The Practice of Yellow Journalism Is Putting Liberian Democracy at Risk
By: John S. Morlu, MBA, CMA, CIA, CFM, CFE, CMBA
The press has an obligation to expose those who might try to benefit themselves at the expense of the people and “that means, among other things, exposing corruption wherever it might be found. I know the Liberian press is struggling financially, but that is no reason to allow anyone to buy your support. But journalists should be on no one’s payroll except that of the newspaper or radio station they work for”—US Ambassador Donald Booth, Keynote speaker at the 17th anniversary celebration of the NEWS Newspaper.
What do the comments from an American Ambassador and the Liberian President have in common: An observation of unethical journalism in Liberia? Some would say the truth hurts and reading from the editorial pages of some papers in Liberia, the recent statement by the President has a lot of truth in it. In fact it is an open secret in Liberia that a quite a large pool of journalists are nothing but a corrupt set of people. Ask a typical Liberian about the nature of journalism, two words will emanate from the mouths: Kato and Paid Agents.
Too Many Newspapers, Bad Reporting
In Liberia, there is a challenge on several fronts. The economy is completely dislocated and chronically ill. The security situation remains untenable. Mr. Corruption is still around, eating every green leaf on its way to the bank. I do not even want to mention the failure of the educational and healthcare systems. Nor do I want to discuss the backbreaking national debt, in which everyone and their grandparents are claiming that this one and only Liberian government owes them. The good thing is that all of these can be fixed with innovative thinking.
But there is one problem that will break the Liberian democracy, a situation that happened in America during its own formative years. Former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson had to step in to arrest it before it spun out of control. That issue was yellow journalism, which was reflected in opposition political parties camouflaged as newspapers--pamphlets as they were called. Like Thomas Jefferson’s America, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration must do something now to arrest the situation or face losing our democracy. It must rein in the excess of the media.
During the elections, Liberia had a problem of another excess. It was the proliferation of political candidates. At some point, there were more than 60 people running for the top post of President. But after realizing the difficulties of making it on the ballot as independent candidates, we witnessed the rise of one person political parties. With US$350, a man or woman could establish a political party on the fly. After all, one needed not to canvass in the counties to get the required 500 names per county. Instead one could just get a few people around the table to generate various permutations of names, with John Flomo beating the list.
So when all was said and done, there were 30 political parties, an increase from the 18 parties existing at the time of the Accra conference. But in the end, we ended with 22 political institutions contesting the elections. Some Liberians, including Chairman Bryant worried that the proliferation of political institutions would cause confusion. Some of us argued that these institutions would die a natural death, because they had no money but just a single agenda---to gain power and all its accompanying benefits.
But the proliferation in makeshifts media houses is far more dangerous to our fledging democracy, so we cannot some of the bad ones to die away one by one. We hasten their demise. In September 2003 when Chairman Bryant assumed power in Liberia, there were about 14 newspapers. By election time, it had increased to a little over 20. Former Information Minister Allen complained back in 2004 that some of these papers did not even have an address. Today, I am told there are around 42 newspapers in Liberia, minus the Liberian centered ‘online gossip columns’ calling themselves newspapers. The 42 number reflects both weeklies and one- timers.
In economics we are taught that more is better. I think economists mean more of a good thing is better. I do not think any reasonable person would argue that more ‘trash talk’ that is meant to incite people against their government is better, no matter how large a volume. Some would also argue that the architect of the American declaration of independence stated that “information is the currency of democracy.” But here, again, Jefferson meant good information, not targeted political gossips turned into news stories.
A significant number of journalists in Liberia do not have any respect for the truth. They print nothing but “you say, I say,” or “they say.” Just read the papers. Since we live in America, I was surprised to read on a Website that there was “foul play” in Chief Justice’s Wureh’s death, with direct implication of Chief Justice Johnny Lewis. This was utterly wrong. So many people complained about that kind of reporting, including a doctor friend in North Carolina. We discussed it. We wondered how a decent man could accuse, even by insinuation, that the Chief Justice was involved in murder without providing one iota of evidence. But again, some people took delight in reading it. For me and most Liberians, it was not funny at all.
Another example was the case of Harry Greaves, a man who I have disagreed with on several policy issues. Harry Greaves was accused by an online newspaper of falsifying Minister Yaya Nimley signature to get $40,000 to bury his father. I wondered again, where was the proof for leveling such a serious allegation against Greaves. In the modern world, forgery is a very serious offense. Up till now there is no documentation whatsoever to show that Greaves ever did such a thing but his name was put on the Internet, anyway. These are just a few cases of lies and misinformation.
In my profession as an auditor, one cannot write a report without gathering sufficient, competent evidence to back up each assertion. I guess in Liberian journalism anything goes. During election politics, people say and do things to get an advantage. For the most part, participants and bystanders can read between the lines to understand it is all political gamesmanship. But such is not the case post election. Everything is taken seriously, so greater care and responsibility must be exercised. Yet again, it seems that some folks have continued election politics even to the detriment of the whole nation. The sad part is that they are doing it under the cover of independent media.
Three Fundamental Problems in the Practice
First, so many Liberian newspapers are political party’s masquerading as newspapers. They are financed by opposition politicians. Some people do not like it when I called names in my opinion pieces. But since the Press Union of Liberia is demanding that the President provide some proof, I will. The ‘Public Agenda’ is an opposition party turned into a newspaper. It was established by former Analyst reporter Gibson Jerue and Samuel Seequech.
The Public Agenda is the mouth piece for Liberty Party and Milton Teajay and Friends, a kind of unholy alliance. Jerue admitted in the Washington Post article that he was a supporter of Charles Walker Brumskine. Read “The Man Who Would Be President.” Samuel Sequeach is a protégé of Milton Teajay. The stories in the Public Agenda are written by Milton Teajay, a man Sequeach supported during his bid for the election. Sequeach just left the Analyst as Editor-in-Chief.
The Public Agenda it is the most recent among the high flying makeshift opposition papers.
Another example is the FORUM published by Augustine Fallah. Fallah was an integral part of Charles Taylor’s war efforts in Lofa County. His intermittent newspaper is paid for by staunch members of Taylor’s NPP. Another paper of interest is the Informer, published by its managing editor named Barkollie Sumo. Sumo is an organizing member of the defunct Lofa Defense Force. Sumo threw his weight behind Varney Sherman in the gone elections. While there is no iota of evidence that Sherman and his COTOL are sanctioning his targeted reporting, Sumo is an opposition partisan. These are just a few cases.
The online papers are just as bad. All those are mad for not getting a post in government seems to be running the gossip pages of FPA. It has fast become the home for ‘small time thinkers’ who do not see pass beyond securing a government post. Just write anything and send it, it will be posted. The hardcore government haters say that it was the Daily Observer that brought down Samuel Doe’s government, so it is there time do the same. Dead wrong! Sirleaf is neither Doe, nor Taylor. She is a woman and the truth of the matter is that one has to jump much higher to brand a woman as a dictator. Fair or not, that is how life is. So if one wants to defeat Sirleaf, one must go after her government on substantive issues.
After all, a newspaper is supposed to be a gatekeeper between value-added informative reporting and trash talking. Major papers in America, where some of us live, receive countless letters and commentaries each day. But they do not publish everything they receive. That is what people call editorial decision making, because newspapers are supposed to be a force for positive change, not a medium for mischief and false political propaganda.
Second, another phenomenon characterizing several of the Liberian papers is this whole “kato” business. Most news coming to us via print and online is paid for by someone. Again, even Ambassador Donald Booth has taken notice of the “Kato” thing when he admonished it journalists at the celebration of the 17 anniversary of the News newspaper. The Ambassador even begged journalists not be on anyone’s payroll. I laughed when I read it, but he had a point. It was not funny, but I must admit I laughed. Now you see, it is not just President Sirleaf who is making the point about “Kato and Paid Agent.” She is not alone. Even publishers of the major papers in Liberia are concerned, so are veteran journalists who see their profession going down to the bottomless pit.
It is not just the publishers and veteran journalists who are worried about the state of the media in Liberia. Ask the members of the Black Journalist Association that visited Liberia including the CNN reporter to describe the state of journalism in Liberia. I bet a million, the answer will come flying by in a simple form called ‘Paid Agents and Kato.’ These are seasoned journalists, not politicians.
Third, some in the media also believe this is their time to become like the famous human rights activists, who gained notoriety because they were arrested and jailed by the government. A Liberian Journalist, living in America, told me that they will write “negative” stories about people and when they respond, “we get famous overnight.” So they have no reason to conduct solid investigation into matters of national import.
Another American based Liberian journalist told me that when he writes an opinion, people will go after him. So he chooses to write his opinion as news stories. This is one reason it is so difficult to tell the difference among news stories, opinion pieces, and news analysis. I am not a journalist. Nor do I have the time to report the news, so I write mainly opinions on what is already available in the public domain. I wish some of these journalists could become opinion makers to save the profession for the good ones.
The American Solution—Journalists in Prison
We, Liberians look to America as a guide to our democracy. So I thought I use a few lines to give Liberians a few highlights about America. First, there is no confidentiality recognition between a journalist and his or her sources. A man has the right to write that he has information that so and so government official is engaged in criminal activities. But if the government has a compelling interest in the story, a journalist can be forced to disclose his or her sources. Today, there are more than 32 high profile journalists in America in prison for refusing to disclose this information.
Judy Miller, a well respected New York Times reporter was thrown in prison while she had a feeding tube running down her nose. He later succumbed. She resigned and went into hiding when she was released. So all those Liberian journalists who write anonymously should realize they can be compelled, if the government chooses, to disclose. There is nothing in the laws for Journalist and Source Confidentiality privilege.
Second, in America, journalists are not allowed in the White House unless they are accredited. If a journalist is found there without accreditation, he or she would be thrown out and their camera seized. We have witnessed many such instances on CNN. At George Bush’s events, journalists who are not invited are usually thrown out as well. That is why some of us support George Bush. He does not joke around.
I wrote the International Institute for the Protection of Journalists to ascertain why it was raising a concern in Liberia when few journalists were thrown out when that is a common practice in America. The fact of the matter is that what is good in America is also good in Liberia.
Third, in 1790 Thomas Jefferson became President. He was the father of America democracy and freedom of speech. When George Washington was president, there was a massive increase in the proliferation of newspapers. America was still at war with England, albeit not in a direct combat situation. Meanwhile, Washington and his young aide named Alexander Hamilton wanted to build a solid relationship with England after the war. Jefferson opposed dealing with England. Instead he wanted a more stable alliance with France, where he had served as Ambassador.
But as we now know, Hamilton, at age 32, is credited for building the United States economy and is considered the forerunner of modern day US. Democratic Party, albeit political thinking between Republican and Democratic has changed several times from what is termed realignment. But the fact of the matter is that Hamilton built the US economic system by borrowing largely from England, a situation that Thomas Jefferson- 14 years his elder- despised.
Thomas Jefferson and his followers used various media outlets as “fronts” to deride President Washington and Hamilton’s agenda, as to undermine the ‘reason dente’ with England. Hamilton himself a prolific writer, realized that America democracy was at risk because newspapers were engaged in spreading lies on opposition politicians to the detriment of a stronger union. He also felt their anti-British propaganda was just far too much, fearing that it would reignite war.
So in his desire to clamp down on the media, Hamilton led the efforts to pass the Sedition Act, an Act that would punish a man or woman for writing lies against the government, or a government official. As one would expect, the champion of freedom of speech Thomas Jefferson opposed the Sedition Act.
But guess what? When he became President, Jefferson was the first to use the Sedition Act against a New York journalist. The case went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. Jefferson’s administration won and the journalist was thrown in jail and bankrupt. In a rather twisted fashion, Hamilton who had fought for and gotten approval of the Sedition Act, served as the first legal counsel for the defending journalist.
Thomas Jefferson: Mr. Freedom of Speech At All Costs turned into ‘Mr. Freedom of Speech With Responsibility,’ a sober reminder of an ‘Animal Farm’ scenario. And today we have another Jeffersonian Republican in the White House in George Bush. No one would suggest another Liberian going to prison for writing his opinion but nothing in this world is priceless. One has the right to write but another has the to right to sue and if possible put those in prison who engaged in intentionally spreading lies.
As I said earlier, in America, a journalist must be accredited, with extensive background checks before he can attend a press conference in the Whitehouse. Presidential Press Secretary Cyrus Badio was therefore correct that he would begin accrediting media institutions. I am glad he is practicing some of what he experienced in America, unlike some who leave all the good things from America at JFK Airport, in New York.
Sadly I cannot move on to part two without some sober reflection of government functionaries’ active participation in polluting the media in Liberia. The general view in some quarters of the media is that some in government with political ambitions are seeking favorable news coverage at all costs, even if that means putting dirt on others they perceived as a threat.
So this is one area where the president statement is less complete. While some people are blackmailed, others seek after news with vengeance and only cried foul when things turn on them. This is yet another instance when both the corrupter and the corrupted are equally guilty. Sometimes, therefore, one wonders whether there is ever going to be redemption of the value system in Liberia, since corruption is embedded in every aspects of life.
To be continued, part two coming soon.
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