Rodney Sieh’s uncle, veteran Liberian journalist Kenneth Yarkpawolo Best. And it is also the same Observer which over the years groomed many Liberian reporters (including the jailed editor) into journalism. That means all things put aside, publisher Sieh is an in-house child besides operating a rival paper.

Further, there is a striking component to the Kenneth Best-Rodney Sieh family relation beyond uncle-nephew-rival newspapers tie. The two are reported to share paternity of some sort to celebrated Liberian journalist, late Albert Porte. That should perhaps explain why aggressive reporting-journalism forms part of the Best-Sieh family’s DNA.

In recounting instances of misunderstanding allegedly between Mr. Sieh (then editor for Observer) and Uncle Best while they ran the Observer in exile, starting from Banjul, The Gambia, and then later in the U.S., the paper’s management did what many would describe as injustice to the incarcerated publisher. It ridiculed Mr. Sieh’s reputation as a journalist and also brought his “professionalism” into question. Not only that, the Observer found Sieh totally liable in the court of public opinion in “Chris Toe vs. Rodney Sieh-FPA.”

The Observer’s position came as a shock to many for the principles it is known to stand for. The paper and its publisher Mr. Best are well known to be champions of press freedom and democracy dating back to the 1980s during Pres. Samuel Doe’s military rule. No one knows for sure what exactly prompted such reaction from the paper’s management at this crucial point since in fact neither Mr. Best nor his paper is in anyway a party to the case involving Dr. Toe and Mr. Sieh.

If anything, the paper at least should have exercised fair play and gave the benefit of doubt by remaining neutral as it had promised from the start of its editorial. But whatever the intent behind its publication to “set the record straight,” it surely did take more than side as per the following line: “But both in his online and print editions Sieh continued to attack individuals, often without contacting them for balance.” The Observer, in other words helped legitimized an illicit claim of “damages” that resulted from a “libel” litigation filed by a dishonored former public figure, Agricultural Minister, J. Christopher Toe.

It would seems the Daily observer’s publication also violates her suggested “fair doctrine” practices in journalism for grilling the imprisoned publisher since in fact his (Rodney Sieh’s) side regarding what exactly happened between him and his uncle Best in Banjul and the United States wasn’t included in the Observer story.

It is very unfortunate to see a local independent daily accused another rival paper/publisher for engaging in “unprofessional” reportage especially during a time of need when all independent newspapers are expected to join in solidarity and defend not only the detained publisher, but also pressurize the Liberian authorities including the legislature to abolish draconian “Penal Laws” of Liberia that seek to penalized aggressive independent journalists who take upon themselves to expose those vices of our society that threaten the survival of the country and people. But let’s briefly examine the Observer’s claims of FPA’s alleged “unprofessionalism.”

I am a regular reader of scores of local dailies of Liberia including the FrontPage Africa. Besides, I am a syndicated journalist and have been a regular news and features contributor to the FPA for a while now; during this period, I actually have not observed any incidents of deliberate “malicious” violations in the paper’s publications regarding news functions involving personalities, although there may have been a few cases where some officials complained of “unfair treatment” which is inevitable in this business.

I personally see the FrontPage Africa as a news medium determined to set high standards in Liberian Journalism, something that the Daily Observer of the 1980s set out to do. There’s no secret that a true professional journalist or newspaper opting to follow such line of reporting is bound to run into trouble with those at the helm of power who are determined to play “games over” the country’s future at the expense of their fellow citizens.

Further, if one is operating in a place like Liberia with the reputation as the world’s “most corrupt” country, a place also where there is total disregard for the truth, the consequences for exposing corrupt practices by officials can be even deadlier for a journalist as observed in Sieh’s and other cases.

The Observer’s accusation that publisher Sieh and his paper go about attacking ‘individuals, often without balancing’ their stories, is not true. Unlike the Observer, the FrontPage Africa goes beyond merely reporting the news-conducting follow-ups and in-depths investigative reporting-not only in cases involving public officials associated with scandals, but its fine cream of award-winning journalists, led by female staffers, have extensively written articles on heartrending issues including teenage prostitution, the growing drugs trade and “health hazards” of female genital cutting that matter in a post-war country like Liberia.

What sets the FrontPage Africa apart from a paper like the Daily Observer is that its editorial policy doesn’t discriminate against any groups, cultures, political parties, persons, including traditional people. It has a tradition of publishing varied opinions from opposing quarters even in cases where such opinions strongly counter articles written by its own staffers. I will give a case in point.

For example, when FrontPage Africa early this year ran a series on female circumcision (Sande), otherwise known as female genital cutting, thereby attracting international attention, I personally wrote a two-part-countered series on this very sensitive subject. Though coming from a Polor (Poro) Lofa County background and with deep insight into the cultural matter, I took a moderate position on the issue and tried to educate Liberians and people in the international community about the true values of our cultures being grossly misunderstood and abused by many all due to their financial-political expediency. (See The Sande Bush: Advocate for Amendment, not Abolition, Feb. 2013).

These two matters: Polor and Sande, being very much attached to the wellbeing of the indigenous Lorma ethnic group (to which I belong) among many others in the country, I wrote my articles with “near-emotions” and I feared that the FrontPage Africa may not used them, believing its editors would betray journalistic “fair-play” and thus, embargo my articles the fact that the articles countered the paper’s series and position on the subject matter. One can imagine how I must have felt. But I was dead wrong! The FPA published my reaction in no time.

On the other hand, this wasn’t the case with the Observer after I submitted a cultural piece to them on Pres. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2011. The Observer front desk editor who first received the article wrote me back and said they would use the piece but with certain conditions.  First, he requested me to shorten the piece; second, that I re-polish some of the “languages” or delete certain portion of the script. In the piece, I had frowned and questioned Pres. Sirleaf’s use of profanity against “Country devil” and our traditional people during her trip to the Sawmill-Gbapolu region, then engulfed in land dispute.

Imagine I’ve been in this business for long and all along, apart from the occasional beatings, damaging and/or the confiscation of my equipment (which is inevitable in this business) while I worked as a hard-hitting photojournalist during the 80s and through the civil war, no one ever filed a libel suit against me. The Observer’s request therefore didn’t make sense to me as professional journalist and thus decided not honor such demands. It didn’t publish it. However, other Liberian owned newspapers and web magazines in the US, Sweden and Liberia published it.

More than that, the Observer is known to have stringent editorial policy against certain traditional cultural practices i.e., the Sande. I based this conclusion on the paper’s one-sided campaign news stories series (remember not opinionated articles) that it undertook around 2010 by interviewing dozens of women together with some men all of whom only expressed negative views about the practices of female circumcision.

An objective reporter like me would make sure to get an opposite or neutral view before the story is complete. But an Observer’s staff with no apparent knowledge of the culture helped demonized it instead playing a “middle-man” role like the FPA did with the same issue. That’s why I didn’t bother to send them my 2013 reaction about the FPA series. In this case, let the general public decide which between the two, the Daily Observer and the rival FrontPage Africa, is adhering to basic ethical journalistic rules and standards.

The FrontPage Africa from all indications has proven over the years to be a professional news organization. The attestation to this, points to a dozen journalism awards won locally and internationally by this great paper and its fine group of journalists, many of them female staffers. These awards include the German Media Development Prize for Africa, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Newspaper of the Year for Best Human Rights stories, Dag Hammerskjold Fund Fellowship, Women’s Rights Reporter of the Year, Newspaper of the Year for Best Human Rights stories, plus two Pulitzer Fellowship programs that every journalist dreams of, all won just within three years. And even with some of FPA’s works published by the New York Times and other US media networks, what else is required thus to prove the paper’s “professionalism?”

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