The Liberian Media March To 2003 : What Hope For A Successful Non-Violent Elections?

(A Presentation Made By James M. Fromayan)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 2, 2002

Director, Liberia Democracy Resource Center
At The 38th Anniversary Of The Press Union Of Liberia
Pul Hq., Benson St., Monrovia

September 30, 2003

Mr. President
Executives and support staff of the PUL
Officials of government
Fellow Panelists
Members of the Fourth Estate
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen

Without a free media, a free and democratic self-government would not be possible. By recognizing the right to dissent, democratic governments encourage peaceful and orderly social and political change. (Encyclopedia Encarta 2001).

When I received the letter of invitation from the PUL to be part of its 38th anniversary celebration on this day, especially to serve as one of the guest lecturers of the famous Edward Wilmot Blyden Lecture Forum, I felt it was an honor for me to identify with the Liberian Media on such an occasion. The letter of invitation went as far as selecting a topic for us to speak on. I believe this is the modus operandi of the PUL to select topics for its speakers. The selection of the topic could not have been any better than the one on hand because the desire of decent Liberians for now is how to get out of this nightmare short of using un-democratic means to effect political change in the country.

Before I touch the topic in question, it is imperative that we together take a cursor look at the strives that the Liberian Media has made over the past three decades plus in its quest to promote press freedom and democracy in our country. It is also worth mentioning that certain elements of the Liberian Media have always served the interest of the power that be irrespective of what that power does or fails to do. Celebrating 38 years of existence means that the PUL came into being in 1964 during the administration of President William V. S. Tubman. The very existence of the PUL has its root in the detention of veteran journalist, Stanton Peabody whose reference to members of the Legislature as radicals was considered by the Tubman regime as a crime. The prolong detention of the late Tuan Wreh and his torture should be seen as part and parcel of the struggle for freedom of the Liberian Media. President Tubman as we can recall, was no friend of the free exchange of ideas. He clamped down on press freedom in his attempt at running a mini-police state in which some students were paid to be agents on their own teachers and, in some cases, on their parents under his PR scheme. During the mid 1950s, Tubman suppressed vocal opposition newspaper of the Independent True Whig Party forcing the paper to shut down. The editor of the paper was declared persona non grata and subsequently expelled from the country. The Liberian Media therefore operated in fear thus falling short of being critical of the government's short comings. In effect, people respected Tubman out of fear, not necessarily out of love for a leader. His security net work was there purposely to manufacture lies on his political opponents. Even his vice president (Dr. William R. Tolbert, Jr.) became victim of lies assembled at the various security institutions. In the face of all that, some elements of the Liberian Media notably the late Albert Porte, Rufus Darpoh, etc. stood the test of the time. In his book, CRY, LIBERIA, CRY! the late G. Henry Andrews made the following points which are as relevant today as at the time that he raised them "... never again should we allow a president to maintain four to five security forces, stock them with his people, and mold them into robots that do his every wish and command, good or bad, right or wrong, legal or illegal. Liberians must learn and live by the principle that the greatest right in the world is the right to be left alone as long as you don't break the law. That is followed closely by the right to freely and fairly choose those who will govern you The third great right is the right to hold your leaders accountable for their actions. In those three rights lies the essence of democracy, no matter of what kind."

The ascendancy of Dr. William R. Tolbert, Jr. into power brought about a positive change especially for the Liberian Media. Tolbert, as a visionary and enlightened leader said that he did not want to lead a country in which the views of his citizens were suppressed. Thus press and academic freedoms were practiced under the Tolbert administration without molestation. He was a man of ideas hence he felt that the exchange of ideas from opposing views was the foundation of national development. At the University of Liberia, students' papers such as the Revelation, the Voice, and later the University Spokesman were allowed to operate without any serious hindrance. Local dailies were equally operating in a conducive atmosphere. During the tenure of President Tolbert, the University of Liberia became the arena where the free exchange of ideas was given prominence. I can say without any fear of contradiction that the press had freedom under the reign of President Tolbert than any other Liberian leader. Tolbert's adherence to press freedom in Liberia can in part be attributed to his intellectual depth and, his appreciation for the rule of law over the use of brute force.

When the military junta under Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe overthrew the government of President Tolbert in 1980, the Liberian Media became one of its enemies.

A local daily offices were burnt down, with journalists being incarcerated intermittently. A leading electronic journalist was killed on Doe's order in November 1985. There was a concerted effort on the part of the junta to silence students at the University of Liberia. Thank God that (from 1978-1984) the University of Liberia had a principled president in the person of Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman who could not be manipulated by the political establishment. In fact, from the on set, Mr. Doe became very disdainful of educated people. He was fond of using the expression "you have your MA, I have my M-16." The implication here was that one did not need to go to school in order to become a head of state. In the final analysis, he sought university education realizing that even those who made the M-16 were educated. He never tolerated press freedom up to the start of the Liberian civil crisis in which he became one of the victims.

Press freedom and the establishment of genuine democracy in Liberia continues to elude us even in this 21st century. The NPP-led government under President Charles G. Taylor has not allowed the press to operate freely. There has been this uneasy relationship between the government and the press. Some journalists have served prison sentences without violating any law. Hassan Bility for instance, is still languishing in an unknown prison in total disregard for the rule of law. Some have had their offices ransacked by state security operatives. In the face of the current self-imposed censorship by the media houses, they still deserve some commendation for attacking some ills in our society. There are three outstanding cases that readily come to my mind when mentioning the social responsibility of the Liberian Media in recent time. The first case has to do with a US $2.5m that was given to the government of Liberia by the Tiawanese government for the restoration of electricity in Monrovia. That amount landed in the hands of a private business man who is neither an engineer nor an employee of LEC. The result was the importation of few useless generators that have since broken down. Consequently, Monrovia remains a dark city reminiscent of the dark ages. The media educated us about that shady deal. On the second count, a senator who reportedly received little over US $1m for the construction of a children village appear to have misapplied a considerable chunk of the money while the project is yet to get off the ground. That senator has remained silent in the face of mounting media report of the mismanagement of the children village project funds. Lastly, the print media also informed us that more than US $200,000 was allegedly stolen from the home of a particular custom official at the Ministry of Finance. The official in question threatened law suit against the paper that carried the story. That case was brought to the attention of the PUL Grievance and Ethics committee. The committee's finding did not however vindicate the Finance Ministry official. In cases involving economic crime, there is hardly ever any punishment meted out against those responsible for the mismanagement of public funds by the government. It seems as though that squandering public funds is an acceptable thing in government. The same can not be said about people like journalists, or human rights advocates who publish critical stories that are meant to assist government to do the proper thing. It is the second category of people who are usually sent to jail, torture or branded as "enemies" of the state.

As I said earlier, certain elements of the Liberian Media do not care about what is often referred to as their social responsibilities. Because of the difficult economic situation that we find ourselves in, some journalists would prefer to settle for peanuts and betray the interest of the larger society. Those are the ones who are prostituting this noble profession. They are simply the bad apples in the basket. The struggle for press freedom and democracy in Liberia can not be pursued by outsiders in our behalf. The very United States that we tend to emulate (most time at the level of pretensions) fought over the years to have their media where it is today. The saying that the press can make or break leaders was made manifest in the United States when President Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 over the Watergate scandal. That could not happen in most African countries because our leaders, their immediate families and cronies are above the law. They flout the law with impunity and hold the ordinary citizens answerable under the same law. How many parliaments do we have in Africa that are prepared to stand up to the abuses of their constitutions by their presidents, or prime ministers? There are very few that dare do that.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, having taken a look at the Liberian Media over the past years, we may now turn to the task before us, that is, to address you on the topic : THE LIBERIAN MEDIA MARCH TO 2003 : What hope for a successful non-violent elections?

The relevance of the topic under discussion lies in the fact that Liberians are totally frustrated over the miserable state of affairs that obtain under the NPP-led government which has been in power for over five years. Their frustration, which is understandable, is seen against the backdrop of the government failure to fulfill any of its many campaign promises it made to Liberians in 1997. After five years in power, nothing seems to be working in the country in terms of basic social services. Coupled with that, we have had a war without end which has dislodged a sizeable number of our people making them internally displaced. There obviously has to be a way forward so that the dignity of the people of this country may once more be restored. This is the reason why I believe that elections being the cornerstone of democracy is the possible way forward only if we put certain mechanisms in place to ensure that there is confidence in the system from the very beginning. In order for people to make sound judgment in electing who should lead them, they ought to be educated on the relevance of elections in a democratic setting. The only power that a Liberian aged 18 or above has is his/her vote in determining who should constitute the leadership of his/her country. We have said time and again that that can only be achieved through the ballot box and, not through the barrel of the gun. Towards that end, I am of the conviction that the Liberian Media March to 2003 is very challenging. Since the role of the media is essentially to educate and have the rest of us informed, it has to begin that exercise by ensuing that all the necessary steps required for the holding of free, fair, and transparent elections are put in place. Both the print and electronic media have to make provisions for educating our people about the process leading to, and the essence of voting in elections.

In my view, the following five steps are necessary conditions for the holding of a free, fair, and transparent democratic elections in 2003. They include:

1. Creation of conducive security environment;

2. The resettlement of the Internally Displaced People (IDP) and, the encouragement of refugees to return home;

3. Reconstitution of the Elections Commission as demanded by stake holders;

4. National Census followed by the demarcation of constituencies; and,

5. Equal access to the state media by all the contending political parties.

A conducive security environment In order for all the contending political parties to take part in the forth coming elections, each party has to have confidence in the security establishment on the ground. According to the reality in the country, the security forces on the ground leave much to be desired in terms of providing safety for all during the 2003 general and presidential elections. In the face of the lack of confidence in the current state security arrangement, most of them being unconstitutional, the best that one can opt for is a stabilization force to be invited in the country with a clear mandate to disarm all unlawful security forces, thus guaranteeing every stake holder safety. That call has been made by some Liberians including participants at the National Conference that we are told is now on recess. I believe the PUL should help in educating the population of the wisdom in having a neutral stabilization force. Such a measure, if supported by all will automatically bring about the end of the on going war. In the interim, the government, civil society and LURD should engage in a dialogue aimed at ending the war. The overtures made by President Lasana Conteh over three weeks ago should be taken to the logical conclusion by Liberia and Sierra Leone so that a comprehensive peace may be pursued. There should be a total rejection of the idea of a war going on why elections are allowed to take place. To go into elections in the midst of war would be suicidal to say the least.

Resettlement of the IDP When all the belligerent forces are disarmed, the IDP will naturally return to their respective villages and towns. They do not take pride in being at the various displaced camps. The only reason why most of them are in the displaced camps is because the government is unable to protect them in their natural habitat in the face of rebel attack. That also holds true for the refugees who are yearning to return home. For the past four years, the government has been assuring the IDP of a quick victory over the rebels to facilitate their return, but to no avail. We need to appreciate the magnitude of the suffering that our people are going through at the various displaced camps. Any further attempt at keeping them in those dehumanizing camps will only show a total lack of concern for their welfare.

Reconstitution of ECOM The issue of the reconstitution of the Elections Commission has been raised so often. The idea is along the same line as that of the security arrangement which has to do with confidence in an institution. There has been instances where the ECOM positions on issues seem to be pro-NPP. In the event where the NPP violates rules governing political parties, ECOM can at best remain mute. It is therefore necessary for an understanding to be reached with all stake holders and the government in finding a common ground on the expansion of the commission. Here again, we expect the Liberian Media to play an active role in all these developments that relate to the holding of free, fair and transparent elections.

National Census Since Liberia is expected to hold elections under the Majoritarian system as opposed to the Proportional representation system, the holding of census is an imperative. I am cognizant of the fact that to conduct census requires time and money. With the declared commitment of administration should put aside seed money for the conduct of a census. If the international community see a good will from the side of the government the Liberian government to the holding of elections as scheduled, the Taylor of Liberia by contributing an initial amount to ECOM for the purpose of conducting census, such funds will certainly be matched by the international community.

October 2003 is just a year away from now. If we are serious, the process should begin now, not later. I can also say that the GOL does indeed have the resources required to jump start the process. It is simply the question of the responsible authorities having the political will to facilitate the release of the requisite funds.

Equal access to the state owned media Experience in the past has shown that the incumbent will always want to monopolize the state owned media in electioneering period, making it to appear that the opposing parties do not have entitlement to the state media. That trend has to change to allow every party to have equal access to the government media under a well defined rule that will determine how much air time should be allotted to each party and the cost associated with it.

I am of the view that we can have a successful non-violent elections if the above mechanisms are put in place. Violence does not fall from the sky like a rain. It is the product of wicked men who do not have any remorse. I took part in the 1985 elections.

Although Mr. Samuel Doe stole that elections, there was no violence associated with the process. The media was also vigilant in reporting malpractices associated with those elections such as the burning of ballots. Interestingly enough, the state owned media, especially the electronic ones covered the electoral process through out the country. That made the Liberian people to accept the fact that indeed the elections were rigged. The PUL can follow the example of the Liberian Media's role in the 1985 elections.

However, a sure way of having a non-violent elections is to first bring the war to an end.. My fear is that if the Government of Liberia remains intransigent in refusing to accept the idea of a stabilization force, there may not be anything call a credible elections come 2003. The media should do all it can to begin serious work by sensitizing the population about the need to address the above points properly before elections are held. The stakes are too high, hence we should not allow any one person or a group of people to determine the future of this country by attempting to manipulate the electoral process. Let me end with another quote from G. Henry Andrews : "Far too often in this society we tend to think that the best way to demonstrate the magnitude of authority we command is to be as callous, as ruthless, and as arrogant as possible. Any individual placed in authority by the conscious choice of his fellow men, or by circumstances that sometimes dictate their own direction, must establish respectable authority by his own behavior, by the nature of his relations with other men. Threats of humiliation and extermination do not build genuine respect and loyalty. They create fear, and those who seek to establish authority by instilling fear in effect condemn the society to a state of underdevelopment worse than can be imposed by economic factors."

Ladies and gentlemen of the Liberian Media, this is the challenge that we have on hand. We can not shirk our responsibilities. It is only with good governance in place which believes in the rule of law, accountability, transparency, can there be peace and stability in Liberia. Anything that may tend to circumvent the democratic process will only continue the spiral of violence that has engulfed the country. Let us all strive to ensure that democratic elections are held next year without hindrance. That is not asking too much of anyone. I thank you all.

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