The News Must Remain Resolute

By Joseph G. Bartuah

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 22, 2004

Saturday, April 24, 2004 will definitely mark an epochal milestone in the history of the Liberian media, as The NEWS Newspaper in Monrovia commemorates the 15th anniversary of its humble debut on the newsstands in 1989.

I am not quite sure about the motivation that eventually metamorphosed into the establishment of THE NEWS, because by 1989, it was now evident that the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) regime was grossly intolerant of dissent.

Historical Backdrop
On one occasion in mid ‘80s, the Daily Observer (published by Mr. Kenneth Best) had been arbitrarily shut down by Justice Minister Jenkins Scott, ostensibly for subordinating President Samuel Kanyon Doe’s photo to the late labor leader Amos Gray’s, as if there was any law in Liberia making it mandatory for private newspapers to prominently place the president’s photo on their front pages, even if he was merely sneezing.

For the Daily Observer staff, that incident was not the first time; heavily armed soldiers illegally invaded its Crown Hill offices on several occasions. From its inception in 1981, the Daily Observer saw its editorial staff frequently jailed on several occasions for long periods without any charge.

Of course, the Daily Observer was not the only victim of the Peoples Redemption Council-Interim National Assembly-NDPL’s inhumane persecution of independent journalists in the 1980s. On another occasion in the ‘80s, the erudite publisher of the FOOTPRINTS newspaper and two of his editorial staff members--Isaac Bantu and the late Klon Hinneh--were incarcerated at the Monrovia Central Prison for more than 90 days without charge.

Upon their release, the three gallant journalists threatened to sue the Doe regime for “false imprisonment”. In a flagrant demonstration of the regime’s penchant for injustice, the three journalists were again rounded up and thrown in the ever-nasty Monrovia Central Prison, just for vowing to sue the government.

In short, the 1980s was not a promising decade for the Liberian media. Rufus Darpoh was sent to the “Zoe Bush” in Belle Yalla; the brilliant Charles Gbeyon was cold-bloodedly murdered in the wake of the foiled coup of November 12, 1985. The Daily Observer offices were later burned down.

The Motivation
Against such gloomy backdrop, what may have motivated two young Liberians of diverse professional backgrounds to midwife the birth of another newspaper at that time? Was it due to some sort of divine inspiration, a desire to make positive difference on the Liberia media landscape, or just two lucky guys chipping out some left-overs from their respective fortunes so that their younger compatriots would find an outlet for employment and survival?

Whatever the motivation might have been, it’s now indisputable that the concurrence by Morris M. Dukuly and Wilson K. Tarpeh to initially underwrite the establishment of The NEWS was perhaps, one of the most farsighted, progressive decisions of their lives.

To ensure that The NEWS distinguished itself as a force to reckon with in Liberian journalism, Tarpeh, the University of New Haven-trained banking guru and Dukuly, the Temple University communications czar, enlisted the services of some and progressive newspaper personalities in Monrovia at the time.

This media adventure witnessed the recruitment of the likes of the late Klon Hinneh as managing editor, Westmore Dahn as editor-in-chief and columnist Sam Van Kesselly as news editor. Even the first lead story of The NEWS aroused the government’s anger. The story was about the possibility of toxic waste being dumped off the coast of Harper in Maryland County. Although the regime fiercely denied the report at the time, it was based on documentary evidence at the disposal of the paper and the editorial staff stood by its story.

The News’s appearance on the newsstands was short-lived. On December 24, 1989, exactly eight months after the paper’s debut, Charles Taylor launched his now infamous carnage that eventually sent some 300,000 Liberians and foreign residents to their early graves.

Journalism, like other decent professions, cannot be practiced in the midst of anarchy. And so as the situation further deteriorated, The NEWS was forced to close its doors until some semblance of serenity was restored in Monrovia in the early ‘90s, with the setting up of the interim government led by Dr. Amos Sawyer.

Once again, the staff of The NEWS rose to the challenge and began making significant impact within the Liberian media theater; its managing editor, Klon Hinneh became a correspondent of the BBC in Monrovia. Two other reporters, T. Budu Kaizer and the late John Vambo also became stringers for the BBC. As for reporter Jackson Kanneh, his talent attracted the Voice of America radio.

Misfortunes Struck
However, in the blitz of those professional successes, misfortunes befell The NEWS. During the heat of Charles Taylor’s notorious “Operation Octopus” to capture Monrovia by arms might in 1992, Klon Hinneh suddenly died. A couple of weeks later, ECOMOG soldiers, apparently enraged by reporter John Vambo’s dispatch on the fighting to the BBC, severely manhandled him, apparently damaging his kidneys. Through the help of some friends, he went to seek advanced medical treatment in The Netherlands where he unfortunately met his untimely death.

As for me, my sojourn with The NEWS began on February 2, 1995 when I took over as editor-in-chief. The paper was then being published thrice a week. Upon joining The NEWS, I found a crop of young people ardently determined to make a positive difference; all they needed was guidance and I was willing to humbly provide some and also listen to their insightful suggestions. And so, together, we assiduously strove to make a difference by being voice of the voiceless. New columns were introduced; editorial contents were radically changed in favor of total disarmament and in January 1999, The NEWS became a daily newspaper.

During the 1997 elections, when most Liberians appeared to be selling their birth rights for T-shirts, umbrellas or a few cups of rice, we reminded them that all that glittered was not gold; we alerted Liberians to elect a president that will earn the respect and confidence of leaders our neighboring countries, so that in the spirit of reciprocal confidence, our country can be spared a further bloodbath.

Although most Liberians decided to chase the shadow, today when we as a media outlet look back, we can safely say that we ably played our part. Our editorials, columns and commentaries have become somehow prophetic.

Not only that The NEWS family will make that claim, but evidence also abounds that the paper has over the years, earned the approbation of its friends and foes alike. In the course of the six years I spent at The NEWS, the paper received more than a dozen individual and institutional awards - Best Newspaper of the Year, Best Editorial, and Journalist of the Year, Best Feature Writer, Best Photo-journalist and Best Sports Reporter among others. In 1999, following a visit to Monrovia by one of its producers, Mary Harper, the BBC described The NEWS as “the most independent newspaper in Liberia” at the time.

No Complacency
It goes without saying that The NEWS has come a long way since its debut in 1989. However, the current editorial staff of The NEWS must be mindful that there is no room for complacency at this time. The NEWS must buckle up and relentlessly lead the crusade for genuine democracy as a fulcrum for a better Liberia. The situation in Liberia today is no different from the repressive eras of the ‘50s and ‘60s, or the military adventurism of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In fact, the warlords are still holding their horrible toys of death to our heads.

In this progressive era of the 21st century where man is contemplating a 35-million mile voyage to Mars, our society still seems to be pathetically languishing in a Stone Age. Ethnic bigotry has metamorphosed into factional bigotry where those with the biggest killing machines demand that the unarmed majority worship them. As a people, it seems that we eschew excellence and espouse mediocrity or mere fallacy.

As a result, men and women of substance with the requisite international clout, who are poised to bring rapid development and much needed dignity to our country are ignorantly despised and even rejected while we cheer up sheer crooks and criminals who end up raking our national coffers with impunity. The penchant for corruption and blatant disregard for the rule of law are still prevalent. In the midst of all these endemic vices, The NEWS must remain resolute in championing the cause for democratic pluralism as a best way forward.