9 January 2013

Liberia: Free Speech Versus Blackmail - Costas-Dumoe Episode Resonates Old Tackles

The usually hot political nerves of Liberians that were largely calmed by the festive seasons of the last two weeks are now recharged in the New Year with debates on the merits and demerits of barrage of censures unleashed upon Government, particularly President Sirleaf, by two young Liberians over the handling of the country's natural resources. In reaction to the youngsters' live talk show-trumpeted anti-Sirleaf critique, the citizens are flatly divided, as The Analyst reports.

Debate's antecedents

Like its counterparts in most democracies, the Liberian Government has come under virulent scrutiny at the end of the year by citizens who have the luxury of time and the opportunity to get their views across via the media. And for President Sirleaf, who is nearly one year in the second term of her leadership, opposition and independent thinkers, including the media, have taken up time to give the Government and President Sirleaf their scorecard for the last 12 months.

Hot FM's usually hot live talk show host, Henry Costas, took advantage of the fray with his invitation to one of Liberia's upcoming political activists, fiery-tongued Menipakei Dumoe, former spokesman of the opposition Movement for Progressive Change.

The talk show panelists' review of Government's performance in 2012 got stuck at the controversial Private Users Permit (PUP) syndicate which has cost the jobs of a number of government officials principally those having link to forest resource management in the country.

In the view of both panelists, the action by Government, particularly President Sirleaf, was insufficient. They contended that the dismissal of a few officials was a window dressing of a grievous crime against the people of Liberia.

According to the panelists, the PUP scam exposed what they considered the entrenched debauched official tendency symptomatic of the level of corruption and mismanagement at the highest echelon of Government.

Instead of window-dressing the case, the panelists stressed, President Sirleaf would do the honorable thing of resigning her post for negligent oversight and condoning corruption.

Some elements in Government and those loyal to the power that be have been calling for the ban of the talk show and the infliction of reprimands upon the show's host and guest. And there have news that Hot FM management has already taken some actions.

Already the Management of Hot FM suspended the show indefinitely until it sufficiently reviews the contents and format with the host.

In a statement the management said it prides itself in providing responsible educational, informative, and entertaining programming for the general Public and it had crossed the [ethical] line, promising to return it to the air once it completes its review and put into place proper control mechanisms.

Press Union of Liberia President Peter Quaqua told journalists Sunday that the management's action was disproportionately severe.

He however noted that while there was nothing wrong with being constructively critical of the government, the duo "have been going overboard in their use of profanity in their attacks".

Divided Public Opinions

The panelists' comments, coupled with external solicitation of ruthless action against them, have provoked debate, particularly activists and government spokesperson.

Civil liberty-minded citizens say the Hot FM host and his guest were exercising their constitutional right to free speech when they critically reviewed the performance of President Sirleaf and her Government. According to them, as long they panelists did not insult the President or say anything seditious, the views expressed during the live talk show should be considered the right of the citizens to checkmate the output of their government.

Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution says every person has the right to freedom of expression and that this right should not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution. It further states that the right encompasses the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to knowledge. It includes freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge and information and the right of libraries to make such knowledge available. It includes non-interference with the use of the mail, telephone and telegraph. It likewise includes the right to remain silent.

However, there are other citizens writing in newspapers columns and calling on talk shows of other radio stations in Monrovia have condemned the panelists' raw verbal assaults on President Sirleaf and Government.

Citizens abhorrent to the views of the panelists believe the Sirleaf administration has done so much for the country in a short time, and there is a need for Liberians to understand and appreciate the monumental challenges the administration has overcome in the last seven years.

An overly bitter Jefferson A. Teah, Jr. said in an interview with The Analyst that political activist Dumoe and his FM talk show host were attention grabber and should not be given credence.

This is an interesting country, he said, where talk shows promote nonessential persons and at the end of the day become the latest fanatic of Sirleaf or Government.

Teah said there are many instances, since 2005, when so-called activists and politicians seeking their own interest purported to be pro-people activists.

"Most of these people are today government spokespersons, defending Madam Sirleaf to death, and chopping state money, while the mass of Liberians they professed advocated for are still languishing in squalor," he further said.

"What can better be described a blackmail of Government or Madam Sirleaf when so-called activists take to radio talk show or to newspaper pages and unleashed the crudest critique and at the end of the day you find them in Government."

"Dumoe has been languishing about the place, and perhaps sees Hot FM a launching pad of his crusade of blackmail," Teah said further. "When Ellen makes him assistant minister as she had done many young former activists, his critique will change to praises."

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