By Molley V. Paasewe (April 18, 2013)
I am one Liberian who has always held the Daily Observer newspaper in high esteem with regard to its unparalleled professional approach to issues. As a young man growing up during the 1980s in Monrovia, attending one of Liberia’s hotbeds for wannabe revolutionaries – the William V.S. Tubman High in Sinkor, I came to look up to the Daily Observer newspaper and its fine cream of journalists as literary gods worth emulating. The Observer always had a way of speaking truth to power that endeared it to many Liberians.
For this reason, when I usually bought the paper, I snapped quickly to the editorial and commentary pages, and browsed other sections before even reading the front and back pages. Even today, it is always in that fashion.
And as I have always done for more than two decades, when I bought my Wednesday Observer copy I quickly turned to the editorial page. The headline: “Why is Finance Minister Konneh so Media Unfriendly?” not only deserved the attention of any avid follower of Liberian politics, but it seemed so catchy because of the high flying news that circulated the rumor mills and found its way into print and radio that the Finance Minister had died. Well, after doing my regular due diligence to the headline by thoroughly reading the attendant article, I have to admit, that though the editorial, as always, was well written, it left me sadly wondering as to the ambivalence of content.
Why do I say so? In that editorial the Observer tried to lay a premise: that Finance Minister Amara Konnehis unfriendly, not because his institution owes the paper advertisement commitments; rather, the paper is perturbed about Minister Konneh’s perceived unfriendliness towards the media because, before his departure abroad to attend a World Bank IMF Donor Spring Meetinghe issued a rather “alarming statement” without convening a press conference to personally explain to the Liberian people through the media the issues raised in that statement.
“In doing so, Mr. Konneh, whose first vocation was not finance but high tech, pretends not to know the true function of the media. The media are not here to recite or vomit anyone’s information. With all the years he spent in the United States acquiring higher education, he definitely should know better. The media has the responsibility, duty, obligation, even debt to the public not only to inform, but also to educate. How can we educate anyone about anything when we ourselves know nothing about it? That is why responsible people in government – or in any arena that interacts with or is answerable to the public – should know that it is necessary to meet the press face to face to transmit information.”
It is the above excerpt that has drawn my attention even more to the editorial. To begin with, the Observer should have avoided the use of the language “whose first vocation was not finance but high tech, pretends not to know the true function of the media”, as nothing in the editorial proves the Minister has shown pretense to the role and function of the media. By releasing a press statement and not convening a news conference, does not in any form, equate to pretense of the media’s function, least to mention the relevance of his professional background to the issues under review.
While I do not speak for the Ministry of Finance, I am left wondering, how does the choice of a communication mode, make a public official unfriendly. What if a Minister or President (like Obama did in 2011) chose to announce a policy action via google+ rather than convening a town hall meeting? What if, one decided to pre-record an address and deliver to the country, without a forum for questions and answers? What if one chose to send email to the press corps without a news conference? Does that render the public official unfriendly?
Does this in any way take away from the core journalistic responsibility and functions of the press? I would think it takes more from the authority choosing the medium, as it could potentially deny the space for redress to instant inquiries. But this is a strategic decision making, that in no way denigrates or affects the role of the press. The media is the interlocutor between policymakers and the people and our job is to critically review, report and research what the policy people are putting out, not to worry about the medium and mode they choose. The fact is, they owe us no explanation in this regard.
Now to the more substantive nature of the statement itself; whatreally did the Finance Ministry say? The crux of the statement was that, although government anticipates a shortfall in revenue intake due to several reasons outlined in that statement, the Liberian government remained upbeat that the economy was on an irreversibly upward mobile course.
Anyone following events in the country recently, especially things that centered on the economy, will agree that some of the statistical information contained in so-called “alarming statement” is not new per se as, the Ministry had in effect released that information a week earlier. What Konneh sought in the later statement, was essentially to provide proper economic context to the numbers and additional information on measures the fiscal authority was instituting to stabilize the economy.
Regarding the US3 million shortfall, the most plausible situation is that government has now realized this money cannot form part of the 2012/13 FY budget cycle as previously projected, perhaps due to the simple fact that the money had been utilized during the long-drawn period of budget drafting, approval and ratification. Whatever the case, whether it’s a press conference or a press statement, the Ministry of Finance decided to use the media to reach out to the public by giving out an interesting piece of fiscal information concerning the wellbeing of each and every Liberian. I seriously don’t believe it’s our place to question the mode of communication; rather the media – in fact, any news gathering and dissemination institution worth its salt, must go all out and test the available legal instruments such as the Freedom of Information Law with the aim of seeking the appropriate answers from the appropriate functionaries of government – be it the Executive or Legislature, as to whether the projected US3 million actually existed, and if so how was the amount expended. This is a public trust that the media cannot allow to be delegated to the whims of officialdom.
Another point that the Observer editorial tried to raise is a seeming paradox between the recent World Bank news report which places Liberia among the world fastest growing economies, and the MoFstatement which cited a budget shortfall while acknowledging an appreciable GDP growth rate. According to the latest World Bank report quoting Madam ShantaDavaranja, World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa, Liberia’s climb on the WB ranking is occasioned by the recent discovery and development of natural resources in the economies of said countries as well as direct foreign investments.
The world bank official said Liberia was among about a quarter of African countries that grew at 7 percent or higher in 2012, listing Sierra Leone, Niger, Cote’ d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Rwanda, among the fastest growing economies in the world.
So where is the alarming contradiction between the WB declaration on Liberia and the Finance Ministry statement that the Liberian economy is improving at a 7.5% rate? While I don’t profess to know much about economics (though that was my minor at the University of Liberia), I can safely conjecture that the WB report and the statement from the MoF are on par.
GDPis usually a measure of the health of a country’s economy and represents the total dollar value of all goods and services produced over a specific time period. Usually, GDP is expressed as a comparison to the previous quarter or year. For example, if the year-to-year GDP is up 3%, this is thought to mean that the economy has grown by 3% over the last year.
As one can imagine, economic production and growth, what GDP represents, has a large impact on nearly everyone within that economy. For example, when the economy is healthy, unemployment will decrease and wage will increase because businesses demand labor to meet the growing economy. On the other hand, a bad economy usually means lower profits for companies, which in turn means lower stock prices. Investors really worry about negative GDP growth, which is one of the factors economists use to determine whether an economy is in a recession. Going by what the experts are saying, can we also say that the Liberian economy is good or bad? Obviously, the Government and World Bank believe that the economy is improving (full volume of economic activities, including spendings from Foreign Direct Investment) evidenced by the rise in GDP.Absent borrowing, and less spending on projects, cannot contradict GDP growth, though it could affect it in other ways.
Despite this good news, some good intentioned people (and I don’t leave out the Observer) will unjustifiably risk holding Minister Konneh’s feet to the fire over the statement because of his acknowledgement of a budget shortfall, even though many of us already knew long ago the reality of the shortfall. We all know how the budget issue brought the Executive and Legislative branches to a gripping deadlock and acrimonious power-play that left relations between both institutions scarred.
Be that as it may, in closing, while we continue to harbor the strongest conviction that the Observer is still one of the best papers (online and print) around that we can boast of when it comes to meeting international standards relative to content, form, layout and presentation, it is our hope that the paper remains focused on those lofty ideals that it has stood for from time immemorial, and leave speculation and yellow journalism to the domain of tabloids.
About the author: MolleyPaasewe is Chief Executive Officer of e-Comsult (Electronic Communication Consulting Services – www.ecomsult.com.lr), located on Snapper Hill, Broad Street. He formerly served as Director of Communication of the National Commission on Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (NCDDRR), First Secretary to the Liberian Embassy near Pretoria, anda lecturer of Mass Communication courses at the United Methodist University (UMU).