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Special Feature

Danger of Using the Media to Incite Violence in Africa: The Recent Case of Liberia

On the eve of the presidential runoff election in Liberia held on November 8, 2011, the Liberian Government obtained a court order to temporarily close three broadcast stations that were found to be promoting chaos and violence.  Liberia’s recent situation brings to mind similar developments in several African countries where politically motivated violence promoted by the media had catastrophic consequences.  Examples include the 1994 Rwanda genocide in which over 800,000 people were killed, Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence that left over 1,100 people dead and over 650,000 people homeless, and the recent election-related violence in Cote d’Ivoire in which thousands of people were reportedly killed.

In seeking the court order to temporarily remove the radio and television stations off the air, the Government of Liberia accused the stations concerned of broadcasting inflammatory statements by members of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) aimed at inciting violence. The CDC officials and members reportedly took to the airwaves and made such statements: ”The government is killing us indiscriminately … More than 15 persons, including pregnant women and children have been slaughtered …We call on all our supporters to get ready for action …”

Those individuals spewed their venom of hate and threat of violence live on the airwaves immediately after police clashed with supporters of CDC at the party’s headquarters when the CDC supporters reportedly proceeded to stage an unauthorized demonstration, blocking traffic and setting tires on fire in the street. When the Liberian police and UN peacekeepers moved in to stop the illegal demonstration, they were attacked with stones and other missiles by the hooligans. The police responded with teargas, but the situation deteriorated to a point that the police reportedly fired on the protesters resulting in a loss of life, while there was some looting and vandalizing of property.

The violence was triggered by the CDC’s refusal to participate in the presidential runoff election, citing massive fraud, even though the first round of the election, in which there were 16 presidential candidates, was certified by local and international observers to be free, fair, and credible in keeping with international standards.

For several weeks leading to the elections, CDC leaders, including its standard bearer Winston Tubman, and vice standard bearer George Weah, openly threatened to plunge the country back into war unless their party’s demands were met. This is despite the fact that the international community, including regional bodies, tried very hard but failed in their efforts to get Messrs Tubman and Weah to accept that there was no merit to their allegations of electoral fraud, and that there was a need for them to allow the electoral process to be concluded in keeping with Liberian laws and international standards.

In an interview with Reuter’s news agency a day before the runoff, Tubman warned that Liberia was headed for another round of chaos that will engulf the country if the runoff election was held as scheduled. This was the very day CDC supporters, mostly young people who are known to be ex-combatants from Liberia’s brutal and barbaric civil war, jumped in the street to hold an unauthorized demonstration with the apparent intent of aborting the runoff election.

In light of the prevailing developments, the government’s decision to institute a court action seeking for a temporary closure of the media institutions that were found to be involved in promoting violence was consistent with its responsibility to protect civil peace, freedom of movement and life and property. Simply put, the decision was made to temporarily close the media institutions in keeping with due process of law, with the aim to prevent the incitement of further violence and protect lives.

It is now left to the court, which granted the government’s request seeking the temporary closure of the media institutions, to decide whether or not the government has the right under Liberian laws and the Constitution to take such action against the media institutions concerned.

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Nevertheless, I am concerned by the chorus of condemnation of the government for this action from several quarters, particularly Liberian and international rights activist individuals and groups.  And that concern is against the background that in their desire to always be politically correct or hastily follow the traditional pattern of government condemnation for abuse of press freedom, those individuals and groups have failed to also highlight that the media or journalists have a responsibility in how they conduct themselves in the discharge of their duties to society.

In a fragile country like Liberia, which is recovering from nearly 15 years of civil war that left more than 250,000 killed and the entire country almost completely destroyed, the role of the media in helping to consolidate the peace and democratic gains made since the end of the war or throw the country back into chaos cannot be overemphasized. The media or journalists have a moral obligation to always protect the common interest of society and must desist from acts that would undermine the commonwealth.

While it is essential in a democratic society for the media to freely function in providing balanced information to the public, journalists should be mindful that this freedom comes with a responsibility, as enshrined in the Liberian Constitution and other international statues. As stated in Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution, “Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof.”

It is in keeping with international law that freedom of expression comes with a responsibility that three Rwandan journalists were found guilty in 2003 by judges from the international court of the United Nations Tribunal for their role in promoting the violence that caused the genocide. Two of the journalists were sentenced to life in prison.  Also in 2010, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted a Kenyan broadcast journalist for alleged crimes against humanity for playing a crucial part in Kenya’s post-election violence. He was among six suspects, including high profile politicians, indicted by the ICC. The ICC has also opened an investigation in the Ivory Coast relative to the election-related violence in that country.

I am also outraged by those who try to demonize the Liberian Government by comparing its action against the media to those of the brutal and barbaric regimes in Liberia’s recent history. During the days of those dictatorial regimes, including the murderous regime in which Mr. Winston Tubman served as Minister of Justice, the rule of law was nothing more than a dream to the Liberian people, as the rule of the jungle existed as the order of the day.

Under those bloody regimes in which Mr. Tubman and many of his key supporters served in high profile positions, numerous political opponents, as well as rights activists and journalists were regularly harassed, imprisoned, and tortured, and many of them were murdered in cold blood. Their major crime was for daring to advocate for fundamental human rights and democracy, the very freedom that Mr. Tubman and his likes are now enjoying and are abusing.

In Liberia today, freedom of speech and of the press is at an unprecedented level, giving rise to multiplicity of independent media entities, many of which are owned by some of the individuals who I regard to be leftovers from Liberia’s recent evil past. Those individuals have invested some of the resources looted from the country during their days in power, to serve such interests as giving voice to extremism which Messrs Tubman and Weah embody. Check the background of the media entities that were fanning the flames of violence and you will know that their proprietors and top managers are mostly leftovers from Liberia’s recent evil past when warlords and their hangers-on were in control.

From all indications, it appears that the CDC – which is in alliance with other parties and individuals that were involved in the destruction and pillage of Liberia – has an agenda bordering on returning the country to its recent criminal past, where Liberia was the vehicle for the destabilization of the entire West African sub-region.

It goes without saying that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government deserves credit for instituting major reforms that have ensured that freedom truly reigns in Liberia, to the extent that there are no political prisoners, and Liberia was the first country in West Africa to pass a Freedom of Information Act into law, among others.

I have decided to publish this article because there is a distortion of the Liberian reality by those who have decided to compare the government’s legal action against the media institutions concerned with the extrajudicial or draconian actions of past dictatorial regimes. I strongly disagree with them because of my understanding of the historical, legal and constitutional issues regarding freedom of speech and of the press in Liberia.

I have spent most of my adult life as a career journalist who rose through the ranks from cub reporter to managing editor of some of the leading Liberian daily newspapers, and have also served as a journalist working in the United States.  I also served for six years in the leadership of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), the national journalist organization that was in the forefront in advocating for democratic governance during the Samuel Doe military regime, the civil war, and Charles Taylor’s dictatorial regime.  I started in the PUL leadership as assistant secretary general. The civil war started during my tenure as secretary general, and during the early years of the civil war, I was acting president.

During the course of my career in Liberia, I was beaten, detained, and during the civil war, I was apprehended and almost executed with a gun placed to my head simply because I was a journalist. In the wake of repeated death threats for my role as a journalist, I was forced to flee into exile in the United States, where I resided for nearly 11 years until the end of the civil war.

When Madam Sirleaf became president in 2006, I was one of many Liberian professionals, most of us young men and women, she recruited from abroad to join our compatriots at home to serve in various governmental departments, charged with the mandate to push through government’s aggressive reform agenda. My colleagues and I at the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism were mandated to create the environment, through policies and programs, to ensure press freedom which is enjoyed today. Having served as deputy minister at the Information Ministry, the President was pleased to reassign me as a diplomat at the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C., in charge of public diplomacy.

It is against this background that I feel compelled to provide some clarity to what I consider to be a distortion of the Liberian reality regarding freedom of speech and of the press under the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

I wish to close by appealing to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to not hesitate in indicting Messrs Winston Tubman and George Weah, as well as all others who are bent on subverting the peace in Liberia, for which the international community has made enormous investment. The Liberian people have suffered too much from reckless conducts such as those being exhibited by Mr. Tubman and his cohorts.
About the Author: Gabriel I.H. Williams is also author of the book, “Liberia: The Heart of Darkness – Accounts of Liberia’s Civil War and its Destabilizing Effects in West Africa (www.amazon.com).

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