6 September 2013

Liberia: Two Wrongs Do Not Make A Right

Photo: FrontPage Africa
Imprisoned FrontPage Africa's Managing Editor, Rodney Sieh.


President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has disappointed the Liberian people on her zero tolerance for corruption promise. She has not shown the willingness, courage and resolve to go after her officials suspected of corruption – those who cannot account for missing public funds and other resources, or who show signs of having built themselves mansions and acquired bank accounts and farms from unexplained resources.

Recently, she even failed and refused to denounce her spokesperson for statements threatening the press -- which led to a press black out of government information. This stance on her part has been a source of great frustration to the press and a bone of contention between the media and the entire administration, all branches of which play the same game of obstruction, making it nearly impossible to get to the truth.

In spite of this wall of obstruction against the press, however, journalists cannot abandon the principles of their craft -- fairness, justice, credibility, integrity and responsible reporting. The accused or suspected individual(s), whatever their status in society, deserve the opportunity to defend or explain his/her/their actions/inactions and tell the public what really happened. If the accused refuses or declines the opportunity, then that must be clearly stated to the public in the story. The next step is for the press to call for prosecution of these individuals and to put unrelenting pressure on the government to do so. But to pursue persons in reckless abandonment of the rules and ethics of journalism; to insult anyone -- man, woman or child -- of whatever status in society is also a corrupt practice. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Just as we expect government to be held accountable, we in the media also must be held accountable. Press Freedom in Liberia has come a long way from the days of Tubman through the brutal tactics of Samuel Kanyon Doe and the rest. With persistence, perseverance and patience, we must continue to work for the benefit of the country through ethical reporting.

But right now, no journalist is being persecuted here, jailed or closed by this administration for criticizing it, and this is commendable. We in the fourth estate now need to work on the transparency issues such that government does not hide, forgive or turn a blind eye to the deeds of inept and corrupt officials. The country cannot afford those behaviors -- from the president on down to messengers and drivers -- or we will remain backward and the laughing stock of the world.

We at the Daily Observer have co-existed with more than 35 other newspapers over the past  eight years, and new ones are emerging all the time. The Observer’s  fortunes are not tied to or dependent upon any other institution’s existence or demise whatsoever. We are active members of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and have worked together with the media family to oppose threats against the media.

At the same time, we in the media family must also be willing and courageous enough to acknowledge and address our own failures; and we, the Daily Observer included, have many shortcomings and make mistakes. We too are accountable for what we publish and accept sound criticism just as we so often dish out to others.

This case is important because it is a teachable moment for the 4th estate, the government and the Liberian people. We get to discuss and understand press freedom and the ethics and principles involved in this great profession. Freedom of speech is not free; it has costs, limits and high risks and requires due diligence. We now know more about what libel is and why one must speak and write responsibly, fairly, objectively and with integrity.  One may appear right in the court of public opinion, but the law looks at the facts, the evidence of the case. Journalism is hard work; and sometimes when the news is hot, a good reporter/journalist/editor MUST exercise due diligence, patience and fairness to all parties. Otherwise he/she rushes into the quicksand of libel, defamation, slander, smear, character assassination with no lifeline of proof.

The court has passed its judgement. Liberia’s judicial system is not without its faults, and even the American judicial system is undergoing transformation everyday. The job of international fourth estate organizations is not to back journalists regardless of whether they are right or wrong, but to promote and recognize the practice of good Journalism as well as to publicize and come to the aid of those under attack through no fault of their own. Those seeking to comment on this case must study the merits of the case and the court documents. Journalism is not promoted when wrongdoing in the profession is defended.

An expeditious settlement of the matter between Dr. Toe and Mr. Sieh would be welcome to lessen tensions and allow all to resume our respective pursuits. For the media, that means pursuing the truth fearlessly, but responsibly. Our crusade against wrong must be advanced in the right way.

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