A clarion call to older, retired Liberian journalists
By Jonathan Paye-Layleh (A practicing Liberian journalist)
The unfortunate situation I find myself in currently following President George Weah’s unexplained outbursts against me, and the subsequent high-level misrepresentations and misinterpretations of the issues and historical facts compel me to make this clarion call: If you are an older journalist or media practitioner sitting somewhere in self-imposed retirement, please return to active duty. Return because the absence of people like you in the mainstream media — leaving journalism solely with the young ones with little experience — is not doing our country any good.
I appreciate and admire the brilliant work young journalists are doing under difficult conditions; but they need the help of the older, experienced ones for mentor-ship to excel. I think leaving them alone is unfair.
Recent Lesson Learned from the Veteran Kenneth Y. Best
In his BBC interview, played on the evening of Sunday, April 17, the veteran journalist Kenneth Y. Best mentioned that his ability to remember things when he was as young as four years old was one factor that made him a successful journalist. Remembering events, the 79-year-old said, makes media coverage easier. I could not agree with him more.
This is the challenge facing the current generation of media people in the country in trying to accurately present historical facts. As I said, I admire their courage and commitment to the noble profession; in the face of difficulties, they are scoring some successes; but being too young to remember some of the major happenings in our recent past poses a serious challenge to them.
The fact that the vast majority of them are too young to know events and occurrences of the 1990’s, for example, means they have to rely on second hand accounts of things to report; this is an impediment.
When investigating certain happenings, our knowledge of the events means more to us than the accounts of others. This is one shortcoming for young and promising Liberian journalists who are in the majority in the profession today; they have the urge to excel, they are doing a fantastic job; but their lack of knowledge of how, for example, the civil war of the 1990’s started and ended, who were the key players, and who did what at what times leaves them vulnerable to believe people’s selfish accounts of the national upheaval.
A media practitioner who is thirty years old now, for example, was born in 1987; this means he or she was less than three years old when the civil war broke out in 1989; and obviously that journalist has very little or no knowledge at all about the advances of the NPFL forces in the early 1990’s, the formation and roles of rival armed groups, and, moving forward, that journalist cannot speak to who did what, say, during the April 1996 Monrovia crisis because they were just too young to remember things.
What makes this even worse is we are not a country where accurate and unbiased accounts of past events are written; and even if they were written, by nature, we are not fond of reading.
This is one reason why people tell lies and go unquestioned.
If those who are engaged in active media work in Liberia today were largely people who are old enough to remember and write about the rice riot of April 1979, the military coup of April 1980, the rigged presidential and general elections of 1985, the Thomas Quiwonkpa-led failed coup of November 1985, the 1997 election of Charles Taylor and so on, they would be reporting on the civil war from an informed perspective.
But sadly, instead of older and experienced journalists remaining in the profession to mentor the young ones, they have left the practice squarely with the young ones to fend for themselves.
Because of this gap, there is a likelihood that the young media community would be fed with false official accounts of past happenings without question.
Of course, If we still had in active practice knowledgeable journalists who have gone into self-imposed retirement, the pronouncement by President George Weah that he was in human rights advocacy during the bloody civil war would have been seriously challenged, with no disrespect to the head of state. But because the vast majority of media people in active practice today are too young to know who did what during the civil war, many of them were tempted to believe the president.
People take advantage of others’ lack of awareness to get away with things that are not true. We need to work towards tackling these challenges.
If we had older journalists practicing side-by-side with the young ones, they would not be told what roles the current information minister, for example, played in the recent past —- in the NFPL, in the much-feared police then and then in the offices of former Vice President and President Moses Blah (a former General of the NPFL) before ending up with the CDC just in 2005.
But all that most of the young practitioners know is that Eugene Nagbe was originally with the CDC, crossed over to the Unity Party when the grass there was still green, and then when the leaves were fast falling on the side of the Unity Party, he returned to the CDC.
And so Eugene can succeed in presenting himself as a perfectly clean gentleman and get away with it, because even most of those hosting radio talk shows in Monrovia are too young to know his past affiliations. But I am just using these instances as examples of what happens when old hands are not involved in molding society.
We often hear people make claims either to vindicate or bring unnecessary glory upon themselves and all they say as a proof is, “the records are there.” We have never tried to check whether those records are actually there to see.
That is our national shortcoming. We don’t research, we don’t go beyond what people claim; and so we are very likely to end up placing serious national responsibilities in the hands of the wrong ones. Smooth talking has earned unqualified people top jobs in Liberia in recent times.
The point is, experience matters in everything we do. When my wife and I arrived in the United Kingdom in 2008 to receive the Speaker Award, I was on a tour of the parliament building when my guide showing me around, Colin Brown, an elderly, actively practicing journalist, asked me: Jonathan, how old are you? When I responded I am 45 years old, he said back to me: so you are still a young chicken in the profession? Mr. Brown was in his mid-sixties but still feeling he had a long time still in the profession. We retire from journalism in Liberia in our thirties.
So I think in order to help the young community of journalists in Liberia grow, we the older practitioners should place ourselves in the position of a palm tree. For a palm tree to grow, the old fronds (leaves) eventually give way to the young ones, but the old fronds don’t just fall suddenly; they remain hanging up there, watching the young fronds grow and become strong and capable to carry on before falling at last.
In short, we need back in the field seasoned journalists who still have the potential to help a crumbling society but who have left the media work in the hands of the young ones — young ones who are desperately yearning for direction and guidance.