President Ellen Sirleaf and Press Freedom In Liberia

BY: Hawa Wesseh

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, the University of Liberia (UL) entrance exam failed 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 undisciplined, the government alone cannot take the blame for this one); and there was the incarceration of Frontpage Africa’s (FPA) 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 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’s myriad conflictual 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.However, 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 party, Liberty Party. Let’s not forget that Sirleaf was a darling of the press during the William Tolbert and Samuel Doe administrations. She was a staunch critic of both administrations. It seems, say critics, she now resents the scrutiny to which she has been subjected. Sirleaf’s intolerance has been on display even referring 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 5 million United States dollars.

Five million United States Dollars in underprivileged Liberia against a newspaper that is hardly worth 10 thousand 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 have 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 civil society and the press to have the president remove her sons from those public positions have 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, Othello Warwick 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.

But just as the Liberian media were showing their displeasure at what was clearly an unacceptable remark from Sirleaf’s 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 the West Africa Journalist Association (WAJA) and well-meaning Liberians to have the president withdraw those comments and remove Othello Warwick from his senior government position failed. The Liberian president neither rescinded her remarks nor was Mr. Warwick removed.

The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) president, Peter Quaqua, appalled by Sirleaf’s silence on the 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.”

It can be recalled that not long ago the Liberian National Police Inspector General Col. Chris Massaquoi also physically assaulted a journalist on the grounds of the Temple of Justice, which the home of 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. Mr. Massaquoi’s reason for assaulting the journalist was because the journalist took his picture and “the camera light flash in my face!”

Pundits believe the current Sieh case emanating from former Agriculture Minister, Chris Toe and a 1.5million label against Liberia’s leading newspaper and online magazine is an attempt to silence dissent in Liberia.

Sirleaf and her friends want to silence the press, FrontPage Africa and Rodney Sieh, and nothing can be further from the truth.

Matilda Parker, a current government official and close friend to President Sirleaf and managing director of the powerful Port Authority, 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 is increasing because the president is said to be encouraging it. Dismissed government officials are left un-prosecuted by the Liberian courts, and while the preponderance of evidence is 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.

It’s an irony that 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’s lips in the country. Corruption is a major reason Liberia went to war. The mismanagement of resources by the government which has left hurt feelings of marginalization among mainly poor and under-represented Liberians, when it comes to unfettered distribution of wealth, is back on the block. The Liberian press has been relentless and is reporting on corruption and mismanagement in government, 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 abuse the people’s trust.

“Experience had 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.

Sieh’s refusal to apologize, as Mr. 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.”

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