Tyranny and the Media
February 24, 2001
President Charles Taylor's war on the media, now culminating in the banning of 4 newspapers, the arrest of 4 journalists on the hilarious charge of espionage, along with reports that the detained men have been tortured as is customary in today's Liberia, amplify once again that elections do not necessarily lead to democracy. In Taylor's Liberia free thoughts and tyranny are finding it impossible and incompatible to co-exist.
For those who doubted the ex-warlord's authoritarian nature, the arrests and banning and closure of newspapers, more than 3 years after Liberians were assured that a new dawn was born following the death of the tyrannical Samuel K. Doe, these moves, and many more, should convince them that darker days are ahead.
In an attempt to conceal his real motives for banning the papers, Taylor injects the issue of alleged non-tax payment. However, according to the Ministry of Finance, the reality in Liberia is that the President's cronies, ministers, and their relatives, pay no taxes. The Ministry says members of the feared Anti-Terrorist Units (the President's personal bodyguards) have appointed themselves as clearing agents for goods at all ports for businessmen prepared to pay their price. A senator is on trial by his colleagues for announcing that state officials are spending 24-hours carving out means to loot the country. According to documents in the possession of The Perspective, crooked individuals depleting the forests are paying President Taylor's brother, Bob Taylor, "trucks" to avoid paying US$60,000.00 in taxes on their timber exports. Thus the issue of tax payment is only a smokescreen presented to outsiders for convenience. Taylor's real objective is to silence objective and balanced journalism. He simply cannot live with the competition of ideas.
But the injustice is this selective application of the "law" can be seen by the fact that Taylor's appointees at various banking institutions, following the seating of the State Council prior to the elections, severely looted depositors' savings (including those of some newspapers) to finance their military and political adventures. Now, no one dares to demand money stolen by individuals, armed robbers in the true meaning of the word, demanding taxes from their victims. The looting of personal properties and savings, Taylor's trademark during the war, continues today.
The dictator recently informed supporters that his problems are the making of the Opposition bent on "harassing" him. Determined to bring all opponents to his level, he declared, "They harassed Tubman; they harassed Tolbert; they harassed Doe. Now, they are harassing Ghanky Taylor." In sympathy, his supporters, including Senators, cabinet ministers, and his child soldiers now men and women running the state, cheered.
But this pedestrian notion of leadership is the bedrock of Liberia's past and present leadership problems. Opting for the presidency in a democracy means being prepared to rule and live by its dictates. A country is not one's private entity. A president is not a private individual solely concerned with personal problems that are outside the public domain. A president deals with the lives of the people, their concerns, their fears, and their mounting problems. Hence, a president claiming harassment because the people, as spelt out in the Constitution, demand justice and a halt to the looting of their resources, belongs in the kitchen to cook for his children, not in leadership position.
Moreover, Taylor is perhaps the foremost contemporary captain of harassment of previous Liberian leaders. In the United States, he is known to have participated paraded empty caskets at the United Nations symbolizing death to whoever was president in Liberia. And most prominent of all, he tore the country apart, reduced it to pathetic levels with the aid of child soldiers because he wanted the presidency. Nothing stood in his path - power plants, electric dams, personal homes, all were legitimate targets for his presidency. Now as president, he is crying against "harassment". As the worst president Liberia has had in recent times, he wants to be left alone to kill the Liberian people as he wishes, to loot as he can and to lie without challenge. Not to leave him and his cronies alone is defined as "harassment" for which he has vowed to chase his opponents "in their mothers' wombs."
The arrest of the journalists and the banning of newspapers are linked to the fulfilment of this vow and nothing else. These draconian moves have nothing to do with the so-called revelation of military secrets to a foreign power. The continuous detention of innocent people on nonsensical charges is the continuation of a clampdown on the press that begun since Taylor initiated his war of anarchy in 1989. In the absence of viable political parties, the media (and students) have become his enemy number one. Even before he could be crowned president by Abacha's Nigeria, he had vowed to institute "jungle justice" against his critics, vowing to "catch them," meaning to execute journalists, just as he executed several journalists during the war, including a team of Nigerian journalists.
Consequently, his first obsession was to loot and privatise state media entities to form his mouthpiece of deception, the Liberia Communication Network, now financed with state resources but run by his cronies. State-owned media establishments have been forced to close down under the guise of enhancing the private ownership of the media, his ownership. On the other hand, to foster his deception of allowing the "independent media" to exist, he has co-opted newspapers and other media outlets owned by supporters, diverting public funds to them in order to keep them floating as fine examples of media freedom. Media outlets viewed as critical have been shutdown or forced to shutdown. Despite national and international appeals, Star Radio, brought into the country to balance the one-sided flow of information led by his media empire, remains closed. Staff of the New Democrat, under intimidation and continuous harassment, fled the country. Several independent journalists have been forced into exile following attempts on their lives.
These developments tell us that the independent media, necessary in the promotion of democratic values in atmosphere of tolerance, is dead in Taylor's Liberia. With this, any dream of democratisation, the holding of free and fair elections, remains a fantasy for those determined to sell the charade. Contrary to the law, Taylor has banned independent newspapers, sending clear signals of what to expect as tyranny raises its deadly heads.
The charge against the journalists - espionage - is the same charge levied against Britain's Channel 4 journalists who were doing a documentary to depict Taylor's local and regional horrors. It is not the detained journalists' alleged "espionage" that angered the dictator, but their courage in revealing and challenging his lies. He had told his cheering squad that the Liberian state was poorer than he, and that he was therefore not siphoning funds from it as claimed. Yet, evidence showed that he had taken US$23,000 for personal greeting cards and US$50,000 to repair helicopters possibly ferrying guns and ammunition to his Sierra Leone Revolutionary United Front. Operating under a 2-months deadline to prove his divorce from the RUF, he sees such revelations as damaging to his game of intrigues and deception.
We believe that the continuing terror on the media means that no one is save in Taylor's Liberia. The tyrant is determined to chase everyone, including the media "into their mothers' womb". This is our burden. This is our nightmare. The curse must be removed if we are to survive as a respectable people and as a nation in cohesion. A united front against tyranny is what Liberia needs. Tyranny and independent journalism cannot live in the same society. One must give way.