Brands Jonathan Paye-Layleh as ‘one of those that were against me’
President George Weah, at a joint press conference on Thursday, March 22, with UN Deputy Secretary-General Amin Mohammed, evoked fears and memories of the 1985 brutal killing of journalist Charles Gbenyon when he openly described local journalist and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) stringer Jonathan Paye-Layleh as one person that has been against him even in his (Weah’s) advocacy over the years.
Below is the full transcript of the exchange between the journalist and the President and his guest, the UN Deputy Secretary-General:
Jonathan Paye-layleh: Thank you for the opportunity. Just one question for the two of you. I was here in Monrovia on the first of October, 2003, when the United Nations took over. Even on that day there were some street battle in the capital so we are happy to see that we have come so far with the peace. But you are coming to Liberia just at a time with a serious debate as to whether this peace can exist without justice, or whether the United Nations can help Liberia to achieve justice that should exist side-by-side with peace. And specifically people are asking for those who stand accused of committing atrocities in Liberia during the war to face their victims in a court, like you did for Sierra Leone. So is the United Nations ready to help Liberia achieve this? And Mr. President, talking about that, Human Rights Watch has asked you to create the environment so that victims can meet face-to-face with their perpetrators. Are you prepared to do that; and how soon? Thank you.
President Weah: Well, I think we have to follow the rule of law. We are not trying to undo what is already there. I think this — the history of this reconciliation and the court already has on its desk — those perpetrators need to come back to the status quo so they can face their — those who all that [were] harmed [by] them. But what I want to say is that… we have to step by step follow the rule of law. The Peace and Reconciliation body already have a case. And those who all that are victims have their rights also too to listen to those that victimized them. So it’s a process; peace is not just a one-day thing.
If you can recall, I always use you as an example; when I was advocating for human rights in the country, you were one of those that were against me. But I always reminded you because what I was doing at that time was for us not to reach to this point where Liberians are not against each other. And I’m glad that you’re here today. This is the time now we have to make sure that we create that environment and create awareness that Liberians will find reason to forgive each other so we can move on. And I hope that those who are responsible — the ministry responsible, which is Justice Ministry and the Peace and Reconciliation Committee, will come back to the table and call all of the actors so they can look at what is there to make sure that either we forget and justice be done to those who all justice needs to be done to.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amin Mohammed: Thank you. Let me just say that Mr. President has already committed to, um, concluding what would be unfinished business. But sustaining peace is about justice. It’s about strong institutions, it’s about governance, it’s about continuing the work of the national reconciliation, but it’s also about your constitution. But it is also collective responsibility. The President would not do this by himself, so it requires the Liberian people to get behind him with the intentions that he has for bringing justice, of reconciling, of helping build the nation, now that you have an environment for peace. The Peacebuilding Commission that we have in the United Nations, we have our representatives here — very happy to see our Permanent Representative from Sweden — is an important part of our contribution to helping you to create that environment to ensure that justice is done. It must be inclusive. People must feel part of rebuilding a new Liberia, and I believe that the leadership here has that commitment and we’re here to support it. Thank you.
Jonathan Paye-layleh: Are you say that the UN is not prepared to support a war crimes court in Liberia?
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amin Mohammed: No, what I’m saying is that the UN is prepared to help build the bridges that will sustain peace; and that we know our support for the national reconciliation, for constitutional reforms, is what we are prepared to support.
Many see this as a veiled threat against not only Paye-Layleh but against the media and free speech as well. Journalist Paye-Layleh is now reported to be living in fear for his life. He has meanwhile appealed to his colleagues in the media to seek clarification from the President on the true import of his statement accusing him (Paye-Layleh) as being against him.
“I have asked the Press Union of Liberia and the entire media community to seek an explanation from Mr. President, because I have never had any confrontation with him even before he became president; we all have instead given promotion to all that he has done, as footballer, former footballer and as a politician; he was never in any human rights work as far as I know and even if he was in any human rights struggle, I could never have been against him for working for human rights in Liberia,” Paye-Layleh said.
Going back into history, it can be recalled that following the failed Quiwonkpa coup attempt in 1985, Journalist Charles Gbenyon was arrested by state security forces and taken to the Executive Mansion. According to sources, he was taken to the Executive Mansion to meet President Samuel K. Doe, who was reportedly angry about the journalist’s coverage of the events of that fateful day of November 12, 1985.
Gbenyon is reported to have interviewed then Elections Commission Chairman Emmett Harmon who, believing that the coup had been successful, reportedly confessed to having rigged the 1985 October elections.
But when taken to the Mansion, Gbenyon was allegedly denied audience with President Doe. This was after having been informed of the arrest of Gbenyon and his presence on the grounds of the Executive Mansion. Doe was reported to have angrily said he did not want to see the journalist and Gbenyon was taken away. Later it was revealed that Gbenyon had been killed but by who and on whose orders remains unknown till today.
According to local media watchers, the loaded import of President Weah’s remark to the journalist apparently may have induced Paye-Layleh to write the Press Union appealing to his colleagues in the media to seek clarification from President Weah, being fully aware and apprehensive about what such remarks could mean and how it could be interpreted by state security or the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) zealots.
“All that I am asking the media community to do is to seek some explanation from the office of the President; such a statement from a populist and popular President has far-reaching impact; you can never tell what this would mean to Mr. President’s tens of thousands of supporters, some of whom are too young to be able to analyze issues.”
Paye-Layleh believes a clear explanation from the President or his office citing instances will give an insight into what the allegations are, adding, “when a president says an individual is or was against him, it means a lot.”