The best days are coming. We cannot, we must not fail!
Brooke: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
"This goes out to the president...
Brooke: And I’m trying, the best as I can, to report on Liberia through the eyes of its own journalists. Where many of them part company with their foreign counterparts, is in their view of their president, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, now in her eighth year in office. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Indira Gandhi Prize, the French Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, and a heap of honorary Ivy league degrees, the septuagenarian former World Bank official took the helm of a traumatized nation, with a quarter million killed and quadrupled the budget, coaxed the IMF and World Bank to clear its nearly 5 billion dollar debt, boosted school enrollment, especially for girls, launched a building boom, and earned the world’s admiration.
NEWS CLIP: Charged with a mission to rebuild a country broken by more than two decades of civil war, President Johnson Sirleaf assumed office as the perfect balance of sensitivity and resolve.
BROOKE: But a USAID report leaked this year to FrontPage Africa, found in her government both nepotism--three of her four sons have top government jobs--and a culture of corruption. Meanwhile, only a quarter of Liberians have access to clean water. Most live in extreme poverty. Critics say that distrust of the government fed that stubborn disbelief in its Ebola alerts.
KOFI WOODS: ...in 2005 and 2006 we were all excited about a new day in Liberia.
BROOKE: Kofi Woods is one of Liberia’s leading human rights lawyers who served Sirleaf as both Minister of Labor and Public Works.
WOODS: Unfortunately, on Ebola, the past began to show its ugly face. There was a rush by the government to prohibit and restrain individual and collective freedoms. Without any reflection on what we had experienced before in this country.
BROOKE: You say that there have been advances in press freedom. And yet, you talked about a press crackdown being one of the areas in which human rights are being violated.
WOODS: Well, I believe that there are also some deception in the commitment of the government to press freedom. There have been attempt to shut down newspaper. Most of those lawsuits have come from the highest level of the government; the President, her son, some of her relatives, and some key individuals in the Liberian government have been leading those kind of lawsuits. The Chronicle Newspaper, their offices were burst into. And the reporters were arrested.
BROOKE OUTSIDE: (STREET SOUNDS)
BROOKE: Could you tell me your name?
BROWNE: My name is Philipbert Browne. I'm the publisher of the national Chronicle Newspaper.
BROOKE: He's a security expert whose paper was shuttered, most likely illegally, by the cops.
BROOKE: And what happened to you in August?
BROWNE: Well I was at work, the government came there. They sent two truck load of police, armed police, broke the office door down, tear gassed the employees and they seal up the place and they said they could do anything because it was a state of emergency. There was a meeting held at The Robert Johnson Hotel. All the bosses were there, the security bosses. And it was decided that since there was a state of emergency they were going after critical media. I was the first on the list, Rodney was on that list. I was interrogated for two weeks. After that the police report came out. And there was nothing.
BROOKE: What report came out?
BROWNE: There was a police report.
BROOKE: And what did it say?
BROWNE: It said nothing! They didn't charge the Chronicle with any wrongdoing, or anything. And when we took them to the Supreme Court they told Justice Ja'neh, that it was administrative action. So the question was, do you have the power to shut a corporate entity down? And they said no. Only the courts, after due process, could shut the corporate entity down. But because it was a constitutional matter and there was nothing on the Supreme Court docket to use as a case study, the case had to go to the full bench of the Supreme Court.
BROOKE: This happened in August.
BROWNE: Yes! August 14. We are waiting for almost five months. The Supreme Court said the reason why they close the place is that there is no opinion of the court to deal with this press matter. So we want an opinion of the Court. So we'll wait! I'm fighting hard to pay my staff. I'm being patient. They went to my landlord.
BROOKE: Who went to your landlord?
BROWNE: The government! Ok, I just spoke to Minister Amara Konneh, this morning about it. And asked him why I did being personal. You closed my office down illegally, you asked the landlord to kick me out. So I want to know where this thing is going because if they want to be personal, I can be personal. I know more about this country than other press man in this country. And if I want to be sinister, I can start trouble right away. I’m going by the books, I'm fighting for due process, so they should leave me alone. Everything I have written about the President I can prove. Ok? And like I told the Minister of Finance this morning, If the Chronicle is opened today its going to start reporting just where it left off. So they don't think that they're going to subdue me. Ok, I'm not somebody that you can easily subdue.
BROOKE: Rodney went to jail last year, for quoting from an independent government audit that noticed six million dollars missing from the coffers of an Agriculture Minister. The minister was fired but never prosecuted. Rodney was, for libel and ordered to pay a fine of one-and-a-half million dollars. Kofi Woods was his lawyer.
WOODS: He had to pay the money, or he had to serve jail sentence, paying about $25 per month until the money had been defrayed. And what that meant is he would have spent more than 5,000 years in prison paying that amount per month.
BROOKE: Finally, he was released on humanitarian grounds; he had malaria. But that would not have happened if Rodney had not endangered the President’s pristine rep.
WOODS: The press in India raised the issue of Rodney Sieh. She also made the visit to Canada, that was an issue that was raised. When she went to the United States, a host of International Human Rights organizations presented a joint letter expressing concern about the conditions of Rodney and the situation generally regarding freedom of the press in the Republic of Liberia. She was also returning from an international trip, but it became clear that upon her return home that she was coming back home to also meet a terribly bad publicity about the situation at FrontPage Africa. There was a need for the government to act, and act fast. So they did act.
But they can't go
Anything is true
People will stop, people will talk
When you smile, effects...
BROOKE: You know, we never really explained why we latched onto FrontPage Africa. Prue Clarke can do that. She’s a journalist fixed on Africa. Her organization New Narratives provides resources, and support to independent African media. Rodney calls her FrontPage Africa’s godmother:
CLARKE: The real fundamental challenge for media in West Africa was that their being paid not by their employers, they're being paid by the people they write about. Journalists are paid to write five stories. You know, as soon as you start paying journalists a decent wage, and you fire them if they take payments in any form, then you free them to do independent reporting. I became aware of Rodney and we met in the West Village and we started plotting how we were going to try to revolutionize the media in Liberia. He's that old-school genuine newsman. He just believes in the truth in the media. You know there are a lot of us. But there are few of us who're put to the same test as Rodney has been. He's the gold standard.
BROOKE: You need something else to actually pull it off.
CLARKE: Yeah, he's a little bit mad. Is that where you're going. [Laughs] No question. And inspiring, in his own quiet way. When you have the pay-for-play system, journalists don't have much regard for themselves. They see journalism as a stepping stone. So in return the public doesn't really see journalism as being very important. People really need to learn the role of the media. But it's also the journalists who had to learn that too because they didn't understand the power they had. He's certainly got a lot of enemies because he has exposed a lot of dirty dealings in a way that you know you go to other countries in Africa and they don't have a media house like this. And they get away with so much more.
BROOKE: So what is the impact of FrontPage Africa on the rest of Liberian journalism?
CLARKE: I think it's huge. It was like a nation of National Enquirers, before. There was no media house that said "this is what really good journalism is." The things that motivate us to be good journalists - prizes, pay rises, societal recognition for your courage and bravery, and travel opportunities perhaps. Those things didn't exist here. Suddnely these journalists won all sorts of awards. They broke these stories they were changing society. They were being paid well. So all the other media houses are saying, the journalists are saying: "I want that." And so they lift the standard of media just by being that role model. And many media houses here didn't have any women journalists whatsoever,now the women win all the major awards and do all the most important reporting. No one can say women can't be journalists anymore. You see stories about what they would once upon a time call women's issues. On the front pages of other newspapers now and they're being discussed on the radio. It's not just wall-to-wall politics. If you look at other countries in the region, it's profoundly different.