In the eyes of too many Liberians it would look as if our country has turned the curve of democracy, leaving behind that ugly past of political misrule, denial of the rights of the majority to rule and freedom of individual choice. It will almost look certain from a face value assessment of the current body polity that our country is a fast growing democracy, one which has made a leap from a near police state under dictator Charles Taylor less than a decade ago.
Today, not has the media landscape so completely shaped [historic numbers of newspapers and radio stations now operate here], Liberians have quickly learned to become expressive of their views and opinions as evidence on radio talk shows and newspapers pages. However the multiplicity of media institutions or the level of freedom enjoyed in expressing views and holding opinions, a closer look at the media reveal astonishingly troubling inferences. Why the country struggles to move from the past of rights abuses largely suffered by none other than media practitioners, pro-democracy activists and human rights campaigners, present media practitioners are showing no sign of not only being troubled by that, they hardly care to use their pages and microphones as lead ways for sustaining our democracy.
Colleagues of the media we’ve time to time missed out on the difference between the media providing forums for exchange of ideas on the one hand, while on another being pace setters of the national agenda. The former we are prudently carrying out and the latter we’re demonstrably failing, miserably! But to set the pace for a national democratic agenda, we in the media must be guarantors of the rights upon which democracy flourishes; we must hold true the media as sacred to all tenets of democracy, including all forms of freedoms, choices and rights to which the people are entitled.
Notwithstanding the media create a paradox. While the media seem to provide relative convenient forums for expression of all shades of political opinions, religious beliefs and faiths, they seem to remain uncomfortable with other aspects of freedom of the individual choices i.e. number of candidates that can contest an elected office in the country or number of political parties into which these candidates can organize themselves to vie for political offices.
In most parts of our stories, editorials and commentaries, we tend to be just satirical about growing numbers of candidates for the presidency or number of certified political parties to contest for national power. We wrongly compare ours to other states’, especially the United States of America where there are just two predominant national political parties. We need to understand that party politics in every democracy is shaped naturally by the thoughts and interests of the people of that nation. In places like the United States, there are two predominant national school of political thoughts which drive its national party politics.
This is derived on what role they wish their government should play in their lives. There are those who see government as a policeman, a regulator and guarantor of rights who ensures that everyone co-exist peacefully, call these the republicans. They will not entertain government’s direct involvement in their lives. There are the other half of the American society that see government in the same frame but more. In addition to the policeman, regulator and guarantor roles, they also see the government as provider of basic social services for society’s poor, call this half the democrats. From time to time they will take opposing sides on other national issues but by principle, their views on government divide them.
Since we often use the US as a guide post for democracy, we need to also decipher what are the competing ideologies in Liberia. Do we have predominant national ideologies or any at all? US, like England, the country out of which it grew, politics is about possessions; what a person can own and how those who own nothing or little will survive. In the old England, relations between nobles and commoners shaped opinions on government’s role and that became a carried-over to colonies in the New World.
While Liberia was technically birthed out of the US and we share so much in common in terms of government and politics, those who formed our country nearly 200 years ago moved to these shores seeking mainly freedom of participation and choice. As ex-slaves, they were exposed to all form of violations of their basic rights and denial to participation in a society that so highly taxed them. In dollars and cents they might not have made staggering amount of payments but their contributions to national development by labor was enormous.
Nearly 200 years on, the freedom of participation and choice still remain key national political issues. Even now most Liberians still look to full participation in national decision-making. The swelling numbers of political parties and presidential candidates are only evidence to this. The media have been critical of the trend of multiplicity of candidates and parties yet weary of a one-party state. In stories, editorials and commentaries, journalists on radio or in newspapers have shared thoughts that Liberia needs fewer political parties and presidential candidates yet no one has expressively stated upon which lines should these parties be formed.
Even at the National elections Commission (NEC) there also seems a concern for the reduction of the numbers of parties. Not only has NEC authorities threaten to deregister parties without offices through the country, they have toyed with a proposal of a strange law couple of years back that would reduce political parties. They intended to submit before the national legislature a law that would grant state funds to political parties but only ones that score 10 percent and above in the national elections. What the NEC law would never succeed on doing would be to restrict who can form a new political party. It would also be unable to hike the monetary value for registration as a barrier, as has been attempted in the current legislature.
My frustration is not with the NEC or the legislature both with component members of former regimes that tried to stifle rights and democratic practices in the past but it is with the media whose members have suffered abuses that I’m most astonished. The media need to be less and less concerned about the number of candidates in the race and more and more focused on the records of the candidates and political actors.
In the elections of 2005, the Daily Observer demonstrated its responsibility as a national political agenda setter when it ran an editorial asking the Liberian people to choose one of the 22 candidates in the race. This was not an action based on sentiment but national interest. The Observer recognized the rights of every candidate in the race to contest but was clear on pinpointing that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Unity Party was the candidate that the Liberian people needed to choose. Simple logic informed the Observer’s decision then. Liberia was a pariah state and needed an immediate effect on its international image to attract goodwill from the comity of nations. Sirleaf had both national and international credentials with which she could attract international goodwill and has gone right on to do this. I remembered how this ruffled many feathers in the Liberian media and cost me heavily in my attempt to become vice president at the Press Union of Liberia. But three years later we were vindicated when scores of leading newspapers in the United States endorsed eventual winner Barrack Obama in that country elections in 2008. The practice of newspapers endorsing candidates is a professionally acceptable practice in all democratic media, except Liberia.
In the months that followed and now, many media practitioners have expressed disagreement with that Observer’s editorial although that practice is common amongst newspapers in the greatest democracies in the world. Interestingly, even in their silence, one discerns from the pages of many newspapers and the tone of radio stations which political bedfellows they’re lying with. One can easily tell that these institutions act not in national interest but for a few dollars that will line their pockets. This is a pretense that we must rid ourselves of. Journalism entails advocacy; advocacy is a conscious exercise in which those involve do so not seeking to be compensated but to ensure the greater good of society.
Let’s have as many candidates as possibly can be from any number of political parties that may qualify by law but we need to guide the nation to select the right leaders based on records. Our best contribution to a better democracy would not come by buying undemocratic ideas of trying to stifle people’s rights to participate in national elections as candidates. Our greatest contribution would be to identify potential national leaders from around the nation and expose them to the national electorate. Once we set the national political agenda in selecting national leaders by identifying potential candidates by their records and not by their dollar power, we will help the ordinary Liberian make a sound choice regardless of how crowded the field can be.
We should not have candidates who vacillate between being advocates, swindlers and politicians come to election with their ill-gotten, stolen wealth to challenge morally upright individuals And instead of exposing the shrewd past of these individuals we’ll offer our pages and air-time to not only be bought with crooked money but accept huge sum of gratuities to slant the news. We should not stoop so morally low.
We cannot stop anyone from contesting for jobs they intend to pursue but every candidate declaring intention must be subject to open, fair and critical assessment of their past. The greatest disservice we will have done our country is to allow a candidate with excess baggages get through our line of scrutiny and get elected. This is not to say nothing will ever be done to remedy that thereafter, but the damage could be severe. Giving a fair scrutiny during the run up to elections and strongly warning Liberians about the danger of electing tainted character would, by and large, go a long way. It would as well deter persons with equal tainted past from contesting public offices and helps to guide those with intent to contest public offices in the future from engaging in any shady deals.
As the nation nears campaign period for 2011, let’s not fill our pages and air-time with just what the candidates will say and promise, let’s match each pronouncement that a candidate makes with his/her past records. We need to measure how realistic some of these over ambitious promises can be.
Fellow colleagues, this not a charge this is a challenge!