Observer @40: Time for Sober Reflection of New Realities Facing the Liberian Media

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1040

By Maureen Sieh

In its 40-year history, the Daily Observer has weathered many storms including five closures, imprisonment, and threats to its journalists and three fires for fulfilling its watchdog role of exposing corruption, widespread human rights abuses meted against the Liberian people by their government.

One of the fires was in response to a story I wrote about the mysterious arrest and disappearance of Major General Kemeh, a son of Nimba County and former secretary general of the defunct People’s Redemption Council (PRC). Kemeh and his wife were spending the Christmas holiday in Nimba when former President Charles Taylor invaded Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast on Christmas Eve 1989. The Kemehs were returning to Monrovia when they were stopped by government soldiers. General Kemeh was arrested, and the rest of the family returned home to Paynesville.

For days, Mrs. Kemeh went to the Monrovia Central Prison with food, hoping to see her husband or hear something about him. Initially, the soldiers denied that General Kemeh was detained. On her last visit, the soldiers told Mrs. Kemeh to stop coming to the prison.

“If you continue coming here, we will eat the food right in front of you,” one prison guard told her.

Back then, I had been covering the war, traveling to Nimba County and neighboring Ivory Coast and Guinea, where thousands of Liberians had sought refuge. Elizabeth Blunt, former West Africa correspondent for the BBC and I were the first journalists to travel to the battlefront in early January 1990.

The Kemehs were my neighbors on AB Tolbert Road, where I lived with my aunt and uncle, Charles and Beryl Best Brewer. Mrs. Kemeh spent many nights at our house explaining her story to Aunty Beryl. When I returned home from work one evening, Aunty Beryl introduced me to Mrs. Kemeh and asked if I could tell her story. I interviewed Mrs. Kemeh about her husband’s arrest and her efforts to find him.

I told Mrs. Kemeh that I was already putting my life on the line by covering the war. If she wanted my help, she must be willing to go public. She agreed. 

On March 15, 1990, President Samuel K. Doe invited Nimba citizens to a meeting at City Hall to discuss how they could work with government to end the war. I told Mrs. Kemeh to attend the meeting, so she could tell her story.

 Several hundred people attended the meeting. Instead of engaging in a dialogue with Nimbaians, President Doe lectured them about supporting Taylor and his rebels. I listened to the meeting from the loudspeakers outside City Hall, hoping to hear Mrs. Kemeh. That did not happen. When the meeting ended, she approached me.

Where Is My Husband? -March 16, 1990 back page headline

 “What happened?’’

 She told me that she raised her hand several times, but no one acknowledged her.  She tried to approach President Doe, but his guards pushed her away. As Doe was leaving the building, Mrs. Kemeh started screaming. “Where is my husband? I want to see my husband.”

A crowd gathered around her.  I signaled to Daily Observer Photographer, Gregory Stemn, to take pictures.

I returned to the Daily Observer newsroom to finish my story under the guidance of my editors T-Max Teah and Bob Stan (Stanton Peabody). The story headlined, “Where is My Husband?’’ was the back page lead story.  Mrs. Kemeh’s story ran on Friday, March 16,1990.

 The day went on without any phone calls or unannounced visits from the Minister of Information (J. Emmanuel Bowier), Defense Minister (Gray D. Allison) or Justice Minister (Jenkins Scott). Back in the 1980s, we always got nervous when we saw one of those guys coming.

 What did we do again?

 “You will Never Publish Our Secrets Again.’’

The next day (Saturday), I had gone to the J.J. Roberts United Methodist School on 12th street to take the American graduate school exam (GRE). But the test was canceled, so I decided to head to the Daily Observer. I took a cab with my Cuttington classmate, Momolue Kiadii. As the cab approached the Observer’s office on Crown Hill, Momolue noticed the crowd and asked, “Maureen, what happened to the Daily Observer, again? It looks like there was a fire.’’  I said, ‘’I cannot think of anything we did wrong. Everything was fine when we left work yesterday.’’

Cyrus Badio, a former broadcast journalist at the state-run ELBC radio/television was on his way home from work when he noticed the fire and contacted the nearest fire department.  Firefighters responded and they managed to extinguish the flames.

The blaze damaged our photo laboratory and library, but it did not dampen our resolve to remain the voice of the voiceless. The Daily Observer’s security guard told us that the people who torched the building, told him: “Your will never publish our secrets again.”

The following Monday, we came out with the frontpage headline: “Who Burnt the Observer?’’ A few days later, the fire chief was fired for putting out the fire. He was simply doing his job and had no idea that Doe’s government had ordered the fire.

Mr. Kemeh’s story was one of many stories I wrote during my six-month coverage of the civil war. I remember vividly when the war started. The newsroom was tense, and we were brainstorming how we would tell the story that was unfolding in our country.

In a meeting, I told my colleagues that we need to take advantage of the opportunity we had to cover the war because we did not know how long we would be open. In that meeting were: Phillip Wesseh, Bill Burke (my childhood friend who shared my passion for journalism), Gregory Stemn, Sam Slewion and our dearly departed –T-Max Teah, Klon Hinneh, John Vambo, Bob Stan (Stanton Peabody) and Sam Van Kesselly.

I reminded my colleagues that the Daily Observer was closed during the Oct. 15, 1985 elections and the failed Thomas Qwinwonkpa Invasion on November 12, 1985. The latter incident resulted in the death of Charles Gbenyon, one of Liberia’s most celebrated journalists, who worked at the state-run ELBC. Doe ordered Charles killed because he asked Doe a question about the coup attempt.

Charles never got a funeral. We learned that his body was dismembered.

President Doe: “Why Do you Hate Me So Much’’

When the Daily Observer reopened its doors in 1986 on the grounds that the new constitution provided for a free and independent press, one of the first stories I wrote was a profile of Charles’ father, Lawrence Gbenyon. I was haunted by Charles’ death that I yearned to tell the untold story of the murdered journalist.  Mr. Gbenyon picked up his paper from the Daily Observer every morning.  As he was leaving one morning, I asked if I could interview him for the Observer’s historical profile series that I produced.  He embraced the idea.

I figured I could write about Charles’ murder by profiling his father, his journey from his native Togo and how he made Liberia his home.  After Mr. Gbenyon recounted his journey to Liberia, I asked him about how he was dealing with what happened to Charles. He talked about the many attempts he made to get his son’s body, including contacting people in government, some of them Charles’ friends.  “All I wanted was to bury my son,” he said. The story made the front page of the Daily Observer with a centerpiece photo of Mr. Gbenyon holding Charles’ picture.  On the day the story ran, Mr. Best got called to the Executive Mansion.

Doe asked: “Why do you hate me so much?”

I thought a lot about Charles while covering the civil war. I wondered if I would suffer similar fate. But I persisted by God’s grace. In late March, I traveled to the Guinean-Liberian border to cover the plight of refugees in Nzérékoré. In the refugee camp, I met 12 Liberian soldiers who fled because the rebels had more firing power.

“If I stay in Liberia, I will die,” one soldier told me.

When I returned to Monrovia, I contacted Defense Minister Gray D. Allison to get government’s response for my story.

“As far as I am concerned all government soldiers are accounted for,” the minister said.

A month later, Doe called a press conference and warned that any journalists who reported on rebel activities in the country “will be treated like a rebel.”

 I asked Doe to explain his statement.

 “If any journalists say rebels are in this country, they will take us to where the rebels are,” he said.

I do not think any journalist who was forced to accompany government troops to rebel territory would have lived to tell the story.

We discussed Doe’s threat and decided to protest by coming out with a blank frontpage and an editorial explaining our action. The message was loud and clear. We were not about to back down from government’s threats.

I remain grateful that some of my best reporting experiences in journalism happened during my time at the Daily Observer.

The Daily Observer grounded me in journalism, starting when I was a junior at Cathedral High School.  I spent my December break working at the Daily Observer under the guidance of some of the more senior reporters—Phillip Wesseh and Gabriel Williams. I accompanied Phillip and Gabriel on several assignments, so I could get a feel for doing interviews and how those interviews shaped the story.

When I went to Cuttington, I became the Bong County correspondent and returned to the main office during the December vacation. Back then, we earned $25 for a Frontpage Lead story and $15 for an inside story. That was good money during those days for a college student.

 Imagine how much money you could make if you produced at least 10 stories a month?

When I graduated from Cuttington, I was hired full-time as a reporter and features editor. Reporting was my passion.

The Daily Observer opened doors for me. During my senior year in college, I traveled to the United States to observe the U.S electoral process in 1988. When I graduated from Cuttington, I was selected to participate in a three-month fellowship program with other African journalists at the International Institute for Journalism in Berlin from June-September 1989.  Three months after my return from Germany, the civil war began.

My reporting of the war ended in May 1990, when I left on a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue my master’s in journalism.

I returned to Liberia in 2013 to do media development work through the USAID Civil Society and Media Leadership (CSML) program implemented by IREX. Since then, I have worked on several other media development projects.  

Media development affords me the opportunity to give back to the media sector that birthed me, mentoring and training today’s journalists and the generation that will follow, advocating for media law reform and increasing women representation in the media.

Today’s Media Needs Honest Reflection

As a product of the Liberian media, I know what it was, what It has been and what it could be.

The Daily Observer set the pace for journalism in Liberia with its aggressive and fearless reporting and high standards of journalism ethics.  The media landscape, especially print journalism, has changed since the 1980s. Liberia has more than a dozen newspapers, many of them have online platforms—a reflection of the digital age.

As we reflect on the Daily Observer’s 40th anniversary, we must think critically about the newspaper’s role in Liberia, its impact on the print media sector and what lessons we can learn from this pioneering newspaper that inspired a whole generation of journalists and media outlets.

The Daily Observer, like all media outlets, faces countless financial challenges.  Those challenges are impacting the standards and practice of journalism in Liberia. Publishers are not generating enough money to meet the daily expenses of fuel, servicing generators, monthly payroll, newsprint, website maintenance, scratch cards and transportation for their employees to cover stories.  Some newspapers have not paid salaries for months.

Advertising dollars have slowed dramatically because of the bad economy and competition from social media. The government, the media’s biggest advertisers, owes media outlets money that they need to cover basic expenses.

As a result, the brown envelope culture or Kato is embedded in the media.  It is not uncommon to read stories in some newspapers and figure out that someone paid for it. Too many reporters do not fact check stories or capture diverse voices on the issues. Reporters write one-sided stories.  Politics drive news coverage rather than issues that affect citizens.

Oh, how I crave for some of those Daily Observer headlines and captions: “Monrovia Stinks’’, “Bad, Bad Road,’’ and “West Point Dwellers Angry.’’

Some media outlets are financed by government officials and politicians. With these harsh realities, we must ask ourselves, is the Liberian media truly independent today? Cash violence in the media has now joined government censorship as barriers to press freedom. There must be an honest and sober reflection of these new realities to determine how the media can truly fulfill its watchdog role without interference from special-interest groups.

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