Liberian Journalism at a Crossroad

By Joe Bartuah|

Mr. Joe Bartuah Author

As a cross-section of Liberian journalists converge in New Castle, Delaware for the annual conference of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA), slated for September 15th-17th, columnist Joe Bartuah has just released this thought-provoking pep talk for members of the Inky Fraternity.

How many of our compatriots are aware that a Liberian journalist played a pivotal role in erecting the quintessentially aspirational architecture of our nation state? Just peruse the brilliantly crafted wording of the foremost foundational document of Liberia, otherwise known as the Declaration of Independence. Who minted that inspiring national vision? Was it Elijah Johnson, one of the venerable politicians at that time? No! Was it Samuel Benedict, the president of the convention? No! Who then, among the eleven signers of one of our sacred national documents, prudently wove those highly motivational words? Indeed, one name stands out: HILARY TEAGE, a newspaper editor at the time.

Someone might be tempted to quip as to why is it relevant at this point in time? Simple. When it mattered, when the exigency arose to meticulously elucidate the democratic vision of the embryonic Republic of Liberia to an overwhelmingly cynical world in July of 1847, Liberian journalists were there from the onset, gallantly guiding the birth of a new nation. In other words, rather than being passive, apathetic spectators, Liberian journalists have historically been active participants in the perennial strides for democratic consolidation in this country.

In a similar vein, I don’t know how many of our well-learned younger colleagues can remember the name, E. Frederick Taylor. He spent 17 years in William Tubman’s abysmal penitentiary, just because he dared to speak truth to the imperial autocrat from Cape Palmas. Likewise, Mr. Tuan Wreh, (who subsequently became dean of the Louis Arthur Grimes School, Commissioner of Immigration and Senator from Grand Kru County in post-Tubman years), then a 26-year-old journalism graduate from Boston University in Massachusetts, was made to clean Tubman’s toilet bowl with his bare hands and subjected to other forms of brutal human degradation. His crime? Because in 1955, he had written an article against Tubman’s manipulation of the constitution to perpetuate himself in office. Of course, the list goes on and on, including the horrible fate that befell Mr. Charles Gbeyon, then a 29-year-old brilliant news anchor in November 1985, when he was callously murdered while performing his journalistic duties.

What I am driving at here is that in spite of the modest gains made thus far, Liberian journalists must not allow ourselves to be shackled by complacency. Having been in the forefront of the excruciating struggles for institutionalizing democratic precepts in our dear country over the years, we must not abdicate our pivotal role in shaping public policies, for doing, especially so at this point in time would be tantamount to recklessly abandoning the noble torch, which was sacredly passed onto us by past generations of eminent members of the Inky Fraternity. Rather than quit, rather than allowing complacency to have a corrosive effect on our forward-looking perspectives, Liberian journalists must continue to candidly speak truth to power. Just as Hilary Teage, the eminent Editor helped to guide the embryonic nation in carving out its inspiring aspiration 170 years ago, we, too, as custodians of the Mighty Pen, must not shirk our responsibility of proffering prudent proposals, or critically analyzing existing laws, policies and practices aimed at moving our nation forward.

However, before continuing in our quest for speaking truth to power, a soul-searching introspection is imperative. As I see it, that should be one of the cardinal goals of this year’s annual convocation of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA), which is slated for New Castle, Delaware this weekend, September 15-17, 2017. To put it in a Liberian parlance, a cat usually starts being sassy by initially eating its own kitten(s).In other words, before speaking truth to power, we must first start with our own house cleaning. We must honestly assess the standards of our niche of the global Inky Fraternity. Are we satisfied with the standards of Liberian journalism? What’s the minimum qualification, level of competence for the issuance of press card? Are we abiding by the rudiments of the profession? Should professional groupings such as the Press Union of Liberia, Female Journalists Association of Liberia and ALJA continue to blindly defend journalists who infringe the basic norms of the profession, or should we go ahead and weed out bad apples?

At a professional gathering such as the forthcoming ALJA conference, we, as professionals, must not gross over asking such introspective questions and many more. Ours is a profession of probing and therefore, we must spare no time in utilizing our professional compass to critically diagnose the incipient intricacies of our society, with the goal of crystallizing same for the eventual betterment of our society.

Because our profession is better practiced in a stable, serene environment, we must ceaselessly advocate for the cultural concretization of fundamental democratic norms. We must perpetually remain sensitive to public policy malpractices that tend to erode the noble foundation of democracy. When those charged with the responsibilities of making laws, enforcing laws or interpreting laws become law breakers, Liberian journalists must speak out. We must speak because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Every preferential treatment, whereby those accused of corrupt practices are selectively prosecuted, or whereby prosecution becomes a conspicuous sham, with no desire on the part of power brokers to penalize the culprit(s), or to recover the stolen national resources is a disservice to national development. Every economic injustice, whereby a few power elites and their close associates, or family members become super rich overnight while 99.9 percent of the populace continues to languish in abysmal poverty, with no prudent policy aimed at creating a vibrant middle class is a threat to national cohesion. It is a threat, because as it is most often said, a hungry man is an angry man.

At such annual pilgrimage of the Inky Fraternity, Liberian journalists must insist on firmly holding our dignified place in our nation’s history. To uphold the unique stature of our profession as an arena for the unfettered cross-fertilization of ideas and ideals, we should not be timid in initiating a catalyzing national conversation on pertinent national issues. When others think that it should be business as usual in operating an opaque system without any form of accountability, the Fourth Estate must insist on transparency. For example, we need laws to prevent any form of money laundering in our country. Our banks must be constrained by laws, from blindly accepting outlandishly substantial sums of money from individuals and institutions, without asking them to show tangible proof of legitimate income.

When government appointees and elected officials become millionaires overnight, Liberian journalists must insist on accountability. The Inky Fraternity should not sit supinely and allow its integrity to be eroded by the torrential waves of questionable practices, which tend to stymie national development. Even on key constitutional issues, we must not hesitate to initiate a national conversation. For example, do the protracted presidential term of six years, senatorial term of nine years and another six years for members of the House of Representatives best serve the ultimate democratic interests of Liberia? Should a child born on the very first day of a typical senator’s taking office become an adult at the end of such senator’s second term of office? Is that not a blatant suffocation of the nation’s democratic aspiration? Should those long years, which clearly erode democratic vibrancy, remain the undesirable features of our constitution, or should the people duly instruct their legislative representatives to initiate the necessary amendments?

Over the years, many Liberians, especially those in officialdom having been touting how the Liberian flag, Liberian constitution are all modeled after those of the United States, is it not laughable that only key constitutional provisions, which personally benefit elected officials are strikingly divergent from key provisions of the U.S.? In other words, the presidential term in the U.S. is four years, while senatorial term is six years and members of the House of Representatives are elected every two years. Is it not an anti-democratic mockery that our power brokers are consistent in copying superficial aspects of the American constitution and political culture, but deliberately eschew its instructively impactful provisions that are potentially beneficial to the vast majority of the Liberian people?

When a single electoral cycle is featuring 20 presidential candidates, just to further confuse a largely unlettered electorate, we must strive to sensitize our people. If we remain reticent amid corrupt practices, it would definitely impute an indelible blight on our otherwise noble profession and inadvertently portray us as complicit cheerleaders in ruining the socio-economic, political fabrics our common patrimony. As we all gather this Friday, to deliberate on pertinent national issues, these are obvious foods for thought that I feel obliged to share with everyone. Wishing everyone a happy convention.

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About Cholo Brooks 16119 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.