By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)
Last week, I published an article entitled: “A Note To Presidential Aspirant Benoni Urey On His Lawsuit Threat Against Piah,” in which among other things, I urged Mr. Urey to abandon his plan of such a lawsuit, as this would not be in furtherance of the level of press freedom in this country. Besides, I told him that from where he sits, as an aspirant candidate, he should have thin skin, exercise tolerance, and be prepared to swallow bitter pills for the sake of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
It is common knowledge that Mr. Urey’s threat was in reaction to a reply by Mr. Jerolinmek Piah, press secretary to the president’s response to Mr. Urey’s statement against the President that she was not concerned about the plight of the Liberian people by travelling out of the country in the wake of the Ebola virus in the country that has claimed the lives of several Liberians. Mr. Urey at the time called on the President to end her trip to Europe and return home to tackle the problem at home.
In his reaction to Mr. Urey’s comment against the President, Mr. Piah among other things characterized Mr. Urey as a “political nobody,” and inferentially said that Liberia is not prepared for a ‘criminal in chief or a murderer-in-chief, a characterization that did not go down well with Mr. Urey, who in return, called on the President to take against Mr. Piah, who he disparagingly described as a “little boy” for insulting him.
Upon reading Mr. Urey’s reaction or threat of lawsuit which was published b y the New Democrat last week, I poked my nose into the situation and as stated earlier, I urged Mr. Urey to abandon his plan of lawsuit, because to begin to do so now would only be the beginning of the opening of a Pandora Box for many lawsuits, considering the level of press freedom and freedom of speech in this country.
In my previous article on the Urey-Piah saga, I decided not to state whether or not there was anything wrong with the comments by either side, rather, I decided to deal with the issue of tolerance in furtherance of the free speech, not necessarily that one may agree with what another person says, but to respect the right of that person to speak out.
On this issue at bar at the time, I avoided stating if there was anything wrong with those exchanges. This is why this time around, I have decided to critically review those comments in the sense of communication, to determine whether the comments were appropriate or not. As I always said communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, is not just the collocation of words, but the message that the piece of communication intends to portray.
Noticeably, sometimes choice of words matters in this kind of communication because the use of a wrong word could bring about what is referred to as “communication breakdown,” meaning communication has not been understood, or could intentionally lead to unnecessary confrontation. At times it is because of jargons, in which one interprets a piece of communication based on how such person understands a particular word or phrase.
On the issue at bar, both presidential aspirant Mr. Urey and press secretary Piah, in one way or the other erred in communicating on the issue. First, let me say that both of them have the right to speak out, but the choice of words in some aspects, were not appropriate.
Again, let me say that Mr. Urey, as a citizen of this country has all rights to be critical of his leader, Madam Sirleaf, and that Mr. Piah, as Press Secretary to the President has all right to comment on issues concerning her office. But what matters in this situation, as stated earlier, is the choice of words.
As for Mr. Piah, his characterization of Mr. Urey by using the inferences of ”criminal” and ‘murderer’ was inappropriate or unsuitable, being fully aware that this individual as neither been charged or convicted of any of these charges. Legally, these are words that are libelous and defamatory on their face, known in the legal jargon as “libel per se,” which is actionable.
Although it is justiciable; for the sake of fostering freedom, let Mr. Urey abandon any lawsuit. I have no problem by referring to Mr. Urey as a “political nobody,” as he may have all reason for this characterization, knowing that Mr. Urey, as a businessman, is new to the presidential race or the politics of the presidency. In this light, Mr. Urey cannot compare himself to those who have been contesting this race for sometimes, or those who have been in politics. For this, ‘let the sleeping dog lie’.
For Mr. Urey, who unarguably is older than Mr. Piah, it was wrong to derogatorily characterize the press secretary as “LITTLE BOY.” This is disrespect to the office of the President to refer to someone in such a position as “little boy.” While it is true that Mr. Urey is older than Piah, Mr. Piah, as press secretary to the President deserves respect, no matter the person’s age. What matters here is the office and so it was not right to use such demeaning language.
I always told people that no matter a person’s age, once such a person holds certain position in society or has acquired certain status in society, such person must be respected.
For example, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Dean of the Cabinet Augustine Nganfuan , a former classmate at the university of Liberia; the Minister of Finance, Amara Konneh; who is considered the “primus inter pares” (first among equals); the Chairman of the Liberia Anti Corruption Commission (LACC), Cllr. James Verdier, a former classmate in high school who was referred to in school as ‘junior boy,’ just to name a few, are all individuals I am older than.
Despite being an older person, I have always given them the respect they deserve because of their status in society. Even when Samuel Kofi Woods was Minister of Public Works, I gave him all respect. I never disrespected him or considered him as “little boy” because of age. I can no longer refer to Chairman Verdier as ‘Junior Boy‘when he is with his peers. I have to respect him by describing him appropriately as, “Mr. Chairman;” “the chair” or even as “honorable!”
Just as I was about to conclude this article, I heard on Truth FM that a group has threatened to ensure the arrest of Mr. Urey on allegation of a death that took place many years ago on his farm. The group claimed that the person drowned in Urey’s swimming pool and that the matter was compromised.
Even though the spokesperson for Mr. Urey, Emmanuel Lormax, has responded to these allegation and unsurprisingly linked, those he feels are hiding behind the group, I am concerned that we will continue this kind of politicking. I wrote against this when there was a problem between Montserrado County Representative Acarous Gray and Finance Minister Konneh.
Why did this group raise the issue since 2007 when the person got drowned? If this country is to move forward, we should avoid this kind of situation. It is not healthy for our politics.
In closing on the Urey-Piah saga, both men erred through the choice of words. Piah was wrong for inferentially using words like “criminal” or “murderer” on Mr. Urey, and that Mr. Urey was wrong for condescendingly referring to Mr.Piah, as a “little boy,’ as this did not show respect to the office of the President.
Until both men realize their errors in terms of communication, and also accept what the Latin adage which says, “errare humanum est, “I Rest My Case.
Atty Wesseh is a part time instructor in the Department of Mass Communication at the United Methodist University (UMU) and a lecturer of “Effective Communication” at the Liberian Institute of Public Administration (LIPA).