By James Kokulo Fasuekoi, Excelsior, MN-Just as recently as mid-August, Pres. Sirleaf was heard boasting about her press record at a local public function. “We [government] will not go after you. We will not burn down media houses or intimidate critics…we will not arrest journalists or silence political commentators,” were her exact words as quoted by local press sources. Her statements aren’t anything new to journalists and the Liberian people as a whole. These utterances by the president have nearly become a recitation while reality like the unlawful imposition of “libel” fines against an independent journalist sunk in exactly one week later.
I grew up in a tradition where men and women are barred by traditional norms from beating their chests and praising themselves over their good deeds. Maybe that’s why I feel somehow uncomfortable when I see our leader Pres. Sirleaf gives herself a thumps-up for things her government should not be getting credits for. I think the wise thing one can do is wait and let others praise for your fine work but don’t go out blowing “your own horn.” The Holy Bible is against such act as stated in Proverbs 27:2 “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” 2 Corinthians 10:12: “But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.”
Let’s look at her claim of “unhindered” press freedom under her administration. In Liberia, many people are often tempted to believe what Pres. Sirleaf and her spokespersons say regarding press freedom. Those who think so apparently based their judgments by looking at events merely from face value. But are they indeed right? Absolutely not! True press freedom isn’t measured by the absence of political prisoners or journalists from prison (prior to the Sieh’s episode). Nor can the same be used as yardstick to measure the level of free speech in a supposedly democratic society. What none media personnel don’t know are the government’s use of outdated methods to infringe, undermine the viability of the independent press in Liberia.
There is actually a well-organized system in place whereby aggressive independent papers including FrontPage Africa are denied advertisements (lifeblood of the media) from government institutions. Government operatives even go as far to exert pressure on private companies/entities operation in the country not to offer advertisements to certain hardline papers. I got to know this by lengthily engaging some independent local reporters and editors during my 2011 trip to Liberia. This is part of the government’s tactics intended to break the economic wellbeing of news organs like the FrontPage that proves to be very tough on the government. And guess what? Papers that endorse and promote its “bad policies” at home and abroad are the ones to benefit from government advertisements and this is totally wrong! But this isn’t news to many of the local journalists although it may be news to people outside media circles.
In other instances, the current government has occasionally ordered the Finance Ministry Tax Division to collect huge amount in taxes it claimed news organs owed to her. What is interesting is that this campaign is often directed toward papers like the FrontPage Africa, The New Dawn, The New Democrat and The News, all independent). But then come to check, the same government with its many ministries and bureaus, owes each of these papers 50 times than the paper owes it, the government. Surely, it’s a game of financial deprivation meant to undermine a strong press which in itself is a violation of the media’s rights to public-government announcements. This experience should encourage us as media people to begin seeking avenues within media friendly organizations to lend helping hands to our independent press in Liberia.
Of course everyone is quite familiar with the other trick, unfounded libel law suit. This is another technique meant to deprive private media of financial viability through the illicit use of “libel lawsuits” to burden independent newspapers and find ways to put them out of business as some of Sirleaf’s Government diehard cronies have begun voicing out. This technique, as clearly seen is so self-revealing nowadays through the long list of “libel claims” against certain media so short a time. This particular “libel” trick is one that the masses, together with the independent press ought to strongly resist to stop the bad people from winning else, we are all in trouble.
Pres. Johnson-Sirleaf: It has been reported that in 2009, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who happens to be president of the Republic of Liberia filed a libel suit in the amount of US5million against a local daily, the New Broom. Unable to pay the fines, the paper was shut down just like FrontPage Africa. Winning a “libel” lawsuit against a small newspaper entity like the New Broom, one wonders how Pres. Sirleaf must have felt! But others don’t see it as a victory on the basis of her influence and power as head of state for a small war torn African country. So Sirleaf’s “victory” can best be described as an affront to justice!
It is exceedingly unbelievable that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who criticized Doe for freezing press freedom, free speech, and freedom of association among other rights is the same person secretly involved in the imprisonment of fearless journalists today in Liberia. What a pure hypocrisy! One can only imagine what will be written in her chapters of history when historians finally pick up their pens to write. In it will be failed promises! Some may even discover there can’t be a split between Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Samuel Doe, or Taylor. Witnesses and readers of contemporary history shall also find out that while former dictators like Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor used overt means to suppress free speech and freedom of the press, as one recent Liberian writer put it, Pres. Johnson-Sirleaf on the other hand used/uses covert methods to play the same game.
Dr. Amos Sawyer: In the middle of the civil war, the independent daily Inquire I previously worked for reported a story about a mortgaged home located in Silver
Springs, MD said to be owned by former IGU’s president Dr. Amos Sawyer. The cost of the house was about US$250.000.00 with huge portion still unpaid. One of our Inquire editors on journalism training visit to the U.S., managed to unearth the deal and with the assistance of some Liberians, and took photographs of “Sawyer’s property.” Dr. Sawyer appeared to be making regular monthly payments toward the home while he served as interim president.
However, when the Inquire published the story, Dr. Sawyer, rather than dispute or confirm our story, chose to rubbish the paper’s image in an arrogant manner and insisted it was his private matter and as such, our paper had no business in it. Enraged over the issue, he refused to send a rebuttal and demanded the paper retract its own story else he would sue our paper. Refuting a story can be hard for a paper and should be the last thing any independent news organ would want to do for no good reason because degrades the paper’s fine image. We rejected his plea and offered the declaration that “We stand by our story.” His attempt appeared to be nothing more than a smokescreen. Former rebel leader turned senator Prince Johnson would refer to such behavior as “killing moral.” The Inquire stood her ground and prevailed in the end, for that matter rejecting every attempt by Professor Sawyer to use his education and power (just as Pres. Johnson-Sirleaf, Chris Toe, Madina Wesseh and others have done) to intimidate us. He eventually backed off.
Matilda Parker: Consider the case of National Port Authority Director, Matilda Parker, that beautiful woman who lied about her
“possessions” during the state Assets Declaration exercise. She too quickly initiated a lawsuit of US$1.million against the FrontPage Africa soon after the Civil Law Court found publisher Rodney Sieh liable in the controversial “Chris vs. Rodney Sieh” case. For Madam Parker, her claims were nothing less than seeking attention and pure sympathy since the FrontPage, like in the Chris Toe case, had more than evidence at hand to prove such empty claims.
Then there was the case of Madina Wesseh who while serving as presidential aide betrayed the confidence reposed in her by the people and Pres. Sirleaf’s thereby using her “presidential influence” to set up a network of shady deals, some involving forestry logging contracts permits issued to mostly Asians and other foreigners and the deals earned her fortunes and deprived the government and people of badly needed revenue funding that could change lives. Mrs. Wesseh’ signatures found on valid official government documents in the permit transactions unquestionably suggested she was actually in the center of the deal. It brought disgrace not only to her but also Pres. Sirleaf who is seen as her buddy.
After several quarrels with the FrontPage Africa management in a desperate attempt to restore her image failed, this onetime professed students “freedom-democracy” advocates, still annoyed over the FPA stories managed to arrange an interview with a local Talk Show host recently. But instead clear her name of corrupt allegations reported by FPA based on investigation, Mrs. Wesseh put aside all thoughts of defending herself and resorted to ad hominem never before witnessed on a lived broadcast in Liberia. Her attacks were grisly, and for a woman of her caliber, presumed to be “educated,” her surprised attacks took listening audiences off-guard. She insinuated Rodney Sieh might be HIV positive. That wasn’t all; she also hurried by PUL’s offices on Clay Street and filed a complaint against Sieh and his paper and alleged the paper had maligned her “good name and reputation.”
Editor Rodney Sieh on the other hand managed to have called the station and countered Wesseh’s unspeakable remarks. He challenged Madina Wesseh to meet him Sieh at a lived pre-arranged HIV test event at one of the country’s health centers but Madina didn’t take the offer. In other words, the behavior of the former presidential aide constitutes a classic example of how far people at the helm of power can go to get “even” with journalists who place them under the spotlight in an effort to expose their dirty dealings. Clearly in their attempts to fight back, they can turn to the unthinkable as seen in the “Madina Wesseh scenario” and murder too, can’t be ruled out.
This entire experience confirms assertions sociologists and political scientists have made over time that those who in the past fought against injustices, human rights and other forms of states’ sponsored abuses, can themselves become the worse abusers of human rights when they come to power. It also reminds me of ‘Gen.’ Prince Johnson’s expressed disgust about Liberian politicians whom he saw as “the country’s worst enemies” during the war. Whether at his rebel Caldwell military base or central Monrovia, Johnson didn’t hesitate to curse politicians. He strongly viewed them as greedy and manipulative group of people who “don’t have Liberia at heart” and were capable of manipulating “everything” to suit their “selfish interests.”
Albeit, the local media have made great strides over the years in other areas deem important for the survival of any independent press entity in places where the “powerful” often used uncivilized methods to undermine press freedom. Several local private papers now have their own printing equipment mounted in their backyards; something seemed impossible fifty or more years ago in Liberia. The Daily Observer, FrontPage Africa, The New Dawn and New Democrat all have modern sophisticated printers and that eliminate their vulnerability in the usage of the longtime leading Asian-Lebanese owned Sabana Printing Press that “government operatives” often manipulate into rejecting to print certain hard-hitting dailies critical of the regime. Thank God for such progress.