Looking back on history and reflecting on the experience of the Daily Observer, this newspaper is constrained to question whether national policy and decision makers, including President Weah who sits at the helm of government, do follow history or whether they have learnt or are learning anything from the history of resistance to oppression in Liberia, particularly the clamp down on free expression.
The history of the Daily Observer’s survival till now, despite the many tribulations the institution including its staffs have suffered in the past, is a case in point. On several occasions Daily Observer staffs were imprisoned and its offices nailed shut by government forces. On three separate occasions, the offices of the Daily Observer were burnt by state security apparently in the hope that the burning would have signaled the demise of the newspaper once and for all.
But they were grossly mistaken; more than three decades later since its founding, the Daily Observer is still alive and vibrant although, like other media institutions, it is feeling the pinch of the difficult economic times. The experience and history of the Daily Observer’s struggle for survival draws it immediately into solidarity with the Roots FM radio station which was not only ordered shut, absent due process of law, but was accordingly vandalized by state security officers with virtual impunity.
It remains unclear at this point whether the Police action was spurred by the declaration of the President of the Press Union calling for the closure of Roots FM and Freedom FM, allegedly because they were involved in propagating hate messages on their airways. Although it is questionable whether both radio stations were called in for hearing into complaints against their respective institutions, the fact that the President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) openly called for their immediate closure, short of the due process of law, speaks volumes.
From all indications, the statement by PUL President Charles Coffey was unilateral and did not reflect the results of a probe, neither was it on the basis of broad consultations with its executive membership nor its disciplinary or ethics committees. In this regard, the Daily Observer condemns in very clear and uncertain terms the inflammatory statement by the President of the Press Union which, more likely than not, contributed to the shutdown and vandalization of the Roots FM.
Not surprisingly, the Freedom FM, said to be owned by a top-ranked official of this government, was left untouched, although Mr. Coffey’s statement had called for the immediate closure of both stations. And the fact that the President of the Press Union has since maintained a stony silence on the vandalization of the Roots FM, and the non-action against the Freedom FM which is still freely broadcasting, tends to suggest, judging from reactions by journalists, that PUL-GoL collusion cannot be ruled out.
Once again, this newspaper wishes to remind officials of this government to be more circumspect in their reactions to what may appear critical of government and avoid the temptation to engage in excesses or unlawful behavior else, they only succeed in casting or reinforcing a negative image of this government. The Doe government certainly must have learnt hard lessons from pursuing a policy of repression against the media and so did President Charles Taylor.
We at the Daily Observer strongly urge this government or rather, officials of this government, to either stop feigning amnesia or stop forthwith the making of threatening pronouncements against media institutions perceived to be anti-government or against individuals or groups who may espouse ideas that run counter to official policy pronouncements.
As the old saying goes, “those that have ears to hear let them hear”! GoL should immediately revoke the gag order on the Roots FM and assure its staff of their personal security. The Daily Observer has since received information that the manager of Roots FM, Fidel Saydee has fled the country out of fear of reprisals from state security functionaries, some of who have not ceased making pronouncements that smirk of threats to life and limb of journalists and critical voices.
Although the Daily Observer has since been unable to contact Mr. Saydee or locate his whereabouts, we urge the Government of Liberia to assure Mr. Saydee of his security as a way of reducing chances that he may fall into the hands of rogue bounty hunters and suffer a similar fate to that of Jestina Taylor, whose attackers are yet to be found by the Police. The Daily Observer also calls on the Government of Liberia to officially proffer charges against the Roots FM if it has any or lift the ban and revoke its closure.
This newspaper needs not warn of the long-term consequences of such action against the media by this government led by President George Weah. The fallout of such will be his to bear as leader of the nation. And those encouraging the pursuit of such policies will all “gbateh”, “give it” or “cut their paypay” and he alone will be there when the crunch comes.
When for example, in 1990 a crying and tearful President Doe, viciously tied-up, sat on the floor before Prince Johnson begging for mercy, he was there alone. Gone were the Jenkins Scott, Emmanuel Shaw and his propaganda trio, “D”, “K” and “B”. Similarly, when President Charles Taylor sat in the dock at the Hague, he sat there alone, far removed from his closest allies and similarly, too, President Tolbert met his untimely end alone.
This government should do the right thing-step back from the brink — and authorize the opening of Roots FM. If all the examples cited above do not resonate and do not constitute sufficient lessons to draw from to serve as guidance to the national leadership, then, may God help us all!