By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)
It is often said that “journalism is a risky profession,” meaning that, those who find themselves in this people’s-oriented job would at times be faced with venturing into dangerous zones or activities that have the propensity to endanger the lives of journalists. Conversely, it is also said that, “no story or photo worth the lives of journalists,” meaning that in covering these risky or dangerous assignments, journalists should exercise due diligence and care in such precarious situations so that nothing would happen to them in their coverage of such assignment.
Today makes it exactly 24 years and one day since the INQUIRER newspaper; the first independent newspaper in post-war-Liberia observes its 24th anniversary in existence. And as a matter of tradition, whenever the paper celebrates its anniversary, I always focus on a specific aspect of its operations over the years.
A year ago, I focused on the products of the newspaper, some of whom have acquired high education and are in positions of trust either in the public or private sectors. Some of those concerned are Dr. Kimmie Weeks, Dr. Charles Ansumanah of NOCAL, Cllr. M. Bedor-Wla Freeman of the Independent Information Commission, Phil Dixon, graduate of the law school, Matthew Wah, James Kparquoi of NOCAL, J. Moses Gray, a diplomat; J. Wesley Washington, Deputy Presidential Press Secretary; Massa Washington, former Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Gerald Yekula, Patience Blaye-Sampson, graduate, law school; Webster Cassell, Gender Ministry; sidiki Trawally, now with the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning; Rose Saulwas, Mano River Women Peace Building Network; and Francis Pelenah, broadcast journalist.
Today, as it observes another anniversary, which began yesterdays with a donation to an orphanage in Margibi County, I have decided to reflect on two of the major risky and dangerous assignments covered by reporters. Despite the danger involved in such coverage, the reporters, being fully aware of the dangers, exercised due diligence and care and were able to return to inform the Liberian people about the outcome of their trips.
Of the 24 years of existence, two of the major risky and dangerous assignments that this paper covered was the “FALL Of GBARNGA,” then, the headquarters of the defunct National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) then headed by former President Charles Taylor by forces of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO) of Prof Alhaji G.V. Kromah and also the failed coup of the late Charles Julu, alias “THE ROCK” a former commander of the dissolved Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL)during one of the interim administrations, headed by the late David Kpormakpor.
It is common knowledge in the Liberian society today that Julu’s failed coup is today ordinarily known in Liberia as, “let me play my cassette,” a reference to insistent requests by General Julu to be allowed his recorded message to the Liberian people. His request was based on calls from the then ECOMOG peacekeepers and Liberians to vacate the Mansion which he had seized. His refusal to vacate the Executive Mansion he and his forces occupied, the peacekeepers under the command of the late John Mark Inienger of the ECOMOG Peacekeepers who led the troop from 1993 to 1996, was constrained to repel him and his forces from the Mansion.
He was later arrested in the Mamba Point community, where he had disguised himself. Prior to moving on General Julu, Commander Inienger warned that his failure to leave the Mansion, the force will be left with no alternative to eject him from the Mansion.
As I concentrate on these two, it does not mean that there were not only serious dangerous assignments, but these two were shrouded in controversies. When the news came about the fall of Gbarnga, many, especially in Monrovia said that was not true and termed it as mere war propaganda to conciliate the public, The INQUIRER newspaper, in the wake of the debate, decided to send reporter Sidiki Trawally, who had the courage to cover such assignment.
Interestingly, Sidiki’s mission to reach Gbarnga spread in Monrovia like a bush fire, but what drew greater attention was the news that Sidiki had returned from Gbarnga with photos. As a result, thousands of people became freak over that special edition and began making inquiries as to when the newspaper would be on the news-stand.
Although the paper, because of the numbers of copies being printed, came out late, it still sold like a hot cake, as people hurriedly moved and waited at various points where the newspapers were sold. Many were convinced because of the photos that accompanied the story. That clearly indicates that photos are very important in the media, especially those intended for the eyes.
On the issue of Charles Julu’s failed coup on September 15, 1994, against the interim administration, there was again disbelief, as others said that was only a recording, as Gen. Julu had been out of the country. But later it was gathered during investigation in the aftermath of the failed coup that he entered through James Spriggs Payne Airport, by disguising himself as a trader.
When it was ascertained that indeed, it was Gen. Julu at the Mansion, the next issue the editorial department of the newspaper was how to get to the Mansion to interview the man who prior to staging his ill-advised coup, had been feared. After making necessary contacts, we were assured by a source that he could escort our team to the Mansion to interact with Gen. Julu.
Surely to what the source promised, the INQUIRER was given access to the General who also provided the brochure of his group known as the NEW HORIZON and explained its philosophy. The INQUIRER team comprised John Kollie (deceased), J. Grody Dorbor (now in the United States) and photojournalist, James Fessaukoi (also in the United States.). Though a dangerous terrain, the team took the bold step to get a firsthand information on that reported coup that did not even make any impact.
At some point, while the team was away, there was no information, as there was no cell phone as today in that there was no way to communicate and that there was report that the peacekeepers would soon move on the coup makers to get them out of the Mansion. With that, there was eerie silence, with the staff completely dispirited, as the time was then approaching for the peacekeepers to clear the area of Julu and his collaborators.
With a complete state of sadness and uncertainty, the mood of the staff turned to a happy one, as they spotted the “three giants,” visibly in a state of fatigue approached the office. Indeed, there was high sense of psychological relief. The staff in the office then received their colleagues as though they had been freed from bondage.
In all fairness, let me emphatically state that that particular event increased production, as the stories was written for days from many angles on a daily basis.
As I reflect on two of many dangerous assignments that this paper covered over the years, I do so to say that at times journalists would be faced with the issue of covering dangerous and risky assignments. But what matters is for journalists to always be careful and mindful of how they go about covering these assignments.
As it is said, “no story or photo is worth the life of a journalist,” and so, care and due diligence should be the guide in the coverage of these kinds of stories. While taking credit for covering these assignments that are usually of great public interest and news value, I still want journalists to be aware of the danger associated in getting such stories.
Covering dangerous assignments means cultivating sources and making necessary contacts, exhibiting a high degree of neutrality, avoiding being too argumentative, confrontational, controversial, and also avoid being seeing as a party to the conflict, but should always be persuasive, and at the same time being very mindful of one’s outfit to avoid being seeing as siding with a particular party. That is, for example, if a particular group in a conflict is identified by a certain outfit, the journalist must avoid such so that the journalist would not be taken as a part or parcel of that group.
But in all of these, the journalist should always ensure that he or she gets all what is needed to do a complete and comprehensive story. In such a situation, the journalist has no choice of liking or not liking the group. His or her duty is to get the story and report objectively and not subjectively. This is important. Yes, journalists would at times, encounter dangerous assignments, but only triumph by taking notes of the advice given.
On this 24th anniversary of the country’s only surviving post-war independent newspaper, I decided this to show that it was because of some of these kinds of care and due diligence that the paper remains the only one surviving today despite all of the odds and dangerous assignments it covered. I Rest My Case.