U.S. Ambassador puts foot in mouth

US ambassador’s perspective on press freedom in Liberia

By Kai Toteh | October 09, 2013

Ambassador Malac
Ambassador Deborah Malac

In his speech during celebration marking the 49thanniversary of the Press Union of Liberia in Kakata, Margibi County, PUL’s President Peter Quaqua rebutted U.S. Ambassador Deborah Malac’s statement in which she said, “Liberia has one of the free press in the world.” The U.S. ambassador’s statement did not go well with members of the Press Union of Liberia, especially PUL’s President Peter Quaqua, who made the sharp rebuttal saying, “The accounts of permanent organizations specialized in monitoring the media contradict the ambassador’s perception about press freedom in Liberia.

The PUL president’s reaction to the ambassador’s statement must have also been prompted by current situation involving the imprisonment of Journalist Rodney Sieh, who has been in prison for more than a month because he refused to apologize and pay US$1.2 million to former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe.

It is unclear as to what measure and standard the ambassador use to grade press freedom in Liberia, but it is clear the ambassador must have made the statement at the wrong time.
The “wrong time” in my opinion, is the ambassador’s statement when a Liberian journalist, Rodney Sieh is in prison for failing to pay damages for a libel lawsuit in which the verdict was brought down against him and his paper  [Front page Africa) shut down. It was ruled that Sieh should pay US$1.2 million to Toe.

Furthermore, the ambassador’s assertion might have been influenced by the absence of deaths to Liberian journalists since President Sirleaf rule. In other words, because there have been no reports about journalists being killed does not mean Liberia enjoys free press in the world or has one of the free press in the world.

The ambassador’s statement is not a surprise to many Liberians who have been following U.S. foreign policy in Liberia relative to democracy, which includes freedom of speech, press, movement and so forth. U.S. officials have always implied that Liberians don’t need or deserve the level of freedom the people of United States have and enjoy—meaning that the detention of Liberian journalists for no substantial reason is good enough and must be considered one of the free press in Liberia.

In 1985 U.S. officials acknowledged and praised the general elections in Liberia, referring to it as by “African standard,” the election was free. The general elections in 1985 were rejected by opposition parties on grounds that it was rigged and irregular.

In 1997, U.S. officials said the elections were free and fair and by African standard, it could not be better than what it was. Charles Taylor won that election amid protest by opposition members that the elections be postponed so that proper arrangements can be made to establish a level playing field.

In 2005, again U.S. officials said the elections were free and fair despite protest by opposition members that the elections were flawed, and there was evidence to prove their allegation. Then in 2011, U.S. officials once again acknowledged and praised the elections despite the main opposition party, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) boycott of the runoff.

This is the tradition of U.S. officials in Liberia to cajole things that Liberians say they don’t like, or things that are not right. The ambassador cannot say she does not know how many problems and troubles Liberian journalists and activists have had and continue to have with the Government of Liberia, and how many times Liberian journalists and activists have been harassed and how many times Liberian journalists and activists have been thrown in jail.

Given the foregoing analysis, PUL’s Peter Quaqua’s rebuttal of the ambassador’s assertion about press freedom in Liberia must be buttressed by all Liberian journalists and activists, so that U.S. officials should know that we know better, and we believe that the level of press freedom in the U.S. is not too good for us.

Liberian journalists, citizens, activists and so forth have the right to Universal standard of human rights. The level of free press Liberians should have and enjoy is and should not be determined by one particular person regardless of his or her status and nationality.

Therefore, this article is intended to use this medium to call on the ambassador to join the peaceful “Free Rodney Sieh” campaign that has been going on for some time now. Otherwise, it would be unfair and duplicitous for an ambassador who knows, based on her nationality, what press freedom is.

This article also calls on the ambassador to ask the Government of Liberia to free Rodney Sieh and re-open Front Page Africa Newspaper. We don’t say Liberia enjoys one of the freest press freedoms in the world while a newspaper is banned and its publisher is in jail. When it is not done well—that means it is not done at all.