Challenging The Local Press

By: James W. Harris

The Perspective

Posted March 12, 2002

As an observer of US foreign policy especially as it relates to the West African nation of Liberia, I have keenly studied and analyzed policy statements coming out of the US State department and its embassy in Monrovia, with the objective of understanding how US policies impacts countries around the world. Being the world’s leading democracy and only remaining super-power, any US policy - whether positive or negative - towards a particular country has the tendency of undoubtedly impacting that country, domestically and internationally.

That is why when I recently came across two separate stories that were linked to senior officials of the US government, which to me seemed to have contradicted each other regarding the US actual position on the ongoing turmoil in Liberia, I hastily wrote an article highlighting their obvious differences. But to my amazement and disappointment, my article ended up on the editorial "chopping board"(and correctly so, thanks to my editors) simply because I had used some 'questionable' information that was published in a local newspaper and highly inaccurate at best.

Despite my disappointment, I really had no complaints as the action taken by my editors at the magazine was well justified. As a journalist with a career spanning well over twenty years, I believe that the pinnacle of journalism is its commitment to truth and accuracy. A journalist can easily ruin his or her reputation by publishing untruths or falsehoods. This may come about by the failure to check and crosscheck sources, deliberately misreporting, and lack of professionalism, among many others.

You see, I’m the kind of journalist that take great pride in every work that I do (even if I’m not being paid for it), knowing fully well how easily I could ruin my reputation by feeding my audience with the wrong or inaccurate information (although in this particular case, I was not wrong for relying on a newspaper report as many writers usually do). Naturally, like many others in this rather tricky news business, I normally give equal credit to articles and news stories published by various sources, unless I specifically have a very good reason to otherwise question their ‘accuracy’.

Furthermore, the credibility of a journalist, or news institution for that matter, has always been linked to the ‘truthfulness and accuracy’ of the stories and articles that they publish. This is true even under the most difficult circumstances. And so, there’s absolutely no excuse for a newspaper or any other mass media outfit (radio, TV, etc.) to publish stories that are grossly inaccurate. Because if they do, they would find out in a short time that their audiences had already abandoned them due to the lack of credibility.

Like many Liberians, who are constantly starved for news or any bit of information on the distressing situation in our country, I too had come to rely on newspapers that are published in Liberia. My preference for Liberian newspapers stem from the mere fact that the local press has and always will be there (on the ground) - simple as that! But due to my recent experience, I’ve frankly begun to have second thoughts about relying on the local media, unless I can thoroughly verify the information that I’m dealing with at the time. For this particular situation, let’s just say that this incident is isolated.

In reference to the above, I recently came across an article that was carried by the Monrovia-based newspaper, the POLL Watch, on January 11, 2002. The headline of the article in question read: “As Liberia Enters 2002! [?] US Gov’t. Praises Rule of Law.” Well, anyone reading this particular story for the first time, without having the opportunity to see the original text from which the story was derived, would have been left with the wrong impression that the US was actually satisfied with the so-called ‘rule of law’ in Liberia. This was a misleading headline which was further from the truth as I later found out..

“Having carefully followed developments in Liberia as much as rule of law, justice and respect for human rights is concerned, the country [Liberia] is now picking up interestingly”, the paper wrongly quoted the US Ambassador to Liberia, Mr. Bismarck Myrick, as saying, among others. But after reading the full text of the Ambassador’s remarks that was subsequently sent to me by my editor, the POLL’s story was very inaccurate to say the least.

The fact of the matter is that when Ambassador Myrick presented several law books to the Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA) on behalf of the US State Department, he, instead, raised the same issues concerning the on-going Liberian conflict just like others in his government, including, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Ambassador Robert Perry.

Here is a direct quote from Ambassador Myrick’s remarks at the same event that was held on December 31, 2001 and covered by the POLL. He said, among other things: “…as I have pointed out previously, no democratic nation can realistically hope to advance without respect for the rule of law and protection of the dignity of its citizens. While this realization unfortunately has not taken root everywhere, I remain confident that it will eventually come to flourish here in Liberia through the efforts of the Bar Association and other like-minded civil society organizations in partnership with government”, adding, “government [Liberian], however, will have to show more enlightenment and willingness to support an enabling environment for the growth of democratic practices.”

As you can tell, his remarks sharply contrast those that were erroneously reported by the POLL. Moreover, they were very consistent with previously well-known US government position on the troubling Liberian crisis. At no time in his remarks did the Ambassador say that his government had praised the rule of law in Liberia as the paper had implied.

In fact, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news service, “Ambassador Myrick has [recently] issued a strongly worded statement calling on President Charles Taylor to do much more [apparently referring to human rights issues, press freedom, law and order, etc.] to bring lasting peace and stability to his country.” Again, the Ambassador’s remarks definitely were in line with the “official” US policy on Liberia and also clearly support the State Department’s latest report on the country.

Perhaps, I could have easily dismissed the POLL Watch news story as being irrelevant or completely ignore it were it not for one thing - that the local press (media) MUST be immediately urged to put into daily practice the principles or elements of ‘good’ journalism, putting TRUTH and ACCURACY above all else. Sadly, on these two key elements, there’s more (much, much more) to be desired on the part of the local press. And I’m surely not saying this just to criticize, but to awaken the local media as to their utmost responsibilities to the Liberian people - to provide them with factual and accurate information at all times, because it is based on the “quality” on that information that they’ll eventually be able to render sound judgment in critical times like these. Nothing is more significant than this, realizing that information is power!

But now that I’ve gotten an idea about just who is publishing the POLL [reportedly former Information Minister, Joe Mulbah, one of President Taylor’s stooges, who in the recent past had physically engaged his Deputy Minister and ‘opportunistic comrade’, J. Milton Teahjay, in a comical fist fight], I’m not a bit surprised at the paper for such flagrant inaccuracy and deliberate distortion in reporting Ambassador’s Myrick’s remarks. Had we relied totally on the POLL Watch’s report, we would have been very unfair to the Ambassador and also risked losing our hard-earned credibility. Again, I certainly hope that this was just an isolated case of press irresponsibility!

On another observation, the NEWS newspaper, also based in Monrovia and supposedly one of the best in the country, published a heartbreaking sexual assault story recently, involving an under-aged girl (about 9 years old). The appalling headline on this story read: “The Girl Was Fingered, Not Raped…Medical Practitioners Testify.” But what’s wrong with the story, you may ask? Well, what’s deadly wrong with this particular story is the reporter’s or news organization’s apparent lack of judgment or journalism standards.

In many countries around the globe, the common practice or standard employed by reporters and news entities is to simply leave out the names of a minor (under 18) involved in such a crime so as not to jeopardize the little child’s life or future later on. But this simple rule was breached when the NEWS published the girl’s full name in the article along with other excruciating details about the crime itself. Most of all, mentioning her name in the story was highly inappropriate and unnecessary since it did not serve any particular public interest - no wonder why Judge Felicia Coleman of the Criminal Court “A”, where the trial was being held, refused to allow journalists to further cover the proceedings.

According to the same paper, Judge Coleman has since banned reporters from covering the testimonies of other witnesses in the case. But who can blame her for that! This shows that the local press certainly has a long way to go in terms of using good judgment and improving the “quality” of their reporting, among other things.

In countries, like, Great Britain and the US, journalists are barred from using the names, addresses, etc., of a minor [child] either as the result of a legislation or ‘common decency’. Adhering to such a standard in the near future would definitely signal a fresh start for local journalists, especially so, since it would take nothing away from the story itself. Also, this has nothing absolutely to do with press freedom or the current state of emergency. It has everything to do with good old-time reporting.

It is in this context that I personally would like to challenge members of the local press (media) there to be cognizant about what and how they report on various events. The Press Union of Liberia (PUL), the Liberia Institute of Journalism (LIJ) and the School of Journalism at the University of Liberia (UL), could play a major and meaningful role in improving the “quality” of journalism in the war-devastated country.

As Liberians continue to explore ways to finally end their on-going senseless war, resolve their differences and hopefully move their dying nation forward, the role of the local media cannot be sufficiently emphasized. Liberians at all times MUST be given the critical information that they would need to make “informed” decisions that could possibly make or break them.

Moreover, by improving the quality and standard of their work, the local press could certainly continue to enjoy the support of all Liberians (at home and in the Diaspora) as well as the goodwill of the international community, I must submit. There lies the challenge.

If the local media must gain credibility and respectability, they must religiously stick with the truth. Apparently due to the usual harsh clampdown on the press by the notorious Taylor regime, everything coming out of the country these days seem to be mere propaganda or highly inaccurate reports. But even that, we cannot hide from the truth as a people nor is there any excuse for the local media to deliberately misinform the citizenry.

Finally, as we look forward anxiously to a post-Taylor Liberia, the local media must use this time to prepare themselves to fulfill their sacred collective mission - to primarily keep the Liberian people adequately informed about events taking place there - good or bad - by giving them ‘accurate and truthful’ information that they would need to make decisions in the greater interests of their country.

When he delivered a powerful and brilliant speech to the PUL on December 9, 2001, veteran Liberian lawyer, Counselor Tiawon S. Gongloe, hit the nail right on the head when he said among other things: “I believe the only thing a journalist should guard against is reporting what is not true. To give false information is an abuse of freedom of the press; hence, journalist should avoid giving false information. Democracy cannot build on false information.” It definitely could not have been said any better!

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