By Gabriel I. H. Williams
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Daily Observer on February 16, 2021, we bless the Lord for keeping the newspaper alive despite the violence, economic hardship, and censorship it has endured.
The Observer enjoys the distinction as Liberia’s oldest surviving newspaper, having surpassed the Liberia Herald, founded in 1826, which lasted for 36 years. The Liberia Herald was the first newspaper published in the colony of Liberia before the country gained independence in 1847. Editors of the Liberia Herald included legendary Pan-Africanist Edward Wilmot Blyden, who championed the universal cause of black people for freedom and equality, as well as
abolitionist John B. Russwurm, co-founder of Freedom’s Journal, the first black (African American) newspaper in the United States before he emigrated to become one of Liberia’s founding fathers.
The Daily Observer newspaper was founded by Mr. Kenneth Y. Best and his wife Mrs. Mae Gene Best in February 1981, less than a year following the 1980 military coup during which the president was assassinated and 13 officials of the deposed government were executed. The military regime suspended the Constitution and imposed arbitrary rule by decree. Free speech and criticism of the military regime were criminalized. Penalties included arrest and imprisonment for violation of, for example, Decree 88-A, promulgated to punish what was deemed to be lies or disinformation against the military regime and its leaders.
Despite the risks and dangers, Mr. and Mrs. Best took the courageous decision to establish the Observer, which was one of West Africa’s leading independent dailies until Liberia’s civil war. The Observer held leaders of Liberia accountable for their stewardship, and heralded the desire of Liberians for democratic governance and respect for the rule of law.
The military regime reacted by instituting extrajudicial actions against the Observer. In the succeeding years, the Observer suffered five arbitrary closures, including one that lasted for nearly two years, for alleged anti-government reporting. There were several imprisonments of the Observer staff, including Mr. Best and his wife, as well as several arson attacks, the last of which completely destroyed the newspaper’s offices and facilities during the war’s beginning.
I recall my own terrifying experience as a Daily Observer reporter in 1987 when I was arrested, manhandled, publicly stripped naked, and detained by Major Gen. Gray D. Allison, then Minister of National Defense, who was considered Liberia’s second most powerful leader next to dictator Samuel K. Doe. Allison ordered my detention because I refused to disclose the names of sources that I quoted in an Observer report regarding the kidnap of a church pastor, who preached sermons critical of the regime. After the Observer and the Press Union of Liberia protested my detention, Gen. Allison said on state television that my refusal to disclose my sources was disrespectful, and he called me ‘Gbapleh,” a tiny bony fish regarded to be of very little nutritious value and taste, eaten mostly by the poor.
It is equally important to note that the Observer has been a center for training and pursuit of excellence in journalism. Over the years, many young people were taught, mentored, empowered, and employed.
My connection with the Observer began while preparing to graduate from the D. Twe Memorial High School in New Kru Town, a poor community in the Liberian capital Monrovia, in December 1982. I took a letter I had drafted to now late Mrs. Rachel A.B. Cox-George, then D. Twe’s vice principal for administration, to proofread for me. The draft was one of several letters of appeal I had sent to prominent individuals in the Liberian society seeking financial aid for college enrollment. Hailing from an economically disadvantaged background, without financial support or a job, my prospect for college enrollment looked bleak.
As Mrs. Cox-George handed me back the edited letter, she offered to sponsor me to pursue journalism studies at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ). She said many young people who graduate from public schools like D. Twe are often stuck in their communities due to lack of opportunities, noting that she didn’t want me to fall through similar cracks because I had distinguished myself to be a studious and respectful youth.
Starting as a class reporter in the 10th grade, I became chief editor of the D. Twe High School Press Club in the 12th grade. I was also one of the original reporters of “School Special,” a program launched in 1980 that aired every Saturday on national radio ELBC. Reporters from various high schools in Monrovia and parts adjacent filed reports from their respective schools.
A GIJ requirement for admission was that a candidate must have no less than six months experience in the newsroom of a recognized media entity, which I didn’t have. Mrs. Cox-George then sent me to carry a note to Mr. Best appealing for him to consider me for internship at the Observer for the required time period.
After reading the note, Mr. Best gave me a pep talk about the importance of the role of a journalist and the risks involved. Thereafter, he instructed now late News Editor T. Max Teah to take me to the newsroom for a test to determine whether I had a foundation for development, a process in which I was successful. This was how I began my career as Trainee Reporter.
The Observer editorial staff benefited from training programs at home and abroad to upgrade their professional skills. For example, at the time I joined, the staff were undergoing a training program conducted by a lecturer from the London-based Thompson Foundation, which enjoys global recognition as a leader in journalism training.
At the conclusion of my internship after which I was expected to enroll at the GIJ, there came a major stumbling block. Ghana, then an unstable country due to successive military misrule, had plunged into yet another crisis that resulted in the closure of institutions of higher learning, including the GIJ. During that period, Ghanaians faced such extreme economic hardship that many of them came to Liberia for better opportunities, and to purchase toiletries like toothpaste and soap and other basic essentials. Today, while Ghanaians are building super highways across their country and venturing into space, thanks to good governance, Liberia’s government is celebrating the installation of a few street lights in Monrovia. To celebrate turning on a few street lights while most homes and businesses, including schools and medical facilities have no electricity, shows how badly Liberia has lagged in progress due to poor governance.
Three years after failure to enroll at GIJ, I competed for a United Nations fellowship and won first place out of more than 380 journalists from around the world vying for four spots in 1986. I became the first of two Liberian journalists ever to win the Daj Hammarskjold Memorial Fellowship, regarded to be one of the most prestigious awards in international journalism, under which I served as a journalism scholar at the UN Headquarters in New York. The fellowship afforded me the opportunity to interact with world leaders, attend global events, and to acquire knowledge in international affairs.
My colleagues and I who founded The Inquirer independent newspaper in 1991 acquired our professional skills at the Observer. I was able to lead as managing editor, using the Observer experience to harness the team’s collective skills to establish The Inquirer, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in January under current Managing Editor, Attorney Philip N. Wesseh. Wesseh was one year my senior and editor of the press club at D. Twe, which has produced an impressive number of journalists. He was in New Krutown, unemployed and unable to attend college until I recommended him to Mr. Best, who recruited him as Observer’s freelance reporter for the Borough of New Krutown.
We are commemorating the Observer’s anniversary at a time the Liberian media is under attack by the government of President George Weah. The latest arbitrary action is the government’s threat against an independent radio station if the station broadcasts the program of political activist Henry P. Costa. I call on the government to see reason to rescind its decision, which is in violation of the Liberian Constitution regarding freedom of speech. Concluding, I pay homage to those who have been a part of the Observer family over the years. They include late legendary journalists Rufus M. Darpoh and Stanton B. Peabody, Observer’s first and second editor-in-chief, as well as editor T. Max Teah and the other colleagues who have gone from labor to rest. May the Observer continue to be a beacon of freedom through the ages.