The Arrest Of Journalist Octavin Williams: What A Serious Mistake?

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

While doing an article yesterday morning on the traditional relationship between Liberia and the United States of America, as that country celebrates its Independence Day today, I was informed by credible sources that journalist Octavin Williams, publisher of the “NATION TIMES,” a local newspaper, was arrested Wednesday evening in central Monrovia by the Liberian National Police, and was still being detained at the police headquarters on alleged traffic regulation.

Noting that these are some of the little things that usually cause embarrassment to a nation, especially this country that is being praised for the level of ‘press freedom and freedom of speech,’ I decided to abandon my initial plan on the issue of Liberia-America traditional relations to look at this issue from a public relations perspective.

Interestingly, the arrest came few hours after this journalist was on a local radio Talk-Show, accusing Mr. Robert Sirleaf, son of President Sirleaf of amassing illegal wealth from the oil sector. The journalist, as I listened to the program alleged that the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the USA is investigating this man for such a wealth which the journalist put at more than two billon United States dollars.

Immediately upon hearing about this allegation involving the son of President Sirleaf, that he has accrued huge amount from oil negotiations and deals, something that is far above the national budget, I asked our senior female editor, Mrs. Mellisa Chea-Annan, to counter check this information. Additionally, we made contact with the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia to ascertain the fact that Mr. Sirleaf is wanted by the FBI to answer to this amount that is questionable. Perhaps the embassy has been busy with today’s event; we did not get result, hoping to continue next week.

But just as we were investigating the matter, we learned of journalist Williams’ arrest. With this, I got concerned and decided to ascertain circumstances responsible for the police’s action, especially so considering the timing of the arrest. It was then that I Initially, gathered from other sources that his arrest was based on violation of traffic regulations, as he was “driving a car with foreign license plate.” Later, I also gathered that this was far from the issue of traffic violation, but “disorderly conduct” on the part of the journalist, involving one of the deputies of the police, for which he must face the judicial process.

But sources close to him hinted me that this was not about violation of any traffic rules, but as a clamp down on him for “exposing’ the President’s son” for alleged corrupt act, while serving as chairman of the Board of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL). A close friend of his, who was at the police station seeking his release yesterday, said to me:”they arrested him only because he exposed the President’s son dubious deals, while the Liberian people are in abject poverty.”

My interest in this matter is the timing of said arrest and the issue of press freedom that the country presently enjoys. Just minutes before his arrest, another young journalist who is a regular guest of a talk show, said to me, “we are enjoying press freedom in this country; I give the President credit for this.”

And so when a person is arrested, few minutes after making allegations against the President’s son, there is reason for concern. Intuitively, one expects the public to link this to the person’s appearance on the talk show. And so the issue of traffic regulation may be seen as a cover-up or a smokescreen.

In the field of public relations, which every civilized government espouses to, there are always efforts to project a positive image of that government in whatever it does. And so when certain actions are to be   taken, the timing and consequences of those actions are seriously considered. This issue is not an exception, as the timing of the arrest, just after accusing the President’s son, is a matter of concern. Because timing of any action as in this case, is important, whenever certain actions are to be taken, prudence and care should be exercised.

On the issue at bar, this government stands to be accused of muzzling the media particularly of this arrest, as the issue of traffic violations cannot even hold water. Let us even assume that this gentleman violated traffic regulation for driving with foreign plate, why wasn’t this gentleman warned or his vehicles impounded, instead of arresting him. Whenever an arrest is to be made and subsequent detention, the government must always exercise sound judgment and prudence.

I should not be misconstrued as supporting any alleged act of lawlessness. NO! This is not the case. This is why this country is a party of the universal principle of the “rule of law” or the “due process.” Even the very Constitution of the country that guarantees this freedom of the press makes it unambiguously and succulently clear that people will be held for any abuse thereof, and so if someone is found not saying the truth, the best is the due process, other than the present action.

As a student of mass communication, as it relates to public relations, let me consciously say that concerning the facts and circumstances in this matter, the government erred in this matter. The government’s action was ill-advised. Government does not “pick up every thing,” just to say it the Liberian way. These are some of the mistakes of the past that government made. I know of an incident in which a human rights advocate spoke at a school program and the person was later arrested for critical comments against that government.

The interesting thing was that at that time, no media institution published the story, but a security aide that attended the program passed the information over to security offices, something that led to the arrest of the advocate. This action on the part of the government brought the person to great public prominence or popularity. Besides, people now wanted to know the context for which this person had been arrested.

This government made similar mistake few days ago after opposition leader Simeon Freeman took issues with the President. Few days later after his attack on the Presidency, an official of the commercial Ministry appeared on a local radio only to say negative things about alleged bad business practice by Mr. Freeman. Why wasn’t that said, prior to Mr. Freeman’s verbal attack on the President? Why did the ministry wait until Mr. Freeman came out before talking about alleged bad business practice? Will anyone ever believe that ministry, even if the points are true or genuine? I say a Big and Resounding NO.

This press freedom and freedom of speech the country enjoys today go with bitter pills. We may not agree or accept whatever people, in exercising this freedom say or do, but we have to respect their rights to say so. And so in this case at bar, the best was for the public relations people in government to handle this, rather than arresting the journalist, who had just made allegations against the President’s son.

Let me say that no justification by this government for this latest action would be convincing or have an element of believability. This is bad public relations for the government and a license for people and groups to bad mouth this government for such blunder. In whatever we do, we should always consider the sociology of our people. Again, the government has made itself a piece for public ridicule or scorn. Therefore, it should be prepared for the bombshell in the next few days for this injudicious action.

Until this government that has many accolades for these currently enjoyed freedoms, realizes that it must avoid the mistakes of the past by doing away with such action as in the case of the journalist, it would cause unnecessary embarrassment to this country and equally would be stabbing itself in the foot, I REST MY CASE.