African News

Liberia: Misleading and biased reporting

26 February 2017 at 09:06 | 2777 views

Opinion

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, USA.

In my recent article on the 2017 election in Liberia, I advised the Liberian media to be neutral and to give fair and balanced reporting of the news.

The media should not be biased, covering one side to achieve a political objective. Biased and misleading reporting is unhealthy, dangerous and detrimental to democracy.

Since the article, I have observed to my dismay the continual exercise of misleading news coverage by some media outlets, particularly FrontPage Africa, a leading newspaper in Liberia.

In its February 14, 2017 edition, FrontPage Africa’s article entitled, “Weah’s Continuous Absence at ECOWAS Parliament Sets in New Regulation”, reported that ECOWAS secretariat has enacted a new regulation sparked by the continuous absence from sessions and other wrongful behavior of Senator George Weah and that such behavior has drawn the attention of other members of the body. In fact, the paper wrote, “Senator George Weah’s continuous absence and short stay at the ECOWAS Parliamentary sessions has begun raising eye brow among members of the parliament and has sparked a new set of regulations to govern sessions, meetings and missions”. FrontPage said that it has in its possession a letter by ECOWAS Speaker of Parliament Moustapha Cisso Lo to member delegates stating to them the problem, including the behavior of some members coming to parliament, taking stipends but leaving without attending sessions. Front Page however indicated that the letter did not mention by name the person or people responsible, but pointed out that it was Senator George Weah.

On what evidence did the paper base its assertion? After the story’s publication, Senator Prince Johnson, a member of Liberian delegation to ECOWAS Parliament, complained on state radio station in Liberia that Senator George Weah had abandoned him at Lagos airport upon arrival at the airport to attend an ECOWAS meeting. Senator Johnson also said that George Weah was the person whom the letter referred to. Certainly Rodney Sieh, the editor and publisher of FrontPage Africa, wrote in defense of the story; “Everything we reported this week has been validated by Senator Prince Johnson, one of several Liberian lawmakers appointed to the ECOWAS Parliament”.

The above statement by the paper was unfortunate. FrontPage knows that Senator Johnson, like Senator Weah and others, is a presidential candidate in the coming election in Liberia. The two senators are competitors for the presidency. The validation, by Johnson’s statement, could have been political. Moreover, the paper should have known that the accusation was made after a complaint of alleged abandonment. Hence, the accusation could have been motivated by the abandonment complaint as alleged. Secondly, if the senator felt abandoned by a colleague, why did he not make known of his complaint privately to Weah at ECOWAS? But he had to return to Liberia to air his complaint on public radio. This could mean he had an intention and motive to embarrass the accused and cause public disrepute and dislike.

Thirdly, for journalistic fairness and credibility, Senator Johnson was not the only available source. As indicated, there were and are “several Liberian lawmakers appointed to the ECOWAS Parliament”. The paper could have asked two or three of the five appointed lawmakers for verification. FrontPage could have also inquired directly from member attendance records from ECOWAS secretariat. Instead, the paper based its story on a questionable source considered in Liberia to be “unreliable and inconsistent”.

Subsequent to the above story, FrontPage on the following day came out with another story entitled, “Come, Grab & Go”? The title contains a photo of Weah. In this story, the paper reported that Weah would come to ECOWAS, pick up his allotted allowance and leave without attending sessions. Again, the paper’s source was Senator Prince Johnson, quoted saying, “only George Weah signs for stipends and & leaves”. Here once more, FrontPage did not do due diligence by fact checking the allegation, as it appears to tarnish the character of a fellow citizen, especially a lawmaker who is running for the highest office of the country. Finally, FrontPage failed to get Weah’s side of the story, a must for balanced reporting.

Did misleading information contribute to the civil war?
Misleading and biased reporting must stop. It does not help in maintaining peace and stability. I stated also in my previous article how such reporting affected particularly the 2005 presidential election in Liberia. So I do not have to repeat it here. But I need to say how it impacted the civil war. Yes, biased, fake and misleading information helped cause the civil war in Liberia. Here is an example:

In 1985, President Samuel Doe and Brigadier General Thomas Quiwonpka, two friends who led the “1980 Revolution”, fell out and were not speaking to each other. The General, known then as Strongman, left the military barracks and moved temporarily to a hotel in Monrovia. Liberia was to receive urgent and needed international aid but with conditions requiring the cooperation of the General. The president decided to meet the General to discuss the situation. The news of the intended visit reached the General, but his key supporters/aides advised him not to meet Doe, telling him that Doe’s intention was to kill him. Doe could not see the General when arrived at the hotel. He left disappointed.

General Quiwonpka then felt insecure in Liberia and left for exile in America. In the US, he decided to further his education at a community college, putting the Liberian issue on the back burner. But because of his popularity in Liberia and with the military, a Liberian group in America approached him to lead an invasion in Liberia to remove Doe from power. The General refused. The group returned later but this time with a fake photo of his mother being raped by Doe’s soldiers. The General was intensely angry when he saw the picture and agreed to lead the invasion.

But the invasion failed; the General died. Unfortunately and sadly after his death, the group abandoned his family, just as the group forgot about him, letting him standing alone with a gun and a malfunctioning walkie- talkie, wandering and confused on the Friday of the invasion. On November 15, 1985, a newly enlisted soldier of the government forces saw him walking and shot him dead. The nation, particularly his supporters, friends and family, were saddened by his death. The General was a quiet man, a gentleman, a family man, a good man. I knew him; he was married to a family member.

And the civil war came December 1989, four years after the invasion. To avenge the General’s death, his kinsmen from Nimba, Senator Prince Johnson’s birthplace, joined rebel leader Charles Taylor in the war to topple the Doe government. A full civil war emerged in later years, causing the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

Here you have fake and misleading information helping create and maintain a rift between two best friends, causing animosity and conflict between their once friendly tribal groups and creating a national war. Misleading information is dangerous!
The group that misinformed and misled the General emerged in the 2005 election and disseminated fake news and misinformation aimed to recreate tribal and regional conflict for political gain. Now again and apparently, the media is being used to influence this election.

The media has a responsible role in this year’s election in Liberia. Journalists “must carry and report the news fairly and must balance both sides. As said before, they are the “watchdogs of the society”. “They must verify information and report accurately”.

Am I for Weah and against FrontPage?
Am I for Weah and against FrontPage? Certainly not; in fact, I am not a member of any political party. I enjoy reading and listening to the news and being informed. FrontPage Africa is one of my favorite papers. I do not know majority of the Liberian presidential candidates and never saw them in person. I know VP Joseph Boakai and Dr. Mills Jones. I do not personally know Senator George Weah and never saw him in person. I saw recently candidate Benoni Urey at a funeral. We do not know each other, though he is married to a Nyanfore, Mai Bright Urey, daughter of Mary Sarah Nyanfore from Grandcess. Mai and I have communicated on the phone and on social media but never met. I am saying this to indicate that I am not advocating for any particular candidate and not against FrontPage Africa.

I have many friends in government or people with political connections who are considered rich in the country. But their wealth and power do not move and control me. I am my own person. I am content with what God has given me so far. I will not support any one of them if he/she is wrong or is found to engage in a wrongful behavior. Supporting and defending bad people because of personal relations or interest is to encourage wrongdoing and a corrupt society. My conscience would trouble me and I would be sad and unhappy if I do that. I would be an opportunist and guilty by omission, meaning exploiting and benefitting from the position of my friends and legally, seeing or knowing of the wrongdoings of friends and others but failing to act or failing to say something.

Where do I stand?
I stand for fairness and justice. I am against misinformation and the blatant use of it without regard of its consequences. I think it is sometime used with the belief or philosophy that people are stupid, that they are poor and can be fooled and that the truth will not come out; and even if it does, the people will do nothing anyway. This is a repressive way of thinking. I am against mistreatment and the oppression of people, especially poor, powerless and defenseless people. I strongly believe in God and uphold the consistency of personal principles, honesty and integrity. I believe that the media is a security guard of the community, standing against wrongdoings and standing for justice and truth. The press must stand for the right of all citizens.

There is an opinion that Weah is not well educated, and factually he was born poor and grew up in the slums. But he, like all Liberian citizens, has the human and constitutional right to be treated fairly and to want to become president of Liberia. It is not me personally, the media or any other institutions to decide, but the Liberian people, through the ballot box, to decide who should become the next president.

Moreover, my advocacy for fairness and against misleading reporting has been for over forty years. While in high school, I wrote against the unjust condition of African Americans in the US in the 60s, when I came to America as a teenager. I wrote against the misinformation of a Washington Post editorial on Liberia in 1980 and against a biased report by the now defunct Washington Afro-American newspaper that year.

I protested by publication the imprisonment of FrontPage Editor Rodney Sieh and the subsequent shutdown of the paper by a Liberian court in 2013. Although the imprisonment was due to a case of an alleged failure to authenticate a story, I felt that the amount charged for the libel verdict and fees was unfair and was intended to silence him and close down the paper for good. My research revealed that the Liberian court system, the Supreme Court, has historically disfavored press freedom. I called for his release, and so were many concerned individuals and international institutions advocating for him and for freedom of the press.

As stated earlier, I like the paper; it has faced the challenges of the press in Africa, and it was one of the reasons I recommended it for an international opportunity in 2013. I have no regrets for my effort and action. I hope that FrontPage Africa and other media in Liberia will act responsibly and desist from biased and misleading reportage, particularly in this election year.

I urge also that Liberians of voting age to register to vote this year. It is a constitutional obligation and right for change. I have registered and planned to return to Liberia to vote.

I will vote my conscience!

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