Gov’t, Opposition, Civil Society Clash on Free Speech, Tribalism

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Two officials of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Administration on the one hand, and a civil society actor and an opposition member on the other hand have clashed on some key national issues raised by outgoing Finance and Development Planning Minister, Amara Konneh during a Wilmot Blyden forum organized by the Press Union of Liberia (PUL).

The officials, including Information Minister Eugene Nagbe and Finance and Development Planning Minister Amara Konneh, and Dan Saryee Professor Wilson Tarpeh dissented on issues about tribalism, poverty and freedom of speech.

Outgoing Minister Konneh, who was invited as a special guest for the Wilmot Blyden Intellectual Forum, raised issues with the media about reporting on terrorism that national security will not be compromised, balanced reporting on the political transition of Liberia and reporting on the election without regard for tribalism or sectionalism.

Media role in national security

In his assertions, Minister Konneh said “Terrorism is right near Liberia, as instances in the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Mali in recent times can show.

“The media,” he continued, “has a major role to play either to report or not to report on terrorism, and based on what you choose between the two, it may undermine national security or keep the security of the country.”

On another issue, Minister Konneh said the Liberian political system is dominated by tribalism and other social vices, and that the media needs to be vigilant to report in a balanced way not to make tribalism influential in Liberian politics.

“Blyden in whose memory this forum is organized spoke against racism and was the father of Pan Africanism. Today, there is no more racism in our midst. What remains our problem in Liberian politics is tribalism. Politicians do not present an understandable platform, but base on tribal sentiment, and PUL should begin to train its journalists on election reporting to question politicians on what makes them better than the others and tribalism,” Minister Konneh emphasized.

He told journalists to deal with politicians in generating ideas that will transform the economy.

Reacting to the Minister’s presentation, civil society activist Dan Saryee said “The issue of terrorism and IS (Islamic State) in the world can be partly attributed to failure of governments to address grievance of the masses.”

Citing instances in Liberia, Mr. Saryee said, “People are living in cemeteries, and these are the same people that we meet in the streets and ride car with us. We do not know who a terrorist is, but under such a condition, terrorists can emerge.”

He further said that about 84% of the country’s population lives in abject poverty, while a few live luxuriously to the disadvantage of the masses.

Tribalism

On the issue of tribalism, Mr. Saryee blamed government for promoting tribalism. He emphasized that “The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led Administration has ministries named as Lofa, Nimba, Bassa, or Sinoe ministries because ministers are allowed to choose their own deputies to work with them.”

As a result, he said, the ministries are filled with people of the same tribal backgrounds thus helping to promote tribalism.

Promoting tribalism is prohibited under the 1986 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia.

In Chapter II, Article 5 section of the Constitution, the Republic is mandated to take steps to eliminate tribalism, sectionalism, nepotism and other vices that will undermine the unity and development of the state.

In a sharp reaction, Information Minister Eugene Nagbe lambasted Dan Saryee and said his analysis on poverty was erroneous.

Minister Nagbe said “Saryee’s statistics are not in conformity with any real statistics about Liberia’s socio-economic development, but giving false information in a political tone rather than civil society.”

The Information Minister also stressed, “Opinion held by Saryee that government was making some ministries tribal is false. Before the President appoints, she consults and recommendations are made to her.”

He cited the Information Ministry, which he presides over, describing it as having “people of diverse backgrounds and no one tribe dominates.”

He warned the media to check newsmakers because some may come as civil society activists but are politicians.

Professor Wilson Tarpeh, for his part, said “The public must be vigilant to inform police about any unusual happening in the wake of the terroristic threats in surrounding countries.”

GOL debt to local media

According to Prof. Tarpeh, “While the Liberian media is under obligation to carry out balanced reporting, it must not be strangulated that it won’t pay its staff. To be balanced and report independently, money government owes the media must be paid without ‘golden handshake’ settlement.”

A golden handshake settlement is a lump sum payout offered by government to each media entity without consideration for how much government actually owes each media entity. Some media entities reject the golden handshake because the amount offered tends to be far less than what government actually owes. Thus, it only benefits those media entities whose receivables are far less than or barely equal to the offered amount and exposes the government’s thriftless habits when dealing with local businesses.

Prof. Tarpeh, who once served as Minister of Finance, added that “Any economy that must succeed should be private sector driven and with a strong domestic element.”

Minister Konneh for his part said, “Government has tried to settle debts Government owes the media, but most of the institutions have not been fair in their dealings with government.”

He said “Government regulated that before taking advertisement from any public relations officer, the deputy minister for administration should affix his/her signature to the receipt.”

Contrary to that, Minister Konneh said “Most institutions have been engaged in taking advertisements not signed by a deputy minister while some advertisements are copied from one newspaper to another.”

“Minister Konneh’s assertions are too general, with regard to GOL debts to the media,” says Bai Best, marketing manager of the Daily Observer newspaper. “Even for those newspapers who go by the rules prescribed by the Government of Liberia, the ministries will only pay who they want to pay. As it stands, the Government of Liberia, through various ministries and parastatals, owes the Daily Observer well of US$70,000, and the documents are there to prove it. We have even had to suspend business dealings with those GOL entities indebted to us. Yet, Minister Konneh would rather approve a golden handshake deal with those very media entities he claims are being unfair to Government.”

Freedom of speech

According to Prof. Tarpeh, “Freedom of speech in Liberia did not start in the Sirleaf Administration, but began in past administrations, based on which the Press Union was founded. However, this government can be credited for promoting freedom of speech that people can freely express themselves.”

He also urged journalists and the public not to see freedom of speech as a privilege to say just anything, but should consider that it is not absolutely free.

He further said, “There has been no freedom of speech in the history of the country except under this administration of President Sirleaf. This is the only government that both the media and politicians can say anything they want to say.”

In his welcome statement earlier, PUL President, Abdullai Kamara gave historical synopsis of Edward Wilmot Blyden and said he was inclusive in his approach to society building.

Mr. Kamara said journalists are under obligation to tell the true story about Liberia and its people.

He said it was on the basis of this philosophy that Minister Konneh and others were invited to share their views on development agenda of the country and what can be done to move forward.

Meanwhile, the Edward Wilmot Blyden Forum is occasionally organized by the PUL to bring experts to discuss some issues of national and professional concerns.

It is usually attended by media practitioners, public relations officers and government officials mainly from the Ministry of Information.

This year’s forum was held at the Executive Pavilion between Broad and Ashmun Streets.

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