When journalism is perilous Dictators of 2 countries in Africa persecuted Liberian journalist

October 19, 1997|By KENNETH Y. BEST

Freedom of the press is a constitutional right in the United States. But journalists in countries governed by totalitarian regimes face persecution and death when they print the truth, rather than the government line. Liberian journalist Kenneth Y. Best was threatened with death in his native land, and deported from Gambia for printing the truth. My wife Mae Gene and our six children, Kona, Facia, Boto, Bai, Kenneth Jr. and Lilian, left Monrovia, Liberia, in May 1990 for Accra Ghana to escape the civil war that had engulfed the country since Dec. 24, 1989.

At the time, I was in New York negotiating for computers to take back to Liberia to improve our typesetting capacity at the independent newspaper, the Daily Observer, which my wife and I had published since 1981. Mae Gene called me and said, "Don't come back; Mr. Doe wants your head." I asked her what had I done and she replied: "All of the people whose heads we see on the highways and in the bushes - what have they done?"

I suggested that she take the children to Accra where I joined them at the end of May.

The question I had put to her on the telephone was not an idle one. It stemmed from many precarious, brutal and costly encounters we had experienced with the regime of Samuel K. Doe from the time we started the newspaper until 1990, when Doe was captured and killed.

Doe led the bloody military coup that overthrew the government of President William R. Tolbert Jr. on April 12, 1980. From that point, he used terror to rule the country. During the seven-year civil war, nearly 200,000 people were killed, and the country was virtually destroyed.

Doe ordered the closure of our newspaper five times - once for nearly two years - because he did not always like what the paper published. Although we were aware that we were living under a military dictatorship at the time, we felt we had to heed our professional calling to be critical and prophetic, to speak for those who could not speak for themselves.

One time, Doe closed the paper because we had carried on the front page a photograph of him performing some official function, along with the lead story in which a man killed his wife and three children and then attempted to take his own life.

Angry about our placing him on the same page with a murderer, Doe ordered the immediate disconnection of electricity from the newspaper and its printing press, making it impossible for us to operate.

In January 1984, he closed the paper because we ran a story on a scheduled meeting between the nation's teachers and George Boley, the minister of education, regarding salary arrears.

As the civil war raged in the early weeks of 1990, Doe launched a relentless campaign of slaughter and destruction against the people of Nimba County and elsewhere in the country.

Nimba is a political subdivision in the western part of the country along the border with Ivory Coast, where Charles Taylor had fired the first shots of the war. Thousands of people were killed in that campaign, including three truckloads of children who were taken from Nimba County ostensibly for rescue at an orphanage in the capital city. The children were buried alive on the beaches on the outskirts of Monrovia.

A Nimba woman whose husband, a general, was secretly killed by Doe, and whose friends in the army had leaked the information to her, confronted the Liberian leader at a meeting in Monrovia.

With outstretched arms and tears in her eyes, she asked: "Mr. President, where is my husband?" Doe said he did not know where her husband was and walked away. A female reporter of the Daily Observer interviewed the woman shortly after the encounter, and we published the story the next day, Friday, March 16. The back-page headline read, "Where Is My Husband?"

At the breakfast table the next day, just before we set out for the office, a visitor came in and said, "Mr. Best, your office was on fire last night."

He said most of the offices had been burned, and crowds had been going into the building to see the destruction. We went to town and found the building badly damaged by smoke and water. The newsroom was destroyed, but fortunately the office with our sophisticated computer typesetting equipment was untouched, and our darkroom equipment only slightly damaged.

I called the staff together and told them, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to restore electricity this afternoon, and I have given the business office instructions to give you all money to complete your weekend assignments. The paper will appear on Monday morning."

The staff, courageous and determined, set to work, and by 4:30 p.m. Sunday they had completed a 12-page dummy, including a pictorial of the fire. As the good Lord would have it, not a single problem occurred with the press that night. The paper hit the streets of Monrovia before 7 a.m. Monday, to the shock of Samuel Doe and his cronies.

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