Liberia: The Fear and Disrespect of Independent Media Under Pres. Weah

Liberia: The Fear and Disrespect of Independent Media Under Pres. Weah

“People say anything. People are angry, and they will believe it. Many of these people were in the media. The country needs to have a media conversation about its commitment to reporting and objective truth because it has ramifications for the development of the country. People just get on the radio and say anything, and I am glad that fact-checkers have emerged recently, but I think they are too slow. I don’t think they are rigorous and have the platform to quickly inform the people as people say things.”

The above words are the lamentations of the Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Samuel D. Tweah, Jr., concerning the Liberian media. In the same breath, he praises President George Manneh Weah for the impressive passing grade on the country’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) scorecard released earlier this week.

Of course, during this intensely competitive election season, one can expect that any good news in favor of the Weah Administration will be trumped up via the propaganda mill to get the most mileage out of the accolade. So, given such impressive news from the MCC, why did Tweah go out of his way to complain about the media?

He did so because, as he explained in the same speech, the narratives around the alleged missing L$16 billion and the US$25 million mop-up money, whether feigned or factual, still haunt him, the President, and the entire Weah Administration. It’s not something they can explain away — certainly not after President Weah began building dozens of condominiums on Robertsfield highway and then demolished his 9th Street beachside home to build an imposing mansion in its place. It did not help that nearly all senior government officials became rich overnight with no paper trail, buying up properties across the country and abroad. Weah only declared his assets after months of media and civil society pressure to do so, but declined to make them public to protect his family, he said.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg but, suffice it to say, the rest of his cabinet followed suit, amassing questionable wealth at home and abroad. To date, none of Weah’s cabinet officials have declared their assets — we stand to be corrected.

Back to the MCC scorecard, this “self-come-first-serve” attitude to governance earned the Weah administration staggering disapproval ratings locally and internationally and became the basis for a groundswell of political opposition. By the time the 2020 Senatorial midterm elections came around and the ruling party lost their coveted Montserrado County seat, among several others, to rising opposition candidates, the writing was on the wall.

Over the next five years since the Weah administration took power, it failed on all five of its MCC scorecards. The administration only bounced back with the 6th and final scorecard of Weah’s current term in office. This might be an accolade too late if he does not win a second term.

Members of the ruling party who tried to proffer ideas and strategies early on, to help recalibrate the administration’s mindset for success, especially after the 2020 midterms, were ostracized. Eugene Fahngon, then a deputy minister at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism (MICAT), mentioned that the ruling party had lost its people-centric focus and also had its media mindset in the wrong frame. No one took him seriously.

This is but a snippet of the backstory to the Finance Minister’s recent diatribes against the media. So, you know what the administration did? They handpicked certain media outlets and put them on the payroll as spin doctors. Others were held at arm’s length and received periodic cash pacifiers as and when they appeared to be driving the trend of public perception against the Weah administration.

The Daily Observer was one of those news media outlets accused by the Minister and his colleagues of being “anti-government.” Our response was simple: “We are only reporting what we can prove — the facts. If we have reported in error, we are happy to issue corrections where necessary.”

How does the Weah administration explain the killings of the four auditors; the multiple joint letters from the international community calling out the administration for misappropriation of donor funds; the whopping US$100 million consignment of cocaine smuggled into the country and another US$40 million consignment just a few months later; the U.S. sanctions designation on three senior government officials, including the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, who manages the President’s office?

As a result, the Daily Observer is almost completely blacklisted from media interactions with the government. Apart from routine press conferences and a couple of senior officials in the administration who readily respond to our calls, we could hardly get interviews or responses to questions on critical issues that could have given the Weah administration a shot at fair reporting. The Weah administration has also refused to pay the Daily Observer for advertising accrued under this administration — y’all know the story! 

We’ve stopped complaining.

In the grand scheme of things, it is clear that the Weah administration has no respect for independent media. In fact, they FEAR independent media because of our incessant calls for fiscal transparency and accountability. That is why, for several years, this administration refused to grant PUNCH FM a broadcast license (until recently) and also shut down Voice FM. Instead, by throwing cash around to their spin doctors on the media landscape, they have empowered the monsters that are haunting them today.

President Weah and his team can rest assured that they are not alone. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, when she was President of Liberia, had similar problems albeit on a lesser scale than what Weah is dealing with. At one point, in her frustration, she confessed to the Daily Observer publisher that, “no matter how much we pay these so-called journalists, they still harass us to no end.”

To this, the Observer publisher replied, “Oh, but Madam President, you got all that money to spend, why didn’t you give me some?”

She retorted: “Because you would not take it!”

Similarly, the Weah administration has cried to no end in the name of certain media personalities who would comb heaven and earth to stoke the flames of public discontent against his government, knowing that officials of the government will bend, handing down brown envelopes to quell the fire. All those brown envelopes should have been more aptly appropriated as budgetary allotments to the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism to professionally and strategically propagate the Weah administration’s narrative instead of feeding the bottomless bellies of miscreant media.

But those are the dancing partners you chose, Mr. President!

Recently, at the celebration of United Nations Day in Liberia, President Weah, in his remarks, commended the Liberian media for their contributions to sustaining the peace and for promoting the developmental initiatives of the country.

“We must empower them so our country can remain peaceful,” he told the audience of guests from the UN, Liberian government, and foreign missions at the program.

While the President appears to have meant well, his perspective toward the media mirrors the same flawed perspective of his Finance Minister, Tweah.

No self-respecting democracy wants a media that is “supported” by the government. If President Weah wants to see an “empowered” media, he should realize that neither enmity nor friendship is the way. While the media is considered the “Fourth Estate” of government, it does not mean that it requires government support. What it means is that the media — those in the practice of independent journalism and other forms of free expression — is an indispensable pillar of our growing democracy. Walter Cronkite, one of the first broadcast journalists on American television, said it best: “Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.”

Mr. President, if you wish to see the media enhance its contribution to Liberia’s peace, democracy, and national development, then engage with us professionally. Do not fund us nor fight us. Do business with us and pay us what your administration legitimately owes us — in a timely manner. And just know that your not being pleased with everything we publish about you and your administration comes with the job. 

To all independent media who tirelessly and courageously rip open and expose the criminality in government and society, kudos! Our independence is our most priceless asset!

Finally, here’s an illustration of how priceless independence is. In the early days of this nation, before Liberia declared independence, there were frequent skirmishes between the natives and the newly-arrived settlers. During one of those attacks, around mid-1822, as history recalls, a British gunboat showed up along the coast and its captain came ashore and offered to help the settlers fight the natives in exchange for a small piece of land to be ceded to the British Empire and hoist its flag, the Union Jack.

In a decisive refusal of the captain’s offer, Elijah Johnson, an agent of the American Colonization Society, under whose auspices the settlers arrived and negotiated land with the native kings, said: “We want no flagstaff put up here that will cost us more to get it down again than it will to whip the natives.”

Independent media are facing threats of all kinds, especially in terms of economic survival. Any government support automatically compromises said independence. Some of our fellow media colleagues will not agree with our stance, and that is exactly our point.