Tuesday, September 3, 2013

YESTERDAY PATRIOTS: President Sirleaf and Press Freedom In Liberia!

Hawa Wesseh



Just freed from jail: Sirleaf at the hight of her advocacy for rights in Liberia
 
 
The future belongs to us, because we have taken charge of it. We have the commitment, we have the resourcefulness, and we have the strength … Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Just as last month came to an end two significant concerns popped up in post war Liberia! Depending on which one you want to take first, all 25,000 students sitting the nation’s most prestigious university  entrance exam fail to make a passing mark; it was perhaps the biggest front-page grabber since the Charles Taylor conviction, underscoring Liberia’s rotten education system ( both teachers and students in the country are indiscipline, the government alone cannot take the blame for this one), and there was the incarceration of Frontpage Africa’s editor, Rodney Sieh on woozy libel charges wrapped up in political undertones, according the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ). Press freedom in Liberia Is under attack, and President Sirleaf is stoking the flames!


When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed the Table Mountain Declaration last year, she made headlines around the world because the intent of the avowal was meant to stop insults and criminal charges against the media, and Sirleaf was hailed as a president who was sensitive to Liberia’s press freedom privileges given the country myriad history as far as the harassment of the fourth estate is concerned in the West African country. Liberian journalists, who have suffered persecution and continue to, even today, from the powers that be at least thought a new era, were upon them! She signed that agreement in 2012, but leading up to the jailing of Rodney Sieh reports out of Liberia say President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Liberian press have been at loggerheads, a love hate relationship, if you want to call it that.
President Sirleaf, not happy that the Liberian press were vigorously reporting fraud about her family and her administration now wants to turn back the gains, says Liberian opposition political Liberty Party. Let’s not forget that Sirleaf, a onetime darling of press during the William Tolbert and Samuel Doe administrations of which she was a staunch critic, it seems, say critics now resent the scrutiny to which she has been subjected, sirleaf├Ęs intolerance has been on display, even refering to her critics as the NOISY MINORITY!
The Liberian president is on record advocating that the media be sued in the courts for libel. It must not be forgotten that President Sirleaf successfully sued the New Broom and the New Democrat newspapers. The New Democrat was lucky and was able to settle out of court, but not the New Broom that President Sirleaf sued for 5million United States dollars. 5million United States Dollars in little underprivileged Liberia against a newspaper that is hardly worth 10thousand dollars----that was sudden death! The paper was shut down, victory declared!
“There are responsibilities that go with freedom of the press, but the president in her state of the union message (in 2010) said that she was going to take action against journalists who accuse her officials falsely and who accuse her institutions falsely…she just said that about two weeks ago, and right after that we see a bandwagon of libel suits coming out with jurors handing out unanimous decisions in libel cases,”  Tom Kamara, the late editor and celebrated publisher of the New Democrat said in revulsion of the Liberian President and her administration new tactics to silence dissent in Liberia!
Today it would be inconceivable for any Liberian security officers or officials operating under the orders of their bosses to lawlessly close down or burn newspaper offices, as was the case under previous Liberian administrations, the courts now serve that purpose under the guise of the law while Sirleaf is in power!
Hence, the intolerance and hostility currently being exhibited by President Sirleaf and her administration has taken ordinary Liberians by surprise. Under Sirleaf, nepotism is being resuscitated within the Liberian government, and as of this writing, three of her sons still currently occupied senior government positions in the banking, oil and security apparatus. Calls by the civic society and the press to have the president removed her sons form those public positions has infuriated the Noble Peace Prize laureate, which some say has heightened her antipathy towards the Liberian media and her critics.
Just few months ago, her chief body guard threatened the Liberia media when he said: Any press member that surpasses his/her responsibility to get involved in presidential intelligence; trust me, we will restrict you," Warwick said. "Be careful, because you have your pen and we have our guns. And if you incriminate the character or integrity of Liberians like myself, we will come after you. ... The EPS (Executive protection Service) has the right to arrest you without warrant!
But just as the Liberian media were showing their displeasure at what was clearly an unacceptable remark from Sirleaf security chief and did issue news blockade against the Executive Mansion (Liberian Presidency), Sirleaf is on record to have said: I DON’T CARE! They can demonstrate all they want even for a whole year, I am enjoying this benign moment… appeals from international bodies including WAJA, the West Africa Journalist Asociation and well-meaning Liberians to have the president withdraw those comments and removed Mr. Othello Warwick from his senior government position failed. The Liberian president neither rescinded her remarks nor was Mr. Warwick removed!
The PUL president Peter Quaqua appalled by Sirleaf silence on these concerns: mounting abuse, assaults and intimidation by public officials against journalists, said "She continues to remain silent on (these issues and) that has questioned her promise for democracy through press freedom”. He said further, "Silence means consent."
 Not long ago though, it can also be recalled that the Liberian National Police Inspector General Col.  Chris Massaquoi also physically assaulted a journalist on the grounds of the Temple of Justice, home to the Liberian Supreme Court. President Sirleaf neither censored him nor did she make any public statement to reprimand her police chief, a very regrettable situation given that the issue was well reported and publicized and the PUL complained about the despicable treatment, Massaquoi reacted, because, the journalist took his picture and "the camera light flash in my face!"
Anyways, the current case emanating from former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe and a 1.5million label against Liberia’s leading newspaper and online magazine pundits believe is an attempt to silence dissent in Liberia. Sirleaf and her friends’ want to silence the press and Frontpage Africa and Rodney Sieh, and nothing cannot be further from the truth!
For example take Matilda Parker as a development, a current government official and close friend to President Sirleaf and managing director of the powerful Port Authority, who is also suing the FPA for 1million USD, after the paper reported that she lied to the Liberian Anti-corruption (LACC) Commission on her asset declaration forms, displeased about the FPA reports she is suing about a reader comment which she claimed disrespected her. Sadly, while the FPA has been busy investigating corruption cases, nepotism in the Liberian government which the president is said to be encouraging, dismissed government officials are left unprosecuted by the Liberian courts, and where the preponderance of evidence are there to convict, the Liberian court system ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world (with jurors accepting bribes in open day light) has found reasons to acquit these officials  and individuals! Irony or what …the same court system that cannot indict or persecute corrupt officials is punishing a newspaper and its editor for reporting on corruption in the country!
Corruption in government is at all-time high, it is on everyone lips in the country. Corruption is a major reason Liberia went to war, the mismanagement of resources by the government which  left hurt feelings of marginalization as far as the distribution of wealth is concerned is back on the block, the Liberian press has been relentless and is reporting on corruption and mismanagement in govt, but the patriots of yesterday who were once ordinary citizens and who now hold state power are furious that the media --- on whose backs they made their name and rode to power is looking into their every lives, actions and deeds as they abused the peoples trust!
 "Experience hath (shown), that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny, " said Thomas Jefferson.
The struggle for press freedom will continue even after Sirleaf leaves power in Liberia. But make no mistake, if those who are entrusted with power---the people’s business--- think they will muzzle and silent the press by using the courts,  it’s a battle the Liberian media must welcome and be prepared to fight. Editor Rodney Sieh refusal to apoligize, as mr. Chris Toe is demanding must be celebrated, because as Sirleaf rightly said and we must agree:  The future belongs to us, because we have taken charge of it. We have the commitment, we have the resourcefulness, and we have the strength … the Liberian media must not be intimated!

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