Relighting the beacon

January 25, 2004|By Kenneth Y. Best

WHEREVER I WENT during my eight days in Monrovia when Liberia's transitional government was being installed, I was besieged by people -- newspaper vendors, politicians and business people -- demanding to know not if but when I would return to resume publication of the newspaper, The Daily Observer.

That experience in October presented me with a real and serious challenge: to ensure the newspaper is on the market again soon after nearly 15 years of dormancy.

The Daily Observer survived five closures, several staff imprisonments and two arson attacks. We persevered until the final blow came in 1990, when the offices were destroyed in a firebombing. So we lost everything. We moved north to Gambia, also on the West African coast, and started another Observer --that country's first daily; it remains Gambia's leading periodical. I was forced out of Gambia in 1994 by yet another military dictator.

What are people in Liberia looking for in a free and independent press?

They want a professional newspaper that is accurate, balanced, comprehensive and fair, one that will be prepared to ferret out the truth, even if it means stepping on the toes of the powerful, influential or connected.

They want a newspaper that will be relentless in the search for social justice, that will pay keen and sustained attention to the plight of the disadvantaged and downtrodden. They want a newspaper that will establish a three-way flow of communication in society -- from government to people through news and analysis, from people to government, and from people to people through letters to the editor and commentaries.

In a country torn apart and devastated by war, the people want a newspaper that will help to heal the wounds of division and conflict, a paper that will play an effective role in reconciliation through nationwide coverage and distribution.

With its maiden issue Feb. 16, 1981, The Daily Observer became the first Liberian newspaper to be circulated daily throughout the country and the first to have correspondents in most political subdivisions. This, along with the persecution which we suffered for exposing corruption, mismanagement and repression during the military dictatorship of Samuel K. Doe, were the key elements that made the paper popular and respected.

Perhaps the greatest long-term challenge facing the media in the new Liberia is to guide the nation toward establishing democracy and good governance. After 10 years of military dictatorship and nearly 15 years of domination, destruction and decimation by brutal, ruthless warlords, the Liberian people are anxious to usher in a period of peace, stability, democracy and good governance. An independent newspaper can play a critical role by giving accurate, fair and in-depth coverage to the electoral process and to all political groups and all candidates for public office.

The newspaper can guide the nation on the march toward democracy, the protection of human rights and economic and social reconstruction.

Since 1990, Liberia has had a negative impact on the West African subregion, distracting the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) from its noble purpose of fostering the economic development of its 16 member states. Many other nations and international organizations have also expended enormous amounts of time, effort and resources in the difficult and complex task of fixing the war-ravaged nation. Therefore, no one in the region or around the world can ignore Liberia today, nor should they.

If Liberia is fixed and democracy takes hold there, the future of West Africa will be brighter. The country can regain its pristine place as a beacon of hope in Africa and for black people everywhere.

This optimism is based on several critical factors: Liberia's status as Africa's first independent republic; its central position on the West African coast; its close and longstanding links with the United States and the U.S. dollar; and its free port of Monrovia, the symbol of open trade and commerce.

Most important are the friendliness and open arms of the Liberian people, which have made the country, for most of its 157-year existence, home to people of all races, especially those of African descent. Sons and daughters of many West African countries came to Liberia as business people and made millions.

The free press must strive to brighten this beacon of hope by informing the entire subregion, the continent of Africa and the world about what is going on in Liberia -- its progress, its problems, its promise.

Liberians, too, realizing that the whole continent and governments and peoples in many parts of the world continue to work tirelessly for lasting peace in Liberia, will need to know what is happening in Africa's 52 sovereign nations, and globally.

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