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History of the Liberian Press (Part I)

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

News Section:

In Observance of the Anniversary of Daily Observer
Introduction: A General Overview:
Liberia, located on the west coast of Africa, was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society (ACS) in an effort to find a home for black slaves who had gained their freedom in America following the American War of Independence. The settlement also founded, with the assistance of the American government, to abolish slavery and to spread Christianity in Africa.
This colony adopted the characteristics of the American bureaucracy. In 1847, Liberia gained her independence from the ACS and adopted a republican form of government with an executive president. The 1847 Constitution was modeled after that of the United States Constitution. The settlers from America (later joined by recaptured Africans from the Congo River Basin), were educated and well-versed in the art of politics and religion. They dominated the aborigines they met on the Grain Coast in every sphere of influence: politics, religion, education, business and other social institutions closely aligned with American way of life. This system was toppled in a bloody military coup on April 12, 1980.
Liberia is 37,000 square miles with a population of about 3.4 million (2004 census). There are 15 counties stretched along a coastline of 350 miles along the Atlantic Ocean. There are 16 major ethnic groups in the country with English as official language. The capital is Monrovia; the form of government is republican with the Liberian dollar as legal tender backed by the U.S. dollar.
Freedom of expression and freedom of the press as enshrined in the 1847 Constitution formed the foundation of the First Republic (1847-1980) but its implementation remained an illusion. The fragile press at the inception of the First Republic took on the characteristics of authoritarian press theory, with little or no avenues for freedom of expression and public dissent. These were some of the precipitating factors that led to the overthrow of a century-old regime by 17 enlisted and non-commissioned officers of the Liberian National Guard (now the Armed Forces of Liberia) in 1980.
During the military regime from 1980-85, the promise to promote freedom of expression and of the press was quickly abandoned when soldiers with political ambition began designing strategies to convert themselves into civilian administrators come 1986, the target date for a return to constitutional rule.
Decrees were promulgated that inhibited freedom of the press as mushrooming newspapers and radio stations became constant targets of closures, illegal fines, the intimidation and incarceration of journalists without trial. In one instance, a journalist was killed.
This situation remained the same until the Constitution, which gave birth to the Second Republic, came into effect on January 6, 1986. Restrictions on the press and government censorship of media institutions remained in tact during the civilian administration of Doe and continued during the war years, despite a guarantee of freedom of the press and of expression provided for in the new constitution. Today, Liberia enjoys press freedom where people exercise their constitutional rights to scrutinize the functions of the government and the activities of public officials.

The Nature of the Liberian Press

Communication, by its functional definition, is a social intercourse through words, letters, symbols, signs or sounds to convey thoughts or ideas. In Africa, it includes the use of the horn, drum, handkerchief, road and bridges. It also includes the use of the telephone, telex, internet, television, radio, cinema, billboards, magazine, newspaper etc. All of these constitute the mass media in Liberia and the study of its technology is often referred to as mass communications.
This paper is limited to the study of the print media or the newspaper and its impact on the development of democracy in Liberia.
The Liberian press constitutes a potent force in national development through its traditional role of informing, educating and entertaining the various elements of the society. It plays these roles from two main domains: the public and the private.
In the public domain, the government finances and operates newspapers, magazines for the print media, and the radio, television stations and websites for the electronic media. The private domain is largely composed of individual businessmen and corporations. The church, too, under the private domain, operates radio stations and newspapers for the spread of the Gospel.
At the beginning of the Second Republic in 1986, the leading newspapers were the Daily ObserverFootprints TodaySun TimesDaily Star, and The Mirror. The other papers that appeared daily and sometimes occasionally were The StandardLiberian Post and Business Times. The weeklies were The Sun and Sunday Observer, which appeared during the weekend, and The Bong Crier (regional), published by the Ministry of Information as a rural communication network project. In addition, the ministry published The New Liberian, the official news organ of the government. Each of these publications had a circulation of less than 6,000 copies.
Several newspapers appeared and disappeared during the war years of Charles Taylor from 1990 to 2004. However, some survived and new ones sprouted from the ashes of war. The leading newspapers on the stand are Daily ObserverThe AnalystNew DemocratFrontPage AfricaThe ForumThe IndependentThe InquirerThe NewsNew LiberiaPublic AgendaThe Trinity Times andHeritage.
II. Evolution of the Liberian Press
A.) The Colonial Press
The historical development of the Liberian press dates back to the founding of the nation by the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1822. Among the first settlers who arrived from America were educated men and women who served as teachers, preachers, nurses, plumbers, carpenters and social workers. The quickest form of communication in the settlement was the sermon, preached on Sundays in the churches.
Gradually, the settlements expanded and the churches established newspapers, the first being the Liberia Herald, which appeared on February 16, 1826. According to Kenneth Y. Best, it was started “by an African-American printer and journalist, Charles L. Force, using a hand-operated printing machine costing roughly $600 and donated to the young Liberian colony by the Massachusetts Colonization Society” (“Communication: Its Role in the Development of Liberia, Monrovia, 1987).
The Liberia Herald was launched a year after the African Repository and Colonial Journal had begun publication by Ralph Randolph Gurley, secretary of the colony. The media were launched in the colony to spread in America the good work done by the settlers and open up avenues for further U.S. assistance (Cassell, Abayomi C. Liberia: History of the First African Republic, New York: Fountainhead Publishers Inc., 1970, p.35).
According to J. Gus Liebenow (Liberia: The Quest for Democracy, 1987) the colonial newspapers provided information on “new groups’ arrival, ship arrivals, market conditions and other data about the environment”(p. 20). The papers also provided interesting articles on the geography, natural history, manners and customs of Africa, including criticisms about the administration of the colony by the ACS. The Liberia Herald continued publication for several decades. It was four-page bi-weekly. This was followed by several other newspapers, most of which were short-lived.
As Liebenow notes, the absence of vigorous private reformist newspapers in the country at this time was due to “lack of advertisers and other financial supporters, as well as the descending wrath of government officials (which) quickly terminated the existence of a vigorous critic.”

Press in the First Republic

When the True Whig Party came to power in 1869, it was never defeated in an election until its overthrow in 1980. What made the True Whig Party to stay in power for more than hundred years was government restriction on public dissent and the curtailment of the freedom of speech and of the press, contrary to the provisions of the 1847 Constitution, suspended on April 12, 1980. It provides in Article I, Section 15 that:
The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state; it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this Republic. The printing press shall be free to every person, who undertakes to examine the proceedings of the Legislature or any branch of government; and no law shall ever be made to restrain the rights thereof. The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write and print, on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.
There was some degree of press freedom under this provision until the administration of President Charles D.B. King when the National Legislature passed an anti-press freedom law on February 8, 1924 making it a criminal libel for:
Any person to malicious make, publish, expose for sale or to public view any writing, printing, engraving, drawing or effigy charging the President of Liberia or the Diplomatic Representatives of any foreign government with the commission of any act which, if true, would warrant a criminal prosecution against such official, with the intent in so doing to defame, degrade, revile or expose to public hatred, ridicule and contempt for any of the aforesaid officials, or to disturb the peace and friendship between any foreign government and our own (Best, 1987).
This law, which is in contravention of the 1847 Constitution, provides a fine of $300-$1000 and imprisonment ranging from six months to two years for any person convicted of said offense. Best adds that this law makes it illegal to criticize the President of Liberia and “even if the publication were true, it could not hold water in court and therefore, the individual or
publication was still guilty of libel.”
It can be recalled that the enactment of this law coincided with King’s exportation of native Liberians as slaves to work on plantations on the islands of Fernando Po. The investigation of this scandal by the League of Nations forced King out of office since slavery had earlier been abolished in the settlements.
One critic who remained a thorn in the flesh of the Tue Whig Party leadership and the military government was that “inveterate” pamphleteer, Albert Porte (1906-1986) who from time to time sold his pamphlets on the sidewalks of the streets, attacking issues of current significance. After the passage of the 1924 law, Albert Porte clashed with King in 1929 for using government funds to build himself a private mansion, Liebenow adds.
In Nelson (Liberia: A Country Study, 1985), press freedom took a nose-dive during the administration of President William V.S. Tubman (1944-1971) when the “strict sedition, libel and slander laws that protected government officials from most forms of criticism constrained the independent press” (p. 234) as editors and reporters were jailed and or banned from time to time.
(Best 1987a) recounts that “in 1945 the Tubman government jailed one journalist for 15 years, the longest term for any in our country. In 1955 the same government banned a newspaper, arrested and imprisoned its two editors and eventually deported the editor-in-chief who was a foreigner” (p. 6).
There was, however, a steady growth of government-owned newspapers. For example, the Liberian Age (1946-1964) was founded in 1946, first as a bi-weekly and later twice a week by the government. In 1950, the Daily Listener (shutdown in 1977) was founded as a private newspaper, but government decided to finance it, like the Liberian Age so as to close any possible source of criticism (Nelson).
Other private newspapers such as The Friend (1954)The Independent (1955) and the African Nationalist were quickly choked to death by Tubman for criticizing government policies, programs and the behavior of public officials. The Liberian Star (1964-1980) succeeded the Liberian Age, and this was later supplemented by the Bentol Times. After the 1980 coup, the Liberian Star became The New Liberian, and a short-lived supplement, The Redeemer, both being publications of the Ministry of Information as the mouthpiece of the revolution.
When William R. Tolbert, Jr. became president in 1971, he temporarily lifted the tight hand of censorship on the press and some private newspapers began appearing on the newsstand. At the same time the Liberian Age and The University Spokesman (published by the student government at the University of Liberia) began publishing critical articles and pointed editorials on the conduct of government officials in light of the then prevailing press freedom in the country.
Liebenow (1987) recounts that the mushrooming of the papers which seized advantage of this mild press freedom were the Sunday PeopleThe Liberian InauguralSunday ExpressWeWeekend NewsThe Trumpet and a variety of other publications. This period also witnessed the birth of news magazines such as The RevelationThe Revolution and Gweh Feh Kpei, published by pressure groups such as the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) and the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA). The only leading news magazine was The Liberian Outlook.
No sooner had this press freedom gone down with the crowd than the ugly hands of censorship began clamping down on free speech and free press. In 1975 the Government of Liberia (Best, 1987a) fined the editors of The Revelation, a university student magazine, $17,000 for publishing “a cartoon of the blind goddess of justice (a statue in the yard of the Supreme Court) peeping at the scales” (p. 6). The four students were jailed; their parents paid the fines, but when they were released, the government denied them a business license to resume publication.

The Revolutionary Press

Two days after seizing power in a bloody coup, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe (later President of Liberia) announced on April 14, 1980 that “the Tolbert government had to be removed because it disregarded the civil, human and constitutional rights of the Liberian people”(Wonkeryor, Liberia Military Dictatorship: A Fiasco Revolutionu, p. 19, 1985). Doe promised to protect the rights of all Liberians, including freedom of speech and of the press that was denied under the past government.
In light of this, some private businessmen consolidated their assets to establish viable newspapers in the country. In the latter part of 1980, the Liberian Observer Corporation was established by Kenneth Y. Best. On February 16, 1981 the first edition of a modern newspaper, the Daily Observer, published by the Liberian Observer Corporation, hit the streets of Monrovia.
The use of comp graphic machine for typesetting, sharp photographs and the practice of balanced journalism convinced the military authorities to congratulate the publishers of the paper for injecting a new style of journalism in the Liberian press. During one such interaction, Doe urged the Daily Observer staff not to relent in exposing corrupt government officials so as to wipe out “rampant corruption” from the Liberian society.
When the Daily Observer captured the market within the first three months of its existence, other papers that were weak began folding up because of a dramatic switch of readership to a better-looking and well-edited paper.
True to the spirit of Doe’s declaration that corruption in public places be exposed, the Daily Observer, which was always considered a ‘hot piece of cake’ in Monrovia, launched a patriotic crusade against rampant corruption and other vices that gripped the nation during the early years of the coup.
When the paper published a story about corruption at the Ministry of Justice, the first PRC justice minister, Chea Cheapoo, made blistering attacks on the publisher of the paper and showered the editors with insults and death threats should they continue to “observe” the way they were reporting. This was carried live on national television. By now, it was apparently clear that the military regime had begun harboring second thoughts about the consequences of a free press. Gradually, it started clipping the wings of the Liberian press, given the high level of critical reportage about the PRC government.
The first blow came in mid-1981 when the paper published a full-page composite pictorial under the caption ‘Monrovia Stinks’. The authorities considered this offensive and a ploy to drive away investors, although the city was actually full of heaps of garbage in all parts of Monrovia. This same issue also contained an open letter to Doe in the Reader’s Column, asking for the reinstatement of a student activist, Commany B. Wesseh, who had been ousted from the Constitution Commission, barred from making public speeches or travel and fired from his LEC job for disagreeing with Doe on some local development policy matters pertaining to Grand Gedeh County. “Effective immediately”, security forces rounded up and jailed the entire staff of Daily Observer at the post stockade, a military prison in Monrovia. They were released after few days.
A few months later, the paper was banned again for publishing a lead story in November, ‘Abolish One Party System – Guineans Tell Toure’. Given the high level of friendship between Ahmed Sekou Toure (then President of Guinea) and Samuel Doe, the authorities said that the article was meant to destroy the cordial friendship that existed between Liberia and Guinea. Three weeks later, the paper was reopened, with threatening words about its fate in the future.
In August, 1983, the paper was shutdown for the third time for publishing a quarter page photo captioned ‘Bad Bad Bad Roads’. This photo was taken by the paper’s reporters who had accompanied government officials to Lofa County to bury the late disbursing officer, Harry Saa Bondo. The bad conditions of the roads in the interior during the rainy season often made travelling difficult as was experienced by the delegation to Lofa. The reporters published the photo in order to draw attention to the bad roads so as to be reconditioned. Unfortunately, the minister of justice asked the publisher of the paper, Kenneth Best, to write a letter of apology to the government for such “negative reporting.” This letter of apology was worded in such a manner that the publisher did not compromise his professional ethics. The government reopened the paper after one week.
On January 25, 1984 the paper was closed for six months, this time, by the vice head of state, J. Nicholas Podier for publishing a story on the front page about teachers who were striking because they had not been paid for three months while the story on the visit of an Israeli President Chaim Herzog was given a back page treatment. Doe’s military government considered this as an insult to their guest and an embarrassment to the Liberian government. The government quickly instituted legal proceedings to revoke the articles of incorporation of the paper at the lower courts.
Daily Observer won the first round of trial in the lower court but the government took an appeal to the People’s Supreme Court which would have held its next session six months away as a delay tactic. But the paper’s defense lawyers used every legal means to put the case on the docket to be heard by an associate justice in chambers before the regular session.
At the People’s Supreme Court in chambers, the paper was represented by a crack team of feisty legal luminaries and academic dons from the Law School at the University of Liberia. After three months of legal fireworks, Justice Emmanuel Koroma found the paper not guilty of any crime and found no reason to revoke its articles of incorporation. He was, however, restrained from giving this verdict at the end of the argument by higher authorities. It took another three months for the paper to reopen through an “executive clemency” which Doe announced on July 26, 1984 that the government had decided to drop the case in the interest of national unity.
During this long closure of the only viable independent newspaper, another newspaper, Footprints Today, was launched by the Systems Development Enterprises by president and publisher V. Momolu Sackor Sirleaf to fill the vacuum left by the Daily Observer.
Footprints Today was as fearless as its predecessor in covering the then unfolding political drama that would lead to a return to civilian rule. Political uncertainties clouded the atmosphere as there were rumors of several coup attempts and ruthlessness in dealing with the situation. This gave rise to the emergence of the Revolutionary Action Committee (REACT) leaflets which descended on Monrovia like locusts. REACT, an underground student movement, published government documents and information that leaked from the PRC government, often with scathing analysis and espionage report. The authors were anonymous, and it was illegal to be found with these leaflets. The authors continued to publish any major decision made by the military rulers that was not officially made public. For example, the infamous John G. Rancy’s letter to Doe outlined strategies Doe had to use in order to stay in power. When the government threw a dragnet for its authors, several people were arrested, mainly university students, but no one was ever identified as the author of the leaflets.
(To be continued…)
About the Author:
Joe S. Kappia is a former Features Editor for the Daily Observer. He is a former English teacher at Ganta Methodist School and Monrovia Central High School. He is a graduate of Teachers College at the University of Liberia. Kappia holds a Master of Science degree in mass communication (1989) and a Master of Arts degree in school administration and supervision (2008) from San Jose State University in California. He currently teaches English at Abraham Lincoln High School for San Jose Unified School District in California. This article is an excerpt from his master’s thesis “Developmental and Political News Coverage in the Liberian Press.”
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