A Conversation with Liberia's Information Minister E. Reginald Goodridge

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 10, 2002

Editor's Note: Since the imposition of the state of emergency on February 8, 2002, police brutality with impunity is on the rise. Human rights activists including a political leader have been arrested. Former Chief Justice Frances Johnson Morris, for example, was stripped naked and thrown into a jail cell with men and harden criminals. In her case, the government claimed that it was due to mistaken identity, but failed to name the person the police chief intended to arrest. Has that person been arrested? Tiawan Gongloe, who was purportedly called for questioning for the speech he delivered, was tortured by Taylor’s security. Though government claims that Mr. Gongloe is a free man and has decided to remain in the country at his own volition, he was recently prevented from traveling to the Sierra Leone to join the Carter Center delegation to observe the general and presidential elections in that country. In fact, he is barred from leaving the country - even for a medical treatment. But Liberia’s Information Minister, who is barred by UN sanctions regime imposed on Liberia for the Liberian government’s role in fueling the Sierra Leone brutal civil war, is in the United States for “medical treatment”.

Besides, one of the recent victims of the clampdown on the press is the Analyst newspaper. The only news organs that are allowed to operate in the country without being harassed are LCN and other media entities owned by Mr. Taylor, while Information Minister Goodridge serves as co-chairman of LCN (private media entity) without any concern about conflict of interest.

Recently, Abdoulaye Dukule met with Minister E. Reginald Goodridge at the Liberian Embassy in Washington, DC, and had a conversation with him regarding the state of affairs in Liberia:

Abdoulaye Dukule: What is the situation of the press in Liberia today?

Minister Goodridge: I think that the press is in good shape there is a very warm relation between the press union and the ministry of information... and there are also very good relations between the government media and the independent press. One of the things we did when we took over the ministry was to form what we call the Media Advisory Board. That Board is comprised of managing editors of all the medias both print and broadcast and this board meets sometime quarterly, sometimes monthly, sometimes bi-monthly depending on issues at stake. Philip Wesseh, one of the foremost editors is the chairman of the board. We have collaborated very well at times resolving some of the sticky issues and confronted at times because of closure of a newspaper or for bringing in a journalist for questioning about a questionable articles that pinch on national security appear in a newspaper. Having said that, Liberia is presently under state of emergency and we are proud to say that even with this state of emergency no journalists is in jail and no journalist has been brutalized, there is no newspaper closed and no opposition politician is in jail. We are proud of what is happening between the Liberian government and the media.

After fighting it for a long time, you have recently allowed Radio Star to go on the air and the PUL press to operate. Why the delay?

There were some sticky issues. Liberian law prohibits ownership of media institutions in the hands of foreigners. The Star Radio equipment was brought in the country by the IFES group under the auspices of the USAID. Of course, at the time it was the interim period, the interim government thinking that they wanted to create a level playing field, facilitated the opening of the Star Radio. But the acquisition of the license was unusual, because Charles Snetter, who at the time ran Radio Monrovia, also a license for a short wave station, so he made a deal with the Star Radio people that in effect gave the Star Radio the license. When the current government was inaugurated, we reviewed all these things and we found that the senior management at Star Radio was not a Liberian but an American and a few Liberians worked there. In essence, we felt that the ownership of Star Radio contravened the laws of Liberia. It was shut down under the condition that the station is turned over to the government or that the license is turned over to a group of Liberians to conform to the laws. In Mozambique, a similar situation happened a few years ago. A station like Star Radio was set up for the elections and later was turned over to the government and we thought similar situation should obtain. We took lot of beating not only from those who worked at the station but also who those at the [American] embassy. The embassy said it could not turn over the license to a private Liberian group or to the government. We were in a deadlock, that's how the closure came about.

A similar thing happened with the printing press that was given to the press union of Liberia. It was USAID that gave the equipment to the Carter Center.

The Carter Center being a foreign entity did not have under our laws the right to operate a printing press in Liberia. We made that clear and when it was understood, they gave the press to the Press Union of Liberia. But they did so under the conditions that final use and operation of the printing press be dependent on conditions set by the carter Center and the USAID. So we did not think this was unconditional ownership on the part of PUL and I personally worked on this issue with Mr. Kiazulu [who is] president of the PUL and we finally got the USAID to remove its conditionality and allow the PUL to use the printing press unconditionally. It was not that the Liberian government opposed the operations of these entities but their ownership contravenes the laws of Liberia. In case of Star Radio, the entire management has been changed and we have a Liberian management team and if this had been done a year ago, we would have solved the problem. So now the Liberian government has no objection to Star Radio and the printing press of PUL being operated.

Knowing the state of relationship between the US and Liberia and the fragile state of things after the war, would it not have been easier to just let those things operate?

It is not that simple. Our system of governance is patterned after that of the United States. And that is what we are doing, the rule of law, based on our constitution. To violate our laws based on sentiments would have been counterproductive. For an American citizen to be granted a license to operate a radio station can take 8-12 years. And no foreign person can ever operate a radio station in this country, even if you are a naturalized American. So these laws were patterned after those of US and nobody should expect us to violate our laws.

Who owns LCN?

LCN is a private corporate entity and I am co-chairman of the board.

What happened to The Analyst newspaper?

What happened to The Analyst was unusual. Theirs was a matter of editorial judgment. Certain articles that appeared in the analyst tended to raise sentiments negatively, particularly at the time the military were making inroads in the proximity of the capital. Certain articles presented an ambivalent view about the war. One of the articles cast a doubt about the reality of the war. Another one said that the war was not authentic and that the government cooked it up. This type of sentiments could send the wrong signal. We called in the editor to find out if he knew something the government did not know. The paper was closed down but the editor was not arrested, the equipment was never touched, a lock was put on the door until the government conducted its investigation as to the basis of such editorial approach. Once we found out that the investigation was completed, the Analyst was allowed to open.

In essence what they published went against your state of emergency?

Yes it did. In a state of emergency when you have all sorts of terrorists acts and mayhem and the breakdown of law and order on the border of the capital and somebody writes to cast a doubt about the veracity of this attack, it is a concern and we want to know if there is something they know [that] we don't know. Because we know these attacks are real.

The human rights record of your government has been questioned, the most recent case being the issue of Gongloe, which was also linked to the article in the Analyst.

Tiawon Gongloe situation was unfortunate. The government regretted the incident. What led to his arrest was that he was basically a human rights advocate, what we call in Liberia "poor man lawyer". We are good friends and I am one of his clients. But he did go into Guinea, particularly at the time when relations between our two countries were not so cordial and with the type of cross border activities that brought tension between Liberian and the Guinean governments. He went in there and accused President Taylor directly of being involved in the destabilization of the Mano River Union. We thought such a speech went beyond the scope of his human rights advocacy. He was called in to give account of what he said, which is normal. If you accuse the president of Liberia of creating anarchy, of all kinds of atrocities, accusing him of being primarily involved with the destabilization of the region, you have to answer questions. Therefore the police called him in for an investigation. While he was in police custody, the prisoners asked him for money. He went into the prison with a suit and a tie, which is not normal. Many of the prisoners knew him and when he entered the cell, they asked him for money and he gave them ten dollars he had. And they said that was not enough, they submitted him to various things and he became vocal and they beat him up. The government immediately took him to the hospital and provided security and when he recuperated, the government turned him over to Bishop Francis. This type of things happens in prison everywhere in the world.

Don't you question the judgment of the police in this matter? How could they just pick up somebody like Gongloe and throw him in a cell with common criminals for things he said? He has not killed anyone or stolen anything?

What he said was not a verbal mistake, it was a prepared text, a speech that was given in Conakry and reproduced in a local paper. It was premeditated. I don't think anybody is above the law. We don't discriminate as to who goes into what cell. He was put in holding cell where people are kept until it is decided where they go. We don't have particular cells for particular types of people.

This is not the only time police arrests human rights advocates. Not too long ago, the former chief justice, a woman, was thrown in a cell with male criminals...

Well, one was the case of mistaken identity, which we admitted to. The other one was a situation that happens in prison cells. Sometimes people tend to judge Liberia unfairly. There are all sorts of stories all over the world, not the least here... Sometime people try to reach for a wallet and get shot... Police makes mistakes everywhere in the world. We were able to arrest the situation before it got out of hands. Yes it is bad for the image of Liberia but again, many people are seeing to it that the image is as dirty as it can be. All we can do is continue to work with our friends, with our detractors and the media and let them know that we are not what they think we are. For Gongloe, I am happy that the incident is behind us. Gongloe said he is going to remain in the country to work for the stability of the country.

Let's talk the war. Is the government talking to LURD?

Our position is that LURD is a group of terrorists. They bear tactical characteristics of terrorists. They are cowards, they hide in the bushes, they hide in the ghettoes, they have no defined leadership and they have no defined political agenda. All they have done for the past four years is destabilize the country. They attack civilian centers, abduct young children. Recently they abducted a priest and 60 blind people and they use these people as human shields. We are not opposed to dialogue and we are prepared to talk to anybody. But these people said they are not prepared to talk to President Taylor. They said they are not even prepared to have discussion in West Africa but in South Africa, Geneva or in the United States. They boycotted the Abuja preparatory talks on peace and reconciliation, arguing they could not afford the plane tickets to go to Abuja. The government has been on the defensive for the past three to four years and in any of these incidents our troops never crossed the border into Sierra Leone or Guinea. Our forces are simply defending the country while these people have overwhelming firepower. We have the arms embargo against us but by virtue of our experience in that type of warfare we are able to contain them in certain areas and sometimes ambush some of them and minimize the damage they will cause otherwise to the country.

You have accused the Guinean government on many occasions, why not approach President Conte and talk to him?

It is not just the Liberian government that accused Guinea, the United Nations has acknowledged that fact, the International Crisis Group has put up an extensive report on that issue but nevertheless we believe President Conte has done well. Particularly since the Rabat meeting where he and President Kabbah and President Taylor met and came up with a blue print for ending this conflict and building confidence among themselves. They decided to organize meetings between the ministers of foreign affairs and ministers of security and that led to the MRU security protocol. There are monitors along the borders to prevent any type of cross border attacks. The next level is the economic rail, where the three countries will begin to work on economic development issues. The policy of MRU pushed by President Taylor is to move away from conflict and towards economic integration and establish.

Talking about conflict, one would say that the major conflict in Liberia is in the political circle, because all 12 opposition candidates of the last elections have fled the country...

I don't know who are the 12 you are referring to. I know there are 17 political parties in Liberia. When the president had his monthly consultative meeting with the opposition last time, all of them were there except Alhaji Kromah and Boima Fahnbulleh. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was there so if you have 15 out of [seventeen] you can say there is progress. There might be two or three making noise outside but many admit they want to come home. They want to work some mechanism so that they can come home. This country is hard, no matter how much money one makes, and with the extended family at home to support it gets harder. We are working now toward the national reconciliation conference in Monrovia and we want every one to come home. This national conference is not just about political dialogue but about what we are, where we came from and where we are going. We need to revisit history 100 years ago, what's opposing tribes, etc.

How ready is the government to hold the elections in 2003?

We are ready and we welcome it. We are confident that we will win by an even bigger margin. And those who favor elections must come and work with us. Let people put an end to the terrorist acts and join the political process.

You talk about reconciliation but you put human rights advocates in jail and then you accuse opposition leaders of supporting armed dissidents? How do you expect them to go home?

It is not the government that linked these people to the LURD. We have in our custody prisoners of war. We have Kamajor fighters, we have Guinean nationals in our custody and we also have lot of LURD prisoners and they have been made available to the press. They have said who supports them. Recently, Supuwood went to Abuja and said that he was a member of LURD just to retract after the Gbarnga fiasco.

You are talking about elections, reconciliation and so forth, but you have a state of emergency that curtails free speech. How do you expect opposition leaders to go home?

Regarding the state of emergency, I think in the next 90 days, with the type of dialogue that is going on between the MRU presidents, we will be able to see our way clear and it could be removed. If we are able to bring this war under control by August or September, the state of emergency will be lifted and we will have the whole year ahead to prepare for the elections.

You are inviting people to your reconciliation conference with the state of emergency still hanging over their heads?

The state of emergency does not stop people from going and coming out. The leading political opposition leader Mrs. Sirleaf has gone in and out under the state of emergency. No one bothered her, there was no curfew and there is no massive arrest of people. There are no political prisoners, no journalists in jail, so this is the most humane state of emergency Africa has known. The whole purpose of the emergency was to bring home the reality of war.

What message to Liberians in the US?

My message is simple. No matter what you have to say about your country, it is your country. Those of us who are at home and working for the country, we consider it as an honor and we have no rancor against anyone who may have misconceptions about what they think we are doing or not doing. At the Chicago conference, the government made its position clear as to what Liberians can do for their country. If all the Liberians in this country could put aside one dollar a month, put it in an account and use it to build a school, a clinic or anything of that sort, it would help greatly. There could be a million Liberians in the US, more or less. The Israelis are supporting and building their country the same way. Jews all over the world pump billions of dollars into Israel and we could do the same thing. They don't castigate their country. But I guess 180 years of freedom has made us that way. Can Liberians do something positive for their country? There are more orphanages in Liberia today then hospitals. Our message is: don't just look at what you see on the Internet or on the radio. This is the most intelligent and responsible government our country has ever had. We take decisions in the best interest of our sovereignty and dignity. Don't let that blind you to the fact that Liberia needs you. Let's start a dialogue about Liberia.

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