By Julius Kullie Kanubah, Public Policy Analyst
Upfront I must say: President George Weah’s comments and the attending press statement by his Office accusing the BBC Liberia correspondent of being against him and undermining his professed campaign for human rights in Liberia demonstrates a reckless act of political immaturity, but also a flippant and disingenuous act, manifesting loss of judgment.
President Weah and his Office have without any empirical evidence – up to now – shown how and by what means journalist Jonathan Paye-Layleh has been “one person against” Mr. Weah or “undermining” his self-styled campaign of “advocating for justice and creating awareness to the gross human rights violations perpetrated against the Liberian people during the 14 years civil conflict.”
The lack of specificity and evidence to the claims made against journalist Paye-Layleh, no doubt, seriously undermines and opens a credibility gap both on President Weah and his Office, just over two months into his presidency – which by all accounts has shown manifestations of leadership ambiguity and misjudgment.
President Weah has two options to tackle this emerging credibility deficit: first, he needs to provide the facts on the exact circumstances and nature of his claims which can then be subjected to communicative rationality in the sense of discursive validity and invalidity.
If this cannot be done, the second-best alternative is for President Weah and his Office to without much hesitation, recant the claims and apologize unreservedly to journalist Paye-Layleh. Especially, at a time Liberia is gripped with increasing political rhetoric and uncertainty on the future policy direction of the country in terms of good governance, it cannot be stressed that President Weah and his Office will be subjected to obvious suspicions in their relationship with the media and conscious minds within the public unless the truth surrounding his claims are made known.
The President and his Office should be aware that in branding journalist Paye-Layleh as being “against” Weah in the past is a direct move to frame the journalist as an antagonist, if not, an adversary.
Normative, neither is it a crime to be both. But …! In the context of Liberia, such characterization has huge repercussions as history has shown in light of mysterious deaths and cold-blooded murders as well as violent attacks on persons,including journalists considered to be “against” the President of the Land.
Simply, the presumption here is that by finger-pointing a perceived antagonist or adversary, president Weah is telling his zealous supporters to beware of journalist Paye-Layleh – the man who has been “against” your ‘revolutionary leader’ and‘country giant’ over time. It means, it is him (Paye-Layleh) “against” Us (me -Weah and You – my followers).
Clearly, it is a dangerous comment by President Weah, which when taken together with the co-constructed and factually flawed press statement by his Office directly puts the life of journalist Paye-Layleh at even greater risk.
Unarguably, the rights of journalist Paye-Layleh to move freely and perform his journalistic work as a citizen of Liberia has now been endangered and substantially undermined.
In a setting such as ours, no one, especially a consistently truth-seeking journalist of the orientation of Jonathan Paye-Layleh, can move psychologically peaceful when you are publicly depicted by a ‘populist’ president as someone who has been“against” him across time and space. Will President Weah, his government, and his fervent supporters ever believe the reportage of journalist Paye-Layleh, now and into the future? Unless the truth is told with evidence, President Weah has probably ruined the career of journalist Paye-Layleh, so rapidly by his vague accusation and vile attack by his Office. It is very painful for Paye-Layleh and the practice of journalism in Liberia. Paye-Layleh and Liberian journalism deserve a full understanding of this charge by President Weah and his Office.
Additionally, president Weah and his Office should really be ashamed to think at the slightest of consciousness that journalist Paye-Layleh was “bent on … depicting a positive image of the carnage” in the context of his reportage of the 14 years of conflict in Liberia.
Without mincing any words, this characterization is very dull for any reasonable mind to grasp as a belief, least to mention a president of a Republic or even an individual that should be called a press secretary to a President. It is not to say that president Weah or his press secretary is dull but their collective failure to represent the truth regarding journalist Paye-Layleh and his reportage for about quarter-of-a-century is the lowest point of their rather few weeks at the highest office in public sector governance.
It was a timid and paranoid characterization, which mischaracterizes an impeccable and celebrated journalist! This needs to be retracted as soon as consciousness is gained.
To be sure, president Weah and his press secretary either have not apprehended the nature of journalistic work in Liberia during the wartime and in post-conflict context or they did not follow the lengthy and painstaking investigative proceedings of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its Final Report.
That might just be the sad truth! Hence, President Weah and his press secretary need to take time and read or re-read the TRC findings and recommendations to establish if journalist Paye-Layleh was ever branded as“depicting a positive image of the carnage” or whatever as Mr. Weah and his press secretary have co-constructed to gratify themselves and misrepresent the realities of the past.
The facts are living: Journalist Paye-Layleh is one Liberian Citizen who has, despite many difficulties,diligently worked and reported on the Liberian nightmare even when Weah was comfortably living in Europe, genuinely earning hundreds of thousands of pounds for his extraordinary soccer abilities.
While it is not disputed that Weah did play a role in creating awareness for peace and engaging in humanitarian services during the Liberian conflict, these were in all fairness sporadically done and mostly engineered by the ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ title rightly bestowed on him in April 1997 by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
President Weah and his Office must be told that their fight to decrease the journalistic legitimacy of Jonathan Paye-Layleh is a breeding ground for further confrontations with the media and the public. Journalists work and serve the ‘public interest’! – whether in an environment characterized by the political rhetoric of “Poverty Reduction”, “Agenda for Transformation” or the now overly pronounced “Pro-Poor” phraseology.
If Weah and his Office are to reverse the negative path being self-created, they must learn that former president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf failed in her somewhat adversarial posture with journalists who she had mistakenly branded as “checkbook journalists,” even if checkbook journalism on the other hand really means that journalists pay sources for information rather than the other way around as framed by Mrs. Sirleaf.
When Mrs. Sirleaf made the comment in the early months of her presidency in 2006, it served to define her interaction with journalists throughout her 12-year rule.
To put it bluntly, Mrs. Sirleaf suffered in her relationship with journalists till she left power because of her ill-advised characterization of journalists and her dearth of understanding of the journalistic field as a shared discourse and one of struggles and contestations as well as negotiations of journalism’s identity and place in society.
Former president Sirleaf, as the Press Union of Liberiathen Secretary General, Alphonsus Zeon, rightly described, spoke out of frustration and that she was a frustrated president when she made the accusation.
It is tempting to say that president Weah might not have spoken out of frustration or he might not have been a frustrated president when he made the comments against journalist Paye-Layleh.
But,his comments and the attending press statement by his Office in the aftermath of journalist Paye-Layleh’s genuine request for valid clarification on Weah’s claims represent a reckless act of political immaturity and the lowest point of the Weah presidency, so far.
Contrary to the claim by the Office of the president, it cannot be a “determination to foster peace, reconciliation and forgiveness” or “expressing … feelings in the spirit of genuine reconciliation and national unity”when a president accuses a journalist without producing any evidence. If this is the understanding of President Weah and his Office of the delicate subject of reconciliation and national unity in Liberia, then, it is rather too thin, and one can envisage that Liberia is headed for troubles in the coming days and months of the Weah Presidency.
Is President Weah and his government ready for every Liberian to follow his “footsteps by expressing their feelings” in accusatory tones as he has done with Paye-Layleh? Also, the response by one of Weah’s officials at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT), Eugene Fahngon, that the President was exercising his rights to freedom of speech when he made the claims against journalist Paye-Layleh and to which journalists must uphold and defend, is rather terribly flimsy, shortsighted and opportunistic.
No journalist or any Liberian has questioned President Weah’s rights to freedom of speech or to represent his ideas and feelings in lieu of his claims against journalist Paye-Layleh.
The fact of the matter is that the President is being simply requested to do what is required as one central basis of freedom of speech: he must back his claims by being specific and more importantly produce evidence.
How can this be a situation that the President’s comments are being “misconstrued,” Mr. Fahngon? Something might be horribly wrong with this Weah official and his conception of the term “misconstrued!”
In discourses within the public sphere, to request evidence as the first step to engage in meta-communication best reflects communicative rationality and pluralistic agonist than a “misconception.” Thus, the President and his Office together with the official Eugene Fahngon must be communicative rational enough rather than being disingenuous and engaging in a reckless act of political immaturity to decrease the trust to interaction of journalist Paye-Layleh.