Let the Pretense of a Democracy
July 18, 2000
Since the cessation of hostilities with the installation of Charles Taylor as President in Liberia, his Government's onslaught on civil institutions vital for the promotion of democracy has intensified. Despite barren pronouncements on the values of democracy, the Taylor regime has opted to practice a crude form of totalitarianism and the media have become his prime targets, in the absence of political opposition. We call on the Government to stop the pretenses of running a democracy when its policies and actions point to a brutal entrenchment of a dictatorship tied around the whims of one individual, and supported by his ever mushrooming cheering squads.
In recent weeks, Taylor and his notorious security operatives intensified their intimidation and harassment of journalists at The New Democrat newspaper, forcing the paper to suspend publication in view of death threats against the staff. Fearing imminent death, some editors have resigned. This recent campaign of terror against the paper began after the publication of an article speculating how his Vice President died. Furious over its contents, Taylor threatened that he would "personally move" against The New Democrat journalists and become "ferocious" with them. Since then, his security men have haunted the journalists, visiting their homes and threatening elimination. But this is not the paper's first encounter with Taylor and his terror machine. In 1996, The New Democrat's offices and equipment, including printing presses, were ordered burnt by Taylor. At a press conference following the destruction of the paper's facilities, a satisfied Taylor asked during a live radio press conference: "The New Democrat, are you still around?" This was convincing evidence that he personally ordered the destruction of the paper, convinced that it would never emerge due to the tremendous loss in a dead economy.
Another example of Taylor's hatred against the free press is the continued illegal closure of Star Radio. To our amazement and disappointment this banditry act has been accepted by Liberians and international actors who define democracy as having one set of values for Africans and another for "better" breeds. Overnight, Taylor and his cronies decreed that Star Radio, the best in the country in terms of disseminating news on the airwaves and on the Internet, was harmful to their objectives. It was therefore banned, with Taylor vowing that it would remain banned as long as he is President. He claimed that Star Radio is opposed to his Government. Since then, the protests have ceased and business continues as usual to the satisfaction of the corrupt tyrant. In an astonishing twist of logic, the answer to this blatant disregard for the rule of law and democratic values has been the launching of another international financial appeal for another radio station, the Catholic-owned Veritas, which was shutdown along with Star and thereafter reopened. We believe that it is such appeasement, an unfortunate decision to live with tyranny in the name of convenience, that finally sends societies in flames. This was the experience under Samuel Doe. There are no reasons to expect a change in view of Taylor's current terror policies.
Furthermore, convinced that his policies are correct due to ominous silence against them, another independent radio station, the pioneering Radio Monrovia, was forced to close down in the midst of threats against staff. Its owner left the country. One of its best employees escaped from a kidnap plot hatched by one of Taylor's feared rebel generals and fled the country. Another employee was severely beaten for covering the funeral of slain opposition leader Samuel Dokie, his wife and two family members butchered by presidential bodyguards. He eventually was smuggled out of the country to avert death. Prior to this, Radio Monrovia's equipment were looted and transferred to Taylor-owned stations, which also operate, on state-owned and private transmitters looted and privatized by the warlord.
In this crusade against free ideas, threats against real or imagined opponents are unending, with journalists and human right activists viewed as uncompromising out of the country. Many of those remaining in the country, with few economic alternatives in view of harsh economic conditions rendering media institutions financial liabilities, have opted to serve the Government with the pretense of independence. In this façade of promoting the freedom of the press, the Government has extended its financial largesse to cooperating private newspapers, recently dishing out $10,000 to each "friendly" newspaper, according to reliable information. Stories from these newspapers are then carried by an Internet Service allegedly owned by the President and one of his cronies to sell Liberia as a democratic society in which the freedom of the press is preserved. But Star Radio and its reliable Internet Service remain banned.
Prior to these terror tactics against the media, the Government succeeded in dividing the indigent Press Union of Liberia, the umbrella organization of Liberian journalists. Paid government journalists and representatives from "friendly", privately owned media institutions formed a rival organization denouncing the Press Union of Liberia for condemning the Government's ban on Star Radio. This has led to the taming of the journalists union, forcing many to sing the songs of the regime for financial rewards. We believe that using state sources to silence critical media institutions while propping up private media that carry Government bulletins is counterproductive in the short run and sets a terrible precedence for democratization.
This is why we are calling on reputable human rights and democratic institutions to see the Liberian Government for what it is, a gang of corrupt tyrants determined to uproot whatever cornerstones of democratization are left in order to entrench their tyranny. While we commend those who believe that lobbying for funds to save civil institutions is the best option under the prevailing conditions, we believe that the best lobby Liberia needs now is one geared towards ensuring that basic freedoms as spelt out in the country's Constitution are preserved. Lobbying for funds and ignoring the urgent need to uphold the law is a policy that justifies misrule and lays the foundations for chaos. We have seen how UN agencies were subjected to severe looting sprees, with over $20 million lost in April 1996 alone during the Taylor-Kromah Monrovia Terror. Continued foreign financing of institutions in the absence of demanding and fostering security conditions for their growth and eventual independence entrenches dependence and kills sustainable development. Continued lobbying for funds while tyranny spreads encourages dictatorship, for there is no guarantee that those funds will not be made dysfunctional once the wishes of the dictator are not met as we have see in the case of Star Radio.
We believe that it is such double standards and appeasement as applied to Liberia that erode the cornerstone of democracy, making violence the only viable option for political change. Therefore, lobbying for money for one media entity while another remains banned and others are terrorized is a hypocritical action that justifies the brute policies of an increasingly intolerant regime installed over 250,000 corpses with promises of democratization.
As we launch a concerted campaign to internationally expose the Liberian Government's killing of the independent media, we must again warn that such strong-armed measures against the media and political opponents have failed in the past. They will fail again. But it is aftermath of policies instituted by dictators and political gangsters that we are concerned about. Zaire, Somalia, Uganda, are examples too recent to forget. Silence is the best friend of the tyrant.
Hence, we request that these unjustified acts against media institutions must stop. Those who are bent on denouncing violence when it suits them must see reason to equally and honestly condemn state-sponsored violence. To remain silent on the prevailing terror waged against journalists who prefer to be different in the exercise of their rights is to back violence in the long run, for where democratization is discouraged, violence becomes the option. Mr. Taylor would do well to abandon the charade of being a democratically elected leader and instead rule by decree, which in fact is now the case.
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