PUL At 50: Dealing With US$100,000 Stigma

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

It has become a tradition by organizations and groups to always hold special events to mark the day on which such organizations or groups came into being. The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) is not an exception to this tradition as it usually and annually organizes special events to remember the day on which this organization came into existence. Over the years, it had held elaborate events, including intercessory services, parades and indoor programs. However because of the deadly elaborate virus, the union would depart from its usual celebration characterized by pomp and pageantry, as well as conviviality by joining the campaign of awareness to curtail the spread of the Ebola virus.

Brief History Of The PUL

According to historical facts, “in 1964, a group of journalists founded the Press Union of Liberia. The Union was founded following the detention of a colleague, Stanton B. Peabody. Bob Stan as he was affectionately called was imprisoned by the then “power that be” for referring to members of the Legislature as “radicals”. Not only did the detention of Journalist Peabody surprise them, it also showed how helpless they were and needed a cohesive protective instrument to challenge their cause.”

It is said that two days after the release, Mr. Peabody was taken directly to the office of then Director of Information at the Information Ministry where a group of journalists had already converged. Among those journalists present at the gathering were Director E. Reginald Townsend, Henry B. Cole, Chuncey Cooper, Aston King, Tuan Wreh, J. Persey Gumel. The journalists, at once, decided to form a journalist association that would guide, defend, protect and advocate the rights of its members.

One of the challenges faced by them at the time, like the formation and naming of any organization was the name for the group. During their brainstorming session, one journalist proposed the acronym JAIL, the Journalist Association in Liberia. However, that was rejected because of the acronym. However, following extensive debates and brainstorming, they derived at the name — Press Union of Liberia, a name that has stood the test of time, in a country that has been faced with many problems, including civil strife.

In its official statement on this year’s celebration which is tomorrow, the PUL leadership said , “as part of activities marking the 50th Aniversary celebration of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) on September 30, 2014, all individual and institutional members are encouraged to fully participate including making contributions to ensure the success of the planned activities. The PUL has dedicated its Golden Jubilee to the national war against the Ebola virus disease which has so far claimed over 1,500 lives in the country. On September 30, 2014, PUL members will go into five selected communities with donations, awareness and messages of hope as a way of solidifying its stance against the virus. To achieve this, individual members are therefore required to contribute US$10 for a T-shirt while institutional members are encouraged to contribute at least US$100. Besides, all broadcast media houses are encouraged to relay the live programs which schedules are being finalized.”

It is said that the celebration or observance of an anniversary in intended to reflect on the past. That is, for one or a group to take soberly and reflect on the past, take stock and then determine the way forward for the future. As for the Union which grew out of a crisis, it continues to play its rightful role in the Liberian society. It continues to advocate for press freedom and has been part of activities to ensure the tenets of good governance. Besides, it has taken actions against some of its members and institutions for ethical transgressions. Today, the Union remains a strong member of the civil society.

However, one area that continues to cast an aspersion on the union is the status of the US$100,000 contribution given the union during the administration of Mr. George Barpeen by President Sirleaf to help with the Union’s headquarters project that is still in limbo in the Sinkor area. I am aware that whenever the issue of the US$100,000 is raised in the public, some individuals, especially those who were in power always feel that fingers are being pointed at them, or that they are being accused of financial malpractice. NO, this is not the case.

For me, it is unfortunate because this is something that concerns all of us as members of that Union. It is not about accusing anyone or any former official of engaging in any skullduggery. It would be sheer naivety to accuse anyone of wrongdoing without incontrovertible evidence. Indisputably, the fact remains that because nothing visible has been seen regarding the reasons for the donation, this continues to embarrass the Union. For this, it has now put a stigma on the Union, as it continues to demand for transparency and accountability in the public sector.

For me, I was part of the delegation that met President Sirleaf when the check for the amount was presented to the Union. And so, I cannot exclude myself of not being a part. But what I am not aware of is the decision on the utilization of the money. If no one is embarrassed about the status of this money, I am very embarrassed because I am also faced with this question of the money.

As one of the pre-war members of the Union members of the Union and one of those who witnessed the presentation of the check, there is no way I will sit without seeing this being resolved. By being a member of the Union, through the encouragement of my mentor, Kenneth Y. Best, of the Daily Observer, it afforded me the opportunity to interact with senior journalists to the civil conflict. They included the late Bill Frank, Olivia Shannon, the late John Scotland; Prof Alhaji Kromah, Lamini Waritay, both of whom later taught me at the University of Liberia; the late T-max Teah, the late Klon Hinneh and the late Rufus M. Darpoh.

The question that continues to linger on is all about this US$100,000.This may be owing to the position or stance that we as officials and members of the Union took on the donation. Howbeit, as we celebrate quietly this five decades of existence in a country in which the press has struggled for years to relatively be free today,   it is necessary that we reflect on this serious matter as it continues to bring us into public repute, not necessarily about “eating the money,”as there is no evidence to make such claim, but because nothing has been seen, for which the money was given, this is why there is concern about this donation.

As I conclude this piece, I am happy about what I am hearing that the Abdullah Kamara administration is making frantic efforts to get to the bottom of this, to avoid the continued shame on the Union. I am told that had it not been for this Ebola pestilence, much could have been achieved. With this, let me encourage this administration to do everything in its power to save the Union from disgrace and embarrassment.

Again, this piece should not be seen as trying to bring anyone to public disgrace or repute, as all of us, as members are part of the problem, either by commission or omission. This piece is only intended to keep out feet to the fire to resolve this US$100,000 issue. Whether the problem came from the administration that received the money or the administration that succeeded it, this is no time to apportion blame, but to find a way out of this quagmire.

As we observe the 50 years of existence, a partially finished headquarters could had been a big gift. But it is not too late, as to err is human. Hence the challenge now is for this administration that has started the process to save the Union from disgrace and stigmatization.

Just yesterday, when our photographer Kennedy Zobah went to take a photo of the land on which the headquarters’ project should have been built in Sinkor, a lady who asked to speak to me expressed concern of the status of the money given by the President.

In her colloquial words she said angrily, “Everyday your writing about corruption, you people are also corrupt because nothing you people have done with the money the President gave your. I will put you photo on the Facebook too.” The way this lady now perceives the media because of this money is how many other persons feel. Therefore, we MUST Act!

Equally on this day, let me say that it is sad to note that at this time of efforts to curtail the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, the national broadcaster, the Liberia Broadcast System (LBS) is off the air because of the lack of fuel to operate it. Indeed, this is embarrassing and MUST immediately claim the attention of the Liberian Government.

The government cannot remain insensitive to the plight of this station that has been incredibly doing well in the face of limited financial resources. If support to the station has not been taken seriously, this trend should be reserved at this time of this WAR against Ebola, as communication is vital in the fight against this disease.I Rest My Case.