The Media Landscape forty years later, since the founding of the Daily Observer, has witnessed the expansion of the democratic space and consequently the expansion of media freedoms. But this has not come without a price.
Over the years since the founding of the Daily Observer in 1981, there have been persistent media reports of journalists being hounded, harassed, jailed and physically assaulted by state security forces with some even losing their lives.
History recalls that the Daily Observer was founded at a time when the country was under the rule of a military dictatorship that came to power in the 1980 coup d’etat following the violent overthrow of the Tolbert government.
Following the birth of the Daily Observer as Liberia’s first independent daily newspaper since 1980, several other newspapers have since come to share the newsstands with it. As a trail blazer, it has led an uncompromising fight against ills affecting the nation’s body politic. And it has done so without fear or favor to anyone.
But by remaining true to its mission and calling over the years, to do fair, truthful, accurate and balanced reporting, the Daily Observer has inadvertently found itself the target of often hostile official action.
Twice since its founding, its offices were set ablaze and burned to the ground. Also, its staff have been arrested and imprisoned on several occasions. In 1990 the Observer was to suffer a fate probably intended to convey a distinct message that its end had finally come. Its offices were once again attacked and burned to the ground while its staff members were driven into exile.
During the period of the civil war, several journalists found themselves trapped behind rebel lines while others found themselves in Monrovia. During that period, local media coverage of events unfolding in Liberia were, it appeared, shaped to reflect the perspectives of either side of the divide.
Also worth noting were efforts made in 1995 by some former staff led by former Daily Observer reporter James Seitua to return the paper to the newsstands. This effort was however interrupted by the outbreak of fighting in Monrovia on April 6, 1996.
Following the cessation of hostilities in July and the gradual return of normalcy, the Daily Observer returned to the newsstands again in 1997 but folded up following the election of Charles Taylor as President that year.
The media landscape underwent significant change during that period. The vibrancy, critical and robust media reporting characteristic of the Monrovia press during the tenure of the Sawyer led Interim government had all but gone cold during the years of the Taylor administration.
During that period, most existing media institutions perhaps with the exception of a few resorted to the practice of self-censorship, fearful of attracting violent retribution from state security agents. And, in doing so, most media houses at the time resorted to the broadcast or publication of sensational stories.
Such strategy, it appeared was intended to shore up a shrinking revenue base in view of a severely constricted advert market dominated by the Government of Liberia and international NGOs.
While GoL could on the one hand deny advert opportunities to those media institutions it considered hostile to its interests, it could on the other hand, bring undue influence to bear on international NGOs to direct adverts only to officially approved media institutions, those it considered friendly. Such was the experience.
Today, the challenges facing the media including the Daily Observer, are huge; they include amongst others, a rapidly shrinking revenue base owing mainly to the dismal economic situation. Resultantly, most media institutions find themselves unable to offer attractive salaries to attract the best quality.
Further, it appears the media is becoming increasingly at odds with officials of this government. When lapses and inappropriate official behavior is reported in the press, it is often interpreted in official circles to mean that the particular journalist or media institution is against the government.
And despite the fact the Constitution of Liberia has enshrined provisions guaranteeing and protecting free expression and despite the fact that the government of Liberia has become signatory to international treaties and obligations protecting freedom of expression and of the media, including the Table Mountain Declaration, yet journalists have become frequent targets of abuse at the hands of state security.
As the Daily Observer celebrates 40 years of existence, it finds itself confronted with challenges threatening its very survival as an institution. There are indications that most other media institutions are also facing similar challenges.
In the face of a shrinking advert market occasioned by a poorly performing economy, the will to persevere has to be undergirded by a commitment to remain faithful to the tenets of good journalism which require fair, balanced, accurate and truthful reporting that will ultimately earn the trust and support of the public.
For its part, the Daily Observer, at 40 renews its pledge to stand by this commitment come what may. Times may, for now, appear or even be difficult, however, difficult times do not last always; they can be overcome and that is exactly what we are pledged to.