Ellen’s Twilight: A Time for Evenhandedness and Constitutional Tolerance

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The abrupt closure last Saturday of Benoni Urey’s radio station, situated at 10th Street, Sinkor, is a highly disturbing development indeed.

A Ministry of Information press release issued Sunday by Deputy Minister Isaac Jackson said the closure action was executed by the Civil Law Court. But the press as well as bystanders and passersby observed a full contingent of officers of the Police Support Unit (PSU) and the Emergency Response Unit (ERU), clad in full riot gear, standing outside the radio station, as though in full readiness for combat.

One bystander remarked that the scene was a vivid reminder of the frequent attacks which the Samuel K. Doe and People’s Redemption government launched against the Daily Observer newspaper in the 1980s.

What is most disturbing about this terribly unfortunate incident is that this is the third time the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf government has moved to close down a media house. That is apart from the closure in November 2011 of Kings FM, Love FM (now LIB-24) and Power FM/TV. These closures were in connection with a riot at the party headquarters of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), executed on the eve of the election run-off between the incumbent President Sirleaf’s Unity Party and the CDC. The GOL said that in taking that action against the three electronic media outlets, GOL attempted to preempt a Rwanda-style radio broadcast that incited people to riot and kill.

The three closures we refer to in this editorial are directly related to actions by these media houses which GOL deemed were particularly critical of the presidency. The first was in 2014 when government summarily shut down The Chronicle newspaper owned and operated by Philipbert Browne. This newspaper had been launching a persistent campaign calling for an alleged “interim government” that it said was in the making to unseat the incumbent national leadership headed by President Sirleaf.

The second, which occurred on July 4, 2016, was the closure of the Voice FM operated by Henry Costa, whose highly controversial talk show were very critical of the country’s current political administration.

Costa then moved his talk show to Mr. Urey’s LIB-24 FM. Costa’s prime offense this time was a letter allegedly written by President Sirleaf to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alex Tyler, proposing a certain change in the statues. Costa conjectured that the letter had something to do with the Global Witness allegations of several government officials who involved in changing some of the country’s laws and regulations to accommodate the mining interests of the UK-based Sable Mining. Costa, in his talk show last week, interpreted the President’s letter to the Speaker to mean that she was the one whom Global Witness called “Big Boy 1.”

That, too, was, in Costa’s typical style, highly explosive; and that may have tipped the sudden action against Urey’s station, which Costa was now using to air his broadcasts.

It is not clear how or whether Costa definitively linked the President to any wrong doing by her letter to Tyler. We do not see how the President’s letter to Tyler linked her to any impropriety.

Be that as it may, we are deeply saddened by the government’s over reaction. There are two reasons: first, this has brought the whole Global Witness allegations into sharper public focus and has forced people to sit up and think and listen and speak out and do their own investigation in a matter that seemed to be dying down already.

We are deeply saddened, secondly, because we cannot see how this closure of yet another media house can help the President’s image—and legacy. There have been numerous criticisms against her administration. However, the one thing that people have unequivocally credited her with is her tolerance of media criticism. Here is a Liberian President who has staunchly followed President Tolbert’s lead in rejecting the iron bar that President Tubman imposed on freedom of speech and of the press. As far as Tubman, Doe and Charles Taylor were concerned, these freedoms were nowhere in the Liberian Constitution. And yet they were—and are—and despite the draconian laws still on our books, President Sirleaf has effectively avoided using them against the media, and actually constantly advocated their repeal.

That is why she became only the second African leader to sign the Table Mountain Declaration.

We pray that the President will maintain the tolerance she has exercised since her tenure began in 2006 and deal evenhandedly with the media on the high moral ground of constitutional faithfulness and tolerance.

At the same time, we urge all our media colleagues to be equally evenhanded and fair to all whom they cover.

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