Warwick’s Guns Versus the Pen: Clash for Unceasing Press Freedom in Liberia

As Liberian journalists and friends of the media converged in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County to commemorate World Press Freedom Day under the theme: “Media-Security Relations: An Imperative for Consolidating Peace in Liberia”, they were eager to be edified in media and security issues and in this vein anticipated thought-provoking remarks that could highlight the stiff challenges and horrendous defacement.

  With such fascinating topic, the Press Union of Liberia – an umbrella for journalists and media institutions – was optimistic to cement cordial relationship between media practitioners and state security apparatus in an endeavor to ease journalists’ work to get hold of information, create a level playing field and foster mutual respect.

However, to the utmost surprise of most journalists and scores of other attendees, Othello Warwick, the Director of the Executive Protective Service took the podium to vituperate at members of the fourth estate branding them as “terrorists”, “disingenuous” and other provocative utterances. Warwick’s derogatory speech was further exacerbated when he asserted: “Be careful in questioning the integrity of Liberians.  Be careful, because you have your pen and [we have our guns].  And if you incriminate the character or integrity of Liberians like myself, we would come after you.”  This counter-productive statement on the part of Warwick, who works for the President and is being provided remuneration through taxpayers’ resources, is an affront to the tenet of democracy and gross violation of fundamental human rights and the organic law as expressed in the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia.  

From the genesis of this glorious land of liberty, our forefathers recognized the worth and dignity of every human person irrespective of creed, ethnic background, sex, place of origin or political affiliation to have the right to freedom of speech and free press.  In fact, it is expressed in the language of the Constitution of this Republic that “The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write and print, on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.”  So, it baffles many people to believe that under the regime of an acclaimed and influential world leader, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who used the media and so-called activists to consistently, persistently, and insistently rage perpetual criticisms on previous governments would decline from making any comment on the life-threatening, intimidating, condescending and insulting pronouncement emanating from her personal security chief.  Howbeit, many Liberians and foreigners alike are still awaiting the President to take decisive action to safeguard journalists from the Warwick’s rifles.     

Notwithstanding, a good number of people and political pundits are of the strongest conviction that in an emerging democracy like ours that experienced over fourteen (14) years of intermittent civil conflict, it is very disheartening, disappointing and worrisome for Warwick to utter such repulsive statement in a relatively fragile state gradually transitioning to a consolidated nation.  As a matter of fact, most people were shocked to learn that Warwick who vowed to create a friendly environment between citizens and members of the Executive Protective Service during a ceremony to mark his ascendency as Director of the elite and well-equipped security guard would at this time choose to go contrary.  Sadly, Warwick chose to vent out his agony against journalists and media institutions utilizing a forum organized to remind government of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession and at the same time inspired journalists and writers who continue to be harassed, attacked, detained and even given all sorts of inhumane treatment.  Being from a military background and long-time resident of the United States of America, Warwick should and must understand press freedom and freedom of expression.  

In the greatest nation on Earth where Director Warwick lived for so long, the President’s Schedule, Vice President’s Schedule as well as other senior members of the Cabinet daily schedules are released to journalists and even placed online for the general public; because of Americans’ fundamental belief in democratic principles.  To the contrary, Warwick has warned Liberian journalists not to ascertain information about presidential movement and activities. Lamentingly, Warwick accentuated that he considers any attempt to access the President of Liberia schedule as intrusion to the safety of the President and for him anyone who does that, the Executive Protection Service has the right to arrest said person without warrant.   Conversely, lot of people from the citadel of intellectualism and cradle of intelligentsia including legal practitioners and patriotic citizens termed Warwick’s assertion as unlawful, and disdainful to the founding documents and organic law.  Perhaps, Warwick mind needs to be unshackled so as to enable him fully comprehend the pivotal role of the media and journalists in consolidating Liberia’s fragile peace.

Role of the Media
The media plays significant role in strengthening and creating a wholesome functioning society, which enable people to freely express their opinions without fear or intimidation or favor.  It is the “watchdog” and “mirror” of the modern society that shapes the lives of the people and direction of the country while informing, educating and entertaining the populace.

Many journalists, bloggers and writers, who keep the wheel of the media turning, exert every effort to search for stories that make news even to the extreme.  Scores of passionate and promising media practitioners walk long distances and go beyond the ordinary rummage for information that matters most to the public.  Under whatsoever climatic conditions and prevailing circumstances, journalists travel to ascertain facts and happenings and perhaps investigate or analyze situations as they unfold.

The tremendous efforts and sacrifices bore by several journalists and media associates the world over have disrupted despotic regimes and exposed lapses, corruption, nepotism and other societal vices that have suppressed the ordinary people for far too long.  Whether it is Warwick’s assaults on peaceful journalists or consistent threats against young Liberian writers; journalists and writers and bloggers are eager and audacious to unearth and unveil every moment.  Even though other school of thought may argue that it is rather idealistic and simplistic to think that journalists give the public the true picture of what is going on in the world around them as proclaimed by Gibson Nyikadzino in an article titled “Fighting Wars through the Media”, however, people may criticize journalists for some of the excesses committed, but they tend to expect journalists to serve as watchdogs and mirror on the government, businesses and the public, enabling people to make informed decisions on the issues of the time.

Many astute scholars have propounded that the media is one of the most powerful tools of communication.  Besides, a renowned communication specialist Bourgault in 1995 divulged that the goals of development journalism are to “promote grassroots, non-violent, socially responsible, ecologically sensitive, personally empowering democratic, dialogical and humanistic forms of communication.”  Henceforth, it is without doubt that journalists do perform pivotal roles in ensuring information is publicized with possibly unequivocal clarity of the situation.

Reminiscing the Dark Days
The quest to disseminate information in Liberia has and continues to be met with stiff resistances and atrocious vandalism on the part of state actors and security agencies.  In spite of what is enshrined in the Constitution of this sweet land of liberty, Albert Porte – an illustrious pamphleteer – experienced untold and vicious tribulations for exposing corruption and inequality that existed in the society.  One account had it that Porte used to travel with a mat and toothbrush together with other items ready to be jailed by President Tubman because of a just cause to redeem Liberians from the doldrums of extreme poverty in the midst of abundance.   Though Albert Porte was humiliated, but his writings somewhat transformed the Tubman’s regime and bred many advocates who continue the struggle for social justice and equitable distribution of resources.

President William Richard Tolbert to some extent tolerated a high degree of freedom of speech and free press; nevertheless, the President frowned on publications and utterances that had the proclivity to disrupt and destabilize the country or incite people against constituted authority.  Besides, President Tolbert conferred upon Jesse Karnley of ELBC, the distinction of Officer in the Order of the Star of Africa to demonstrate his affection to safeguard journalists.  Even the self-professed “progressives” and some members of Tolbert’s cabinet can better attest to the fact that President Tolbert granted them opportunity to disseminate dissenting views on unfolding circumstances.  Though at some point in time the President vehemently arrested and detained those who opposed his regime as portrayed in the 1979 Rice Riot, which resulted into the manhandling of protesters, voluminous detentions and lots of deaths.

Notwithstanding, from all indications, massive ill-treatment of journalists and vandalism of media institutions in Liberia came into full swing after the coup d’état in 1980, which witnessed the ascendency of self-styled liberators.   The military establishment that took over the mantle of political leadership known as ‘People Redemption Council’ subjected many journalists to intimidation, browbeat, imprisonment and worse of all, murder.  For instance, Isaac Bantu, former President of the Press Union of Liberia expatiated in a story entitled “Violence in Liberia Extends to Journalists” that a young enterprising television journalist named Charles Gbenyon was arrested and butchered to death in November 1985 upon orders of then military ruler Samuel Kanyon Doe, reportedly for his antigovernment reporting.

Being entangled by uprising and civil unrest in the rural parts of the country, brisk advancement of rebels to the political capital, and perhaps repudiation of the Western world, the Doe’s government resorted to scapegoat journalists and media outlets as a conduit of venting displeasure.  As a result, many members of the then ruling establishment were openly or circuitously involved in sabotaging journalists and news agencies.    In fact, Gabriel Williams’ book captioned “Liberia: The Heart of Darkness: Accounts of Liberia’s Civil War and Its Destabilizing Effects in West Africa” revealed that it was individuals known to be government agents who set fire to the office of the Daily Observer.  This incident happened a day after the March 16, 1990, edition of the Observer which carried an article concerning the mystifying demise in Nimba County of General Philip Kemeh, former secretary general of the defunct ruling People Redemption Council (PRC).

Amidst the presence of a regional peace keeping force referred to as ECOMOG, journalists and media institutions still suffered mayhem and intimidation from the very peace keepers.  Accounts have it that in May 1991, Gabriel Williams, who is currently the minister counselor for press and public affairs in the United States of America then managing editor of the independent daily, The Inquirer along with the paper’s news editor and a reporter, were detained by commanders of ECOMOG.  These journalists were accused of smearing the image of the peacekeeping force and undermining security because of a report in The Inquirer linking a top brass of ECOMOG to gunrunning and smuggling of raw materials.

Besides, painstaking research disclosed that during former President Charles Taylor rule, objective journalists were labeled and branded “Dissident Collaborators”.  For typical example, Journalist Hassan Bility of the Analyst Newspaper was arrested with colleagues in June 2002 and held incommunicado for almost six months.  In addition, journalists of the News newspaper including managing director, Joseph Bartuah; editor-in-chief, Abdullah Dukuly; news editor Jerome Dalieh were indicted on charges of espionage.  These shrewd and passionate journalists were put behind bars as a consequence for reporting that the government had spent US$50,000 for helicopter repairs and US$23,000 on Christmas cards and souvenirs at a time the country’s social services were in deplorable condition and worse of all, when civil servants had gone without salaries and other benefits for months.

Indeed, there are countless revelations about the indescribable and inhumane anguish meted against Liberian journalists during and after the barbaric and brutal civil war.  

In 2005, after democratic elections of the first female President of the Republic of Liberia, many journalists and media organizations presumably predicated that the time had come to unleash unceasing freedom.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be a complete fiasco and all of the three branches of government have been involved in suppressing and subjecting the press to become cattle driven or rubber stamp.  Sadly, the Standard Bearer and some top-class officials of the leading opposition political party have consistently attack journalists and on several occasions publicly insulted media practitioners like in the case of FrontpageAfrica’s Managing Publisher and others.  As a matter of fact, Ambassador Winton Tubman revealed that civil liberty and press freedom are not priority issues.  One can only imagine what sort of press freedom will exist if he ever becomes president?  
There have been over 40 recorded cases of maltreatment and harassment either against journalists or media institutions according to the Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy report.  Just retrospect a little bit and ruminate over some if not all of the abuses, intimidation and detention of media practitioners and institutions.  Ponder on the June 16, 2008 tragedy during which Journalists Othelo Garbla and Festus Porque were arrested and detained by the police for taking pictures of abandoned public buses.  Reflect about the confiscation of Photojournalist Sando Moore camera on November 26, 2008 by then Chief Justice Johnnie Lewis.  Remember on April 3, 2010 Acting Monrovia City Mayor, Mary Broh ordered her assigned Liberia National Police officers to flog and drag Nimpson Todd after the journalist attempted to make an inquiry concerning the clean-up of Monrovia.   Contemplate on the September 26, 2010 incident wherein Grand Cape Mount Senator, Abel Massaley, threatened to close down a community radio station in Sinje, Grand Cape Mount County.  Mull over the December 1, 2009 episode in which former acting Monrovia City Mayor Mary Broh, accompanied by a group of police officers, stormed the offices of the News newspaper in Monrovia and threatened to drag the newspaper to court, raining insults on the staff.  Brood over the attack against Journalists Boima J.V. Boima of the New Democrat Newspaper and Roland Perry formerly of the Informer Newspaper at the House of Representatives on May 31, 2011.

Even during and after the reelection of a widely acclaimed leadership icon and a Noble Laureate, there remain abuses and violence against journalists and media institutions.  It can be recalled that the premises of Kings FM/Clar TV, Love FM/TV and Shattle FM were closed by police officers on the 7th of November 2011 on the official grounds that these media entities had been broadcasting “hate” messages against the government and deliberately inciting violence.  What is even more disheartening, disappointing and frustrating is the perpetual closure of Star Radio and Radio Veritas – institutions that provided first-class, credible, balanced and reliable information to the entire population and the world over.

Many analysts have promulgated that the inappropriate attacks on journalists are hindering the reportage of accurate information.  Nonetheless, another appalling situation was the flogging of three journalists in Monrovia by police officers and bodyguards of Solution Temple Church Pastor, Bishop Bethel Onheneke.  Imagine a youthful Journalist like Musa Kenneth of Truth FM/Real TV was flogged and detained by state security officers.  Figure out how a self-proclaimed Pastor could order the flogging of former FrontpageAfrica Newspaper reporter M. Welemongai Ciapha and freelance photographer Mulinda Mulbah.  These calamities meted against Liberian journalists portrayed daunting roadmap to press freedom and freedom of expression under a regime that has portrayed itself as ‘Friend of the Media’.  

Though, the Government of Liberia passed the Freedom of Information Act, signed the African Platform on Access to Information and the Table Mountain Declaration as well as reaffirmed the 1991 Windhoek Declaration on promoting an independent and pluralistic African Press; however, these legislations, protocols and conventions seem completely out of order. Time and again, when the Government is under pressure from prominent figures, emerging advocates and international organizations; officials of government responsible for the dissemination of information to the populace hurriedly adapt defensive posture instead of ascertaining the facts.  The pseudo and obsolete approach to revealing information too often result to misleading and contradictory statements emanating from different spokespersons.  Besides, the Government has learned to utilize the services of self-styled civil society organizations and self-proclaimed activists as a canopy to cover its surreptitious deeds with sponsorship from taxpayers’ resources.  
 
Surmounting Warwick’s Guns
No matter what, good will always triumph over evil.  With combined efforts and united front from journalists, bloggers, writers and friends of the media, the forward march for free speech, freedom of expression and press freedom will forever remain unbending and unswerving.  The founding documents and organic laws of this country, which our forebears struggled with blood and tear, sorrow and empathy as well as loyalty and patriotism, shall never be swept under the carpet because of threats, intimidation and hardship.  The reminiscence of vandalism and agony against journalists and media outlets should not deter passionate and committed journalists, bloggers and writers to succumb to Warwick’s guns.  

The country can no longer afford to be kept incommunicado from factual, balanced and creditable news and information simply because of Warwick’s guns.  The country can no longer afford to lose sight of the gallant men and women who died to secure and safeguard free freedom and freedom of expression.  And the country can no longer candidly afford to have a segmented media and unaccountable Press Union of Liberia (PUL) that is yet to provide any update concerning the expenditure of US$100,000 donated by President Johnson-Sirleaf for the construction of its headquarters.  Furthermore, the PUL should muster the courage to become much more practical and supportive to seek the welfare of journalists.  Likewise, the PUL should take further steps and lead with example as “watchdog” and “mirror” of the Liberian society.  In so doing, the PUL should make every effort to account for the donation from the President so as to be trusted and taken seriously.

The time has come for amalgamated forces of the pen to defeat Warwick’s guns.  Therefore, the Press Union of Liberia response to the inflammatory and disgusting remarks from Othello Warwick should and must be supported by all media institutions including Liberian bloggers and writers.  Most likely the ultimate results might not be achievable, but it will send a clear message, that the media in Liberia is once again determined, steadfast and dedicated to crush Warwick’s guns.  From this moment onward, let the fight for press freedom be even stronger than ever before in the history of Liberia. No matter what happens, through the eyes of faith and with God above; Warwick’s guns will forever be defeated and the mighty pen will ceaselessly prevail.

About the author:  Mr.  Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder/Executive Director of Youth Exploring Solutions (YES).

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