National Chronicle’s Probe: When GOL?

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

It is over two weeks since the government of Liberia shut down the National Chronicle Newspaper following the publication of a story of some Liberians in the Diaspora advocating for an interim government to replace the constitutional administration led by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The paper was closed down without any prior information about the government’s intention to do so. However, it was gathered later that it was based on “security reason.”

In carrying out the action, the police officers who went to enforce the government’s order caused unnecessary stir, as the situation spread to other areas of the suburbs of the city, especially Duala, New Kru Town and Redlight Market, indicating that there was shooting in Monrovia, apparently from the sound of the teargas that was reportedly used. That situation caused panic and apprehension, thus leading to the disruption of normal activities in those areas.

Interestingly in the wake of concerns about the actual reasons for the government’s action against this independent newspaper, the Deputy Minister of Information for Public Affairs, Atty Isaac Jackson, in an official communication to the Publisher and Managing Editor of the paper, Mr. Philipbert Browne, cited reasons why the paper was ordered closed down.

In his communication dated August 16, but released to the public last week, the Information Ministry said, “The national security apparatus including the Liberia National Police has drawn the urgent attention of the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism to ongoing investigations necessitated by at least two publications of the National Chronicle Newspaper in which it is claimed that the democratic order and consolidation processes of the country are being torpedoed and reversed by means not provided for by the Liberian Constitution in the summary replacement of the administration of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf by a transitional administration.”

The communication went on: ”The National Chronicle also claims that these unconstitutional maneuvers have the backing and support of a friendly government with which the Liberian government and people have long-standing and ongoing excellent relations. Subsequently, you have indicated on at least two radio stations including the national broadcaster and UNMIL Radio that you possess evidentiary support for these grave charges.”

Furthermore, the Ministry said, “Aware of the recent difficult history of our country, the security institutions are entreating these claims with the deserved level of seriousness, and have requested that the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism immediately suspend all further publications of the National Chronicle Newspaper to enable a thorough investigation. We feel compelled to oblige this request and to dutifully inform you that the publication of the National Chronicle Newspaper is hereby suspended pending the conclusion of these investigations which we have been assured will be conducted and concluded in the shortest possible time.”

In its response to the ministry’s communication through its Minister, Brown’s communication, the Publisher and Managing Editor of the newspaper, Mr. Browne pointed out that recent publications in other media outlet on similar matter for which his newspaper has been closed and is facing investigation, has now vindicated his institution of any wrongdoing. Therefore, he has called on the Ministry to reopen the newspaper and also extend an apology

The response among other things noted, “Mr. Minister, now that the facts of the Chronicle’s publications fill the pages of local dailies bi-and-tri-weekly, social media websites, and other international media vindicating the National Chronicle Newspaper of the charges contained in your letter, dated August 16, 2014, of any wrong-doing, the National Chronicle requests an open apology from the Government of Liberia for acting contrarily to the norms of a civilized state.”

Expanding on his defense, Mr. Browne said, “Mr. Minister, since the reason for the closure of the National Chronicle Newspaper is now a national debate with documentation filling the pages of the local media, social networks and international outlets, the National Chronicle Newspaper demands the immediate reopening of its office without precondition.

“The Chronicle also demands that the Government of Liberia, under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, addresses itself to the huge Constitutional violation of the National Chronicle as a corporate institution, registered under the laws of the Republic of Liberia; the mal-handling, flogging and incarceration of its Editorial Staff, who are all citizens, protected by the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia,” the communication stated.

Additionally, the paper, The National Chronicle is also requesting that an open apology be rendered by Atty. Isaac W. Jackson, Jr., Deputy Minister for Press and Public Affairs, for raining insults on both the publisher and the National Chronicle Newspaper on several local radio stations, terming the institution as a “notorious extortionist”.

Today, I take interest in this matter because it is over two weeks since the newspaper was shut down and its manager subject to investigation. Indisputably, it is now clear that the government’s action was based on the publication of some Liberians in the Diaspora, calling for an interim government to be headed by Dr. James TeahTarpeh, as the story reported. Dr. Tarpeh, is Liberia’s former Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Now, after more than two weeks of investigation, the government by now should come out with its findings on the investigation, as the publisher and his lawyers have cooperated with the investigation team. Frankly, the continual delays on the part of the government to come out with its findings on the issue would definitely suggest something sinister, rather than for security reasons.

My concern in recent times about issues relative to the media is based on the facts that one of the exploits of this administration is the level of press freedom and freedom of speech. And so to see a newspaper being closed in the wake of all of the accolades and encomiums that this government, as well as its leader, Madam Sirleaf, has received for these kinds of freedoms, then, there is reason for concern.

We should all know that freedom of speech and freedom of the press do not necessarily mean that we have to agree with all what people have to say, but we have to respect the constitutional rights to speak out.

I can be recalled that when Ebola started, one lawmaker said it was only intended to put money in some individuals’ pockets, as there was no Ebola in Liberia. Likewise, another said that was a “curse on the President.” Also, there were calls to “outsource the fight against the Ebola virus.” I do not agree with these assertions, but I respect the rights of those individuals who said these at different intervals.

Similarly, on the issue of freedom of the press one does not have to agree with all what is published or broadcast by the media, or all comments attributed to people; notwithstanding, the media must be allowed to function. This goes to say that one may not agree with the editorial judgment of a particular media institution on the selection of news stories on national issues, like in the case of some Liberians calling for interim government.

When the media is referred to as the marketplace for the exchange of ideas, it means that it serves as a platform to discuss issues, and so if some Liberians want to unconstitutionally breach or circumvent the rules regarding democratic governance, then a platform should equally be created for those who would not agree with this. This is cardinal in the promotion and protection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Fortunately for this country, like many other countries, there is an Information Ministry that serves as the clearinghouse for government’s information business and so if there is any publication or broadcast, he should be in the position to respond accordingly rather than taking such action as closing down a media institution, something that has a negative effect on the country regarding the freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Until this government realizes that much has been achieved regarding freedom of speech and freedom of the press that such action of closing down a newspaper is counter-productive. I REST MY CASE.