30 Years Of Service In Journalism: How Was It And How Is It Today?

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

I started reporting as a seventh grader at the then William R. Tolbert High School, now D. Twe High School in New Kru Town in 1977 when I was  moved by the result of a class election, for which I decided to report the story. The class presidency was won by one Helena Kaymoh Browne who now works for the West Africa Telecom in Congo Town. The story which was posted on the school’s bulletin board captured the attention of many students, including seniors who lauded me for the story and encouraged me to continue, as they saw some potential in me in becoming a big journalist.

Being motivated by the many commendations for that story which was written in the conventional form, like in the form of a narrative form or style of writing or reporting, meaning from start to finish, I began reporting on events in the school. Additionally, I also covered events hosted by the Monrovia consolidated School system (MCSS) and other activities that the school participated in outside the perimeters of the school.

Reporting on events in the school also afforded me the opportunity to travel with the school on various trips with some kind of antiquated recorder which I used to cover games and recorded programs for my review. Two of the trips that the school made that I still remember were in Bong Mines, where I was treated like a king, when I was lodged by one Buster Fallah and  the other one was in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, when the present Gender Minister Julia Duncan Cassell, was then Student Council president for that school. There, we played games and had many fun.

Prior to travelling with the school, I got major boost from the administration of the school in 1978 when the Vice Principal for Instruction, Mr. Joseph Torbor, during one ceremonies on the school’s campus, to my almost surprise, invited me on stage and gave me a purse for reporting about events in the school. Can you imagine the kind of mood I was in to have been called among many students to receive a purse from the Vice Principal, who was a no nonsense administrator, for which he was given the nickname, ‘Torbolism’ which was synonymous of being a disciplinarian. Those who attended Tolbert High or now D. Twe those days, still remember this man with his rattan perambulating the corridors of the school to decisively deal with those caught breaking the rules and regulations of the institution, especially such as loitering.

Indeed, the purse from him at the time served as a morale booster, as I became more dedicated and committed to doing more reporting. This led me to becoming the first News Editor of the school’s first recognized newspaper of the school. The former Deputy Information Minister, who is now Minister Counselor at the Liberian Embassy in America, Gabriel Williams, was one of the reporters. The paper was a realization of a contribution from the late Dr. Kassas to the Press Club of the school.

Upon graduation in 1981, I became very active in sporting activities, mainly football in the Borough of Kru Town. I was even a member and later an official of one of the teams, Leeds United, named after one of the English teams. With that, I covered games and sent my reports to the Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS) which were read by the sports editor or reporter of that day. Thanks to Patrick Manjoe and others for airing those hand-written reports. That again, encouraged me to continue as a volunteer, as I did not receive a cent for those reports. Besides, before joining the Daily Observer in 1983, as a freelance reporter, I also wrote articles to the Daily Observer, one of which was published on March 6, 1981, on the topic: Improving The Liberian Educational System,” about nine months before graduating from high school, as valedictorian  of the Class Of ’81.

Mainstream Journalism

I joined the mainstream journalism in 1982 as a freelance reporter with the Weekly MIRROR Newspaper owned by Mr. Edward Davies, then Director General of the Liberian News Agency (LINA). It was located near the Bong Mines Bridge on Bushrod Island. I joined the newspaper through a friend, D. Ignatius Roberts, who encouraged me and said the paper was looking for more freelance reporters. The paper at the time mainly focused on “Human Interest” events, stories that bring about laughter and sorrow to readers, such as “Pastor Rapes;” Dead Person Awakes;” Dogs Prevent Armed Robbery,” just to name a few.

Even though my first national newspaper was the MIRROR, I considered myself joining the real mainstream journalism when I joined the DAILY OBSERVER as its correspondent in the Borough of Kru Town. I joined the newspaper in May 1983 after receiving information from Mr. Williams, during one of our school alumni association meetings that the paper was in dire need of a correspondent. With this, I applied and was later accepted, after an assessment by one of the paper’s editors, Isaac Thompson, a man I still hold in high esteem for his mastery in human interest stories and headlines. One of the headlines that he carried that I still remember was, “Man Chases Rotten Sardines To Death,” a story about a man who went into the Mesurado River under the Jamaica Road Bridge to get some rotten sardines that were disposed off in that river and later drowned.

Unlike at the MIRROR where I was spoon-fed, as the editor did most of the works, at the DAILY OBSERVER, I had to do it myself, especially when it came to typing the stories. Whenever the story went through what I called “grammatical surgery” by the editors, I had to re-type it, something that greatly helped me to know my mistakes and improve on the phraseology of my stories. Many times when everyone left, I remained in the newsroom practicing how to type and reading stories from different angles to grasp different styles of writing. Besides, the works of the editors helped me to know the editing symbols, something that modern media practitioners do not know or use because of the use of computers.

Because of the exuberance and agility I exhibited as correspondent of the paper in producing many stories from different happenings, I was allowed to cover other events outside the Borough. It was through that I covered a major program of the West Point Co-operative Society (WPC), with its then administers- Frank Krah, Alfred Nagbe, alias “Mullah,” Chon Davies, now with the Monrovia City Hall and the then Commissioner of the area, the late Dominic Jlateh. The nickname of the area was the “Key Hole” but I do not know whether this name still exists. Don’t ask me for the meaning of this name, but one thing I know, if you don’t know that terrain; don’t tread there as you may not find your way around.

Unfortunately, few years after joining the DAILY OBSERVER, the paper was closed down by the late Samuel K. Doe’s government. In fact the paper suffered many closures during that regime. One of the stories for which it was closed down was the plight of the Lofa Road, when the paper reported: “Bad, Bad Roads.” That good story, intended to alert the government about the deplorable road condition was misconstrued and surprisingly, infuriated the regime, for which it closed down the paper. I vividly recall that on one other occasion, the paper was closed down for carrying a labor union story as its banner story (main story.), with the photo of the late Amos Gray, then leader of the movement.

With the closure of the DAILY Observer few months to the 1985 General and Presidential Elections, I joined the DAILY STAR, started by “Black Baby ”who was layout editor of the Daily Observer, and few friends as its Chief Reporter. But when I observed that some of those brought in by Black Baby, mostly said to be close associates to the late President to soften the ground, as the paper was finding it difficult to operate on grounds that its editorial staff was the same Daily Observer people, decided to behave as the owners, as they tried to dictate editorial contents, and decide who should be in the editorial department of the newspaper.

When I foresaw that the paper was heading for danger and that its lifespan would become ephemeral, I re-joined the Daily Observer, relying on my performance prior to its closure, which was mainly because the late Doe, who then had political ambition, feared that the existence of the paper would dampen his chances for the presidency, as the paper would provide coverage for all candidates, something I knew it would have done because of its belief in providing a level playing field for all. I am not talking about the discriminatory ‘level playing field’ as perceived by the House of Representatives recently.

It was because of the same fear of not having a better chance during the then pending elections that the government of the late Doe banned the Progressive People’s Party (PPP) of the late Gabriel Baccus Matthews and the Liberian People’s Party (LPP) of Dr. Amos Sawyer. The two parties were considered as broad-based parties.  Today, my prediction about the Daily Star came through as those who came in to help to ingratiate the regime, killed the paper.

Months after re-joining the DAILY OBSERVER, I was cited to a meeting to determine as to whether I could head the newsroom as its News Editor. But before then, I painstakingly spent a lot of time observing how the paper was produced in the night in the layout room. There I saw how headlines were given and how stories were placed. And so when I was asked as to whether I could head the newsroom, I accepted the challenge and remained the News Editor until the civil war in 1990 when the paper and other businesses ceased to operate because of security problems.

Frankly, I saw this preferment as a challenge because I met others at the institution. Despite the challenge, the first thing I did was to encourage team work, hard work and commitment, which helped to make my job very easy. Additionally, I was blessed with a good team, who I showed respect to as the head of the newsroom. Besides managing the newsroom, I also covered the Capitol Building and Executive Mansion. One of the activities that I enjoyed at the Capitol, especially the Liberian Senate was confirmation hearing, which was done by plenary.

As for the Executive Mansion in the 80’s, the exiting events were state visits or nation-wide tour by the President. Those beats (the journalistic word for assignment) enabled me to know lots of government officials because those days, whenever the President was travelling or returning from a state visit, major government officials turned out to bid him farewell or receive him. Thank God that we have ended that practice to discourage what is known as the “imperial presidency,” as many believe that this practice created rooms for suppression, misuse of power, arbitrariness, sycophancy, hypocrisy and deceit, thereby undermining national growth and development, and giving rise to tyranny  or despotism. One of the interesting events I covered was the late Doe’s birthday in Harper, Maryland County. That event was dubbed, “birthday without cake.”

Like other professional groups, the civil conflict caused a momentary stoppage of work. But when the first ceasefire was signed and semblance of peace returned to part of Monrovia, journalists organized themselves and brought out the TORCHLIGHT on Bushrod Island, then, under the control of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) of then Gen. Prince Johnson, now Senator Prince Johnson of Nimba County.

I joined the paper later but at one point, fear gripped the staff when it was learned that Mr. Rufus M. Darpoh, then senior editor of the newspaper was arrested and detained by Gen. Johnson for reporting how some INPFL fighters harassed some civilians at a food distribution center. Gen. Johnson saw the newspaper as the brainchild of the INPFL and therefore did not expect anything critical of his forces, as he provided ration for the staff. Other members of the editorial staff of the paper included Weade Kobbah Wureh, Ebenezar Worrison, the late John N. Elliott, Pete Kahler, D.Emmanuel Nah, S. Togba Slewion and Slewion T. Toe, now with LEC.

Because many journalists fear that the arrest and detention of the ‘old man’ was only the beginning to muzzle the media, some of the journalists, especially the young ones began to brainstorm to have another newspaper. It was then that THE INQUIRER came to the limelight on January 15, 1991, with Mr. Gabriel Williams, as its first Managing Editor, and me as News Editor. Other staffers included Sam Van Kesselly, Doe S. K. Davies, Bana Sackey, S. Togba Slewion, Grody Dorbor, Timothy Pyne, H. Wantu Mayor, D. Emmanuel Nah, Roger Seton, Amos Bryant. Others who joined later were the late Stanton Peabody, Massa Washington, J. Wesley Washington, Mark Freeman (now counselor Freeman).

THE INQUIRER, as the first independent newspaper in post-war Liberia, went through many of the events of the civil conflict. Following The INQUIRER’s appearance on the newsstand, dozens of other newspapers also appeared.

Today, as I reflect on 30 years in the mainstream of the journalism profession, I am proud to say that of all of the nearly 15 newspapers that sprung up, it is only the INQUIRER which survived the turbulence and continues to exist, thus making it the only surviving post war independent newspapers in Liberia. The paper is rich with a worth of experience in reporting during conflict and during peace time.

Of the many risky incidents that the paper covered were two noticeable ones. They were the capture of Gbarnga by forces of ULIMO of Alhaji Kromah, from forces of Charles Taylor, which occupied the area for years during the conflict.

Then energetic and smart reporter Sidiki Trawally took on that risky mission and the next was the Charles Julu’s abortive coup under the auspices of the New Horizon. It was covered by the late John Kollie, D. Emmanuel Nah, James Faseukoi and Grody Dorbor, who received awards for venturing into that danger zone. That event is today known as, “let me play my tape,” a demand by Gen. Julu, the coup leader to be allowed to play some kind of recording about the coup.

It is worth mentioning that when THE INQUIRER stated, one person who uninvitingly visited the office frequently was Gen. Prince Johnson. Sometimes the General during some of his visits was complimentary of the paper; on other occasions, he castigated the paper and even made threatening statements. At times he was very derogatory about Dr. Amos Sawyer, then Interim President. Thank God for Dr. Sawyer’s patience, as he swallowed the bitter pills for the sake of keeping the fragile peace at the time.

Some Aspects Of Yesterday And Today Media With more than 30 years, but mainly focusing on 30 years, one may wonder how the media, mainly newspapers those days and now were, since I began media related activities. Those days, it was very strenuous and tedious because most of the things were done manually, while reporters and editors used typewriters. Olivetti machines were used to type set stories. Photos were printed from darkrooms, by using special chemicals. The difficult task of reporters sometimes was to re-type a story that was badly edited by the editors. Similarly, the layout was done manually with cut and paste.

Interestingly, there were instances in which an editor would edit a script and later if the corrections are made, and the edited story is re-typed, some of the editors would re-edit what they had already edited, do more editing on the same script, thus compelling the reporter to re-type it. In some instances, numbering was used to indicate which sentence should be the first, second or third, as the scripts were sent for typesetting. But all in all, the exercise was interesting and exciting.

Also, those days than now, journalists worked with fear. Sometimes reporters and editors would delay in coming to work, until they found out whether or not the ground was clear, meaning there was no threats of arrest or “invitation” from security agencies. I recall during the regime of Mr. Charles Taylor when newspapers’ headlines were changed at the printing press, without the knowledge and consent of the paper’s editorial staff.

Today, the situation is quite different with advancement in technology.  Newsrooms are now using computers, instead of type-writers and are using digital cameras, thus doing away with darkrooms. The use of the computers is making many young journalists to be lazy in using dictionaries and thesauruses as the computers provide the alternative to spell, check and also find synonyms. Layout is being done by the computer, taking away the ache of manually writing headlines, drawing lines and doing cut and paste.  All of these continue to help to expeditiously carry out editorial functions, thereby removing some of the hurdles journalists faced in the past. Also, today, there is use of cell phone which is an important tool in gathering news.

Comparatively speaking, there is much freedom today as it was in the 80’s and 90’s. I have not heard of any action by government to change newspapers’ headlines at printing press. Because of the lack of freedom in the 1980’s there existed a subterraneous newsletter, known as “REACT” which was critical of the government and very investigatory. The government fruitlessly tried to identify the authors to silence the paper but to no avail, as the paper continued, and even mysteriously reached the Executive Mansion.

The problem I hear today is that the government is still indebted to media institutions, something, it needs to improve on because the media needs the funds to operate, as anything other than this is tantamount to strangulating the media. Ironically, with the advancement in technology, there are still ethical problems and other challenges facing the media today. But all in all, things have improved. Predictably, I can say that there will be more improvements, if the present atmosphere of freedom remains the same.

Words of Appreciation

As I remember 30 years in mainstream journalism, let me recognize the role of many persons who encouraged me in this profession. The first is my late foster father, Emmanuel Nagbe Blaye, who bought me newspapers on a daily basis; the administrators of  my former school, including its first Principal, the late Timothy Nyae for the encouragement and support; the late Grand Kru Senator Tuan Wreh for his guidance; Mr. Kenneth Y. Best, Managing Director of the Daily Observer for media ethics, as well as work ethics, something that is a  serious problem in the Liberian society; Mr. Willis Knuckles, former editor of the newspaper for exposing me to investigative journalism by giving me the first assignment about the closure of a company in Gardnersville and Mr. Isaac Thompson, for being tough and sometimes for his Four Letter words.

Others are the late T. Max-Teah for his patience and also for having confidence in me as a young reporter; the late Stanton Peabody, for his advice on the issue of research as a journalist and also Four Letter words; Mr. Sando Moore, for encouraging me to still hold on as a freelancer; Mr. Sam Van Kesselly, for being the first senior reporter I was assigned with as a cub reporter; Prof K. Moses Nagbe, Mlanju Reeves and Prof John Varflay for basic grammar.

Others whose working relationship I admired when I joined the newspaper were Gabriel Williams, Joseph Toe, John Lloyd, Folley Siryon, now a local government official; Arthur James, Maureen Sieh, Simeon Freeman, (Vacation Student), Mozart Dennis and Joe Kappia, who was affectionately known as “the lead” because of his passion for the main focus of the story; Varney Paasewe, for his political discussions, especially a feature article on “Tubman’s Shoe.” I don’t know whether Varney can still remember that article. Others who joined the newspaper, perhaps, as interns or reporters were James Seitua, William (Bill) Burke; the late Joe W. Mulbah, for having nose for news; the late Taana Wolokolie, for also having nose for news and Frank Seinworla.

Let me not forget some of the correspondents of the Daily Observer, while serving as news editor because their role helped to decentralize and make the newspaper more encompassing. They include, Edwin Fayiah, who took over from Mamadee Keita in Lofa County; Koffa Jarboe ,Harper, Maryland County; Ephraim Johns , Sinoe County, and the man in Nimbi County at the time, C.Y. Kwanue, Nimba, who covered the deceptive Nimba Peace Talks,  1987. The Talks, held in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, were intended to iron out differences between the Krahns and Gios/Manos.

Also, I wish to recognize two of my good friends in school- Alfred Nyanford Nimely, in the USA and Darlington Nimely Doe (formerly Joseph Doe), as well as Dr. Tipoteh and Samuel Kofi Woods for their support.

As I conclude I know that some people would be disappointed that I did not state some of the precarious situations I was faced with, such as arrest and attack. I deliberately decided to leave them out because I have forgiven all of those who offended me in the discharge of my duty.

Again, thank God for three decades of services and pray for His blessings as I continue to serve the Liberian people and the country. I say, “To God Be The Glory.”