My thoughts are strongly with the Liberian Observer Corporation, publishers of the Daily Observer in Liberia, on the occasion of the Daily Observer’s 36th anniversary as an independent newspaper. When one considers the troubles that people – and sometimes governments – bring to bear on journalists in developing countries, one can easily accept that running the Daily Observer for 36 unbroken years is indeed a great accomplishment.
I joined the Daily Observer in Mid-March of 1981, about a month after the Paper ran its maiden edition on February 16. I was taken in as a proof-reader, and recall sitting by the typesetters and following each word as it was being typed using Compugraphic typesetters, which were owned and used only in the country then by the Daily Observer. Compugraphic typesetters were among the first computers in the country. They were bigger than desktop computers and large enough to be installed on the floor for the keyboard to be high enough as a regular office table. They had monitors, keyboards, and compartments with devices that stored keyed-in information. Transfer of typed information to paper followed the same process as exposing images from a camera to paper in a photo dark room.
My job was to follow the typing on the monitor and spot and correct miss-typed words and to proofread the printed material to ensure the Paper was free of errors. I loved the job and loved being a journalist in the first place.
Because I had prior typing experience in using regular typewriters, I learned to use the computers (behind the scene) without problems. This was a blessing for the newspaper because the time soon came when the then Minister of Justice, Cllr. Chea Ceapoo got into a row with the Daily Observer which resulted in the expulsion of three foreign West African citizens, adjudged to not have “valid” work permits. One of the three men was the newspaper’s artist, another a reporter and the third a proof reader who also doubled as a typesetter, using the computers to key in stories of the Daily Observer.
Mrs. Mae Gene Best was the Business Manager. She needed a replacement for the gentleman who, on Justice Minister Cheapoo’s order, had been arrested, imprisoned and later deported. All of this was without due process. I informed Mrs. Best that I could help with typesetting but because she had not seen me using the machine before, she had to test me. I passed her test and was appointed typesetter from then on. I brought in my brother-in-law, Jonathan S. T. Neah, whose typing speed was more than 150 wpm, and we both handled the typesetting duties.
By then, it was barely one year after the April 12, 1980 coup d’etat that made Liberia to taste military rule under the People’s Redemption Council, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe. Curfew was still in place in Monrovia.
Our work days were “on rubber hours” – stretching often from 9 am to sometimes 2 to 3 am the following morning, depending on when we put the newspaper to bed. It was strenuous and stressful, but we all enjoyed being part of this newspaper making history as the first independent daily in Liberia.
The organization had a Peugeot 505, used by the managing director. When the paper went to bed during the early morning hours, this vehicle would take us home. I recall one day which would have been fateful to all of us. We worked until 3 a.m. the following morning. Everyone was so engrossed into putting a special story through that no one remembered that the vehicle was not fueled. After we closed, there was no vehicle to take us home. Those of us living on the Bushrod Island had to walk from Crown Hill to Logan Town and New Kru Town (where I lived). We had to walk – all of us – in a group line, on the road. In our team was Rufus Darpoh, Mike James, myself and somebody whose name I can’t recall now.
In Vai Town, we met with some soldiers on duty to enforce the curfew. We were stopped by one of the soldiers to show reason why we were out at that time of the night. We showed our press passes, but that seemed to make things worse because the soldier advanced his gun in anger and said all sorts of things about journalists. He threatened that he could kill us all and report the next morning that we attacked him. That seemed easily possible, though it would be so stupid because people would hardly believe that journalists would attack a soldier. I was so terrified and lost my gauge even after we were allowed to travel on. I realized then that this was some of the things journalists go through to keep the public informed. I also wondered if I could carry on with practicing journalism and being part of this wonderful Fourth Estate. It was tough for me.
There were heroes on the Observer team that kept me going. I love writing and wanted to continue to be a part of this team making history in the country. Leading these heroes was Albert Porte (deceased), chairman of the Board of Directors. He was so brave and feared nothing as long as the right thing was being done. That spirit travelled down through the ranks of the management team. Kenneth Y. Best led the organization determined to prove a point that an independent newspaper had a meaningful role in Liberia. Backed by his news team, including Rufus Mama Darpoh (deceased), Mike James and Isaac Thompson, and my best writer of the Paper then, Keith Neville A. Best. Mr. K Y Best did his best to keep the Paper so well balanced for the eight months I worked there. The image of the country, though under military rule, was kept bright because the world was seeing the country through the “eyes” of an independent newspaper.
As the months passed, critical times for the country were getting close, with the PRC having its share of the troubles. Unity amongst their members looked shaky as it seemed invisible hands were struggling to divide them. Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, Sr. (deceased) took the stage as keynote speaker as the first Independence Day Orator to advise members of the PRC. His famous proverb of the three cows is on everybody’s mind today. He said that when the three cows were united, the enemy could not destroy them. The enemy succeeded in poisoning the minds of two of the cows and this led to their destruction. With the white cow alone, the task for the enemy was simple.
People started to see the cracks in the unity of the PRC when there seemed a tussle between the head of state and his vice as to whose side Liberia should be on. It was rumored that the chief opted to be with a “big” country.
The vice told a Daily Observer reporter in an interview that Liberia should not lean on any specific side. That story was carried by the Observer under the banner “Let us Remain Non-Aligned, says General Weh Syen”. That story was like an ordinary story, but least did we know that it was our ticket for protection in something to happen soon. Commendations were poured out on the Vice Head of State for saying what had been published, and this must have given him a degree of satisfaction.
Then the big day came. It was the first opportunity for the Head of State, Samuel Kanyon Doe, to join other African leaders in attending the OAU Conference. The Daily Observer worked over time to get copies of the Paper into the hands of the Head of State’s entourage so they could show fellow leaders proof that Liberia had an independent newspaper operating in the country. His plane was scheduled to depart Monrovia by early morning, so the managing director rushed to the airport with copies of the day’s issue. But things turned out sour for the Observer MD, as he was arrested by government officers and imprisoned.
When we heard the news the next morning, we took to our machines to run a quick story that our MD had been arrested and imprisoned. Before long, though, the Offices of the Paper were surrounded by riot police and all of us in the building were arrested. The team was led by my cousin, Captain Ralph Tuopae (deceased). I recognized him and asked him in our language to let me go. He was on national duty and did not want to be partial and so he told me I had to go through the ritual with the others. I did not like that but respected his wish to be straightforward and frank with me. We were sent to prison at the notorious Post Stockade at the Barclay Training Center, and the Offices of the Daily Observer were closed.
It was still not clear as to why all these actions were being taken. Cousin Ralph said in our language that we would be informed “in due course”. We later learned that the actions had to do with letters we published in the newspaper a day or two earlier that were “insulting the Head of State”. It all had to do with Conmany Wesseh, the now Senator of River Gee County, who was student leader then. Wesseh had been ostracized by the PRC because he had been accused of a serious “crime against the State”. Readers of the newsaper who sympathized with Mr. Commany Wesseh at the time, wrote numerous letters expressing their dismay about the actions taken against him by the government. Those letters were not edited and were published under the title “The Wesseh Affair”.
We learned that some key members of Doe’s cabinet strongly encouraged him into taking offense against the Daily Observer for this publication. In fact it was widely rumored that it was one of those civilian leaders that used the name of the Head of State to order the closure of the Offices of the Paper and the arrest and detention of its staff. Student Leader Commany Wesseh was already behind bars in a secret location before our arrest.
On day 1 of our imprisonment, the Vice Head of State, who was co-managing the state of affairs of the country in the absence of the Head of State (with a cabinet minister), went to the Post Stockade and warned the Provost General to do all possible to keep the press team protected. And so we were – for the 10 days we stayed imprisoned. We met a lot of “political prisoners” at the Post Stockade prison. We sat with them for most times of the day to discuss with them. In the process we made friends with a number of them who freely shared their stories, knowing that we were journalists.
The prison was terrible. We had nothing to lie on and nothing to cover with at night. We depended on empty rice bags that were smuggled into the prison. The food prepared was known as “boogie” – half cooked eddoes, or plantain or rice with tasteless soup. But our team was spared all of this rubbish food. Our managing director, who was later brought into our “house”, was on top of things for his team. He had a way of linking with the Albert Porte team outside and good arrangements were in place to get us good food for all of our days of incarceration. (Spare me the details…)
But things went troubling for me. On the first night, I had a dream. There were a group of women who were carrying a lot of head covers and waving them in the air, marching toward a group of us men. When they reached our group, the men who were standing with me all dashed away and left me standing alone. And the women approached me and all of a sudden I saw a coffin they placed before me and said to me, “this is your boss man…” and fled away. I stood there looking at the coffin but all of a sudden I awoke from my sleep. You can imagine how the rest of my night passed on.
I told my colleagues of the dream, and everybody was disappointed I had such a dream, dubbed outrightly to be a negative dream. The guys on the team called me the dreamer and joked that I should not sleep again so as not to have another awful dream. That dream was to have a meaning that changed the rest of my life completely.
On July 2, 1981, we were escorted to the Offices of the Vice Head of State. When he joined us several minutes later, he informed us that he had negotiated our freedom and that he received orders to set us free. It was there we met Student Leader Commany Wesseh, who was also set free along with us. What a relief!!! We were out of locked doors at last. Outside, I tried to imagine the height of the rooms at the prison – something like 11 feet up to where a small window was placed, with strong iron grills to prevent a person climbing through it. There were several rooms on both sides of the long prison. I think I remember two rooms being reserved for prisoners who would not be freed – solitary confinement rooms. I shared my room with Sam Van Kessely and Arthur James (a trainee photographer) and our room was near the bath rooms.
Ten days were enough to leave us with bushy hairs and beards. We looked so awful, but in that condition we took a photo that was used for our first story titled “With renewed zeal to serve the people, WE’RE BACK!” A friend drove me to my home in New Kru Town. My relatives were happy to see me free again. Every one of them that came to sympathize with me advised me to forget journalism. But I wanted to carry on because though I had just gone through what in some countries would be a near-death situation to others, I loved being on the winning side. It gave me strength and I wanted to press on.
I decided I would fly to my home in Jeadepo, Sinoe County to see my parents. On 3rd July I left my house to go to my cousin’s house to inform him of my plans. My cousin, Edward Wleh, now living in the United States, was also going to my house to find me – the two of us taking different routes that made us not to meet. When I got to his house, I met my father lying on one of his beds seriously sick with liver complications. We both burst into tears. I took him to Bong Mines where he was last seen in 1975. He died two weeks later. I recalled the dream I had at the Post Stockade, and realized that the dream I had was for my father.
Following my father’s passing I had to find another job that would improve my income to enable me to handle the burden of caring for my siblings and my mother. This landed me at the Decoris Oil Palm Company. But my ties with the Daily Observer were still strong. Until I was barred by new employers, I contributed stories from Maryland County to the Paper. My best contribution was the story that kicked off the confrontation the Doe Government had with leaders of institutions of higher learning. I filed a story I wrote on an interview I had with Nyemah Klon Brownell, then president of the student council of the then William V. S. Tubman College of Technology (now upgraded to the
Tubman University). That story almost made me to lose my job and it took Brownell and other student leaders to go to jail and to face the highest military court of our land.
Since then I have not made any story contributions to this noble Paper, but I am still with Mr. Best and his team for being faithful in carrying on his dreams. Everybody is new at the Paper, but Mr. Best still stands tall as the oldest and most experienced of the Fourth Estate.
The Observer team was highly critical about errors in their Paper. The first letter the Paper received after their maiden edition complained that there were “18 errors” in that maiden edition. The Paper took that as a warning and so were careful about any issue they put out. My sincere wish is that the team in charge should endeavor to maintain high quality, a brand that Albert Porte, Stanton Peabody, Rufus Darpoh and others established at the Paper.