“The term yellow journalism was coined in the mid-1890s to characterize the sensational journalism that used some yellow ink in the circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. The battle peaked from 1895 to about 1898, and historical usage often refers specifically to this period. Both papers were accused by critics of sensationalizing the news in order to drive up circulation,” says Wikipedia.
Arguably, the issue of yellow journalism has always plagued most parts of conflict-riddled Africa, but it became pronounced in Liberia during the heydays of our own civil conflict - when families and friends, including well-meaning journalists became divided along factional lines. Monrovia-based journalists were reporting from IGNU-controlled areas, while Greater Liberia journalists were telling the “real story” from the perspective of Charles Taylor’s NPFL. Of course, the reportage of these two groups was generally reflective of the high level of insecurity that subsisted in the West African sub-region, especially the Mano River Union, when no one trusted his or her next door neighbor. It was a time that the Liberian media, as with the media in other parts of Africa, “assumed a partisan, highly politicized militant role” (Nyamnjoh, 2005; 231).
Under such arrangement, a warring faction leader would assemble a band of journalists to the scene of a massacre and “inform” the media about the identity of the culprits. The next day, headlines would scream bloody murder, providing details about the massacre only from the viewpoint of those who arranged the tour.
The war ended a little over 13 years ago. The conditions that divided the country along factional lines have drastically blurred. Liberia is a unified country once again. The media landscape has evolved with more than 40 newspapers on the market, about 100 community radio stations spread across the 15 political subdivisions, and a host of commercial radio and television stations plying their trade in a very tight market. With the guns silent but the media market burgeoning beyond expectation, yet a few media outlets continue to use the same old war time divide-and-rule tactics to sell their papers and gain relevance.
It is against such backdrop that my attention is drawn to a couple of recent publications from the Hot Pepper Newspaper where among several outlandish claims, the paper accused Dr. James F. Kollie, Deputy Minister for Fiscal Affairs, Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, of secretly transferring $US600,000 into a private bank account. The paper did not stop there. It went on to say that the said amount was intercepted by the Federal Reserve and wired back.
My concern as a Liberian is very simple. The issues that were raised are very grave. If Mr. Brown wants to be taken serious by all Liberians and his colleague journalists, and even members of the international community, he must back up his claims with facts and evidence. If what Philipbert Brown is saying can be backed by facts, Dr. James Kollie should be facing prosecution by now. But anything short of providing the facts and evidence to his claims will show Mr. Brown as a blackmailer.
Philipbert Brown, please do the right thing and publish the bank transfer information as well the Federal Reserve information that showed some US$600,000 wired back to Liberia. If you fail to do so, people will continue to take you as one of the hungry “join-the-lists” parading around town and spoiling the good name of those of your colleagues who are working hard to change the media landscape in Liberia.
If you fail to provide evidence on how Dr. Kollie allegedly stole from state coffers to send money abroad, then we will look at you through the lens of former US Ambassador to Liberia, Deborah Malac. Do you remember, Mr. Brown, how on August 5, 2015 Ambassador Malac wrote an angry letter to your managing editor Jah Johnson, after your paper quoted “authorative sources” saying US President Barack Obama had passed a list to Nigerian President Buhari detailing corrupt African leaders, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?
“Not a single journalist contacted the U.S. Embassy to check the veracity of this story or to ask us for comment. Our response would have been unequivocal. There is no factual basis for these stories. No such list was passed to President Buhari. There is no list for Liberia,” Ambassador Malac had clarified in a very furious letter to your managing editor.
If we should go by precedence, you must have some sort of quixotic fixation with Dr. Kollie just as you did with the former U.S. Ambassador to Liberia. Whatever the case, for just this once, Mr. Philipbert Brown, prove me wrong.
Stop Mercenary Press
Most often it is difficult to criticize an errant relative, loved one or friend, even when it is certain they are treading the wrong path. Howbeit the difficulty in exposing the defaults of a relative gone wrong, there comes a time when tough love is all that matters.
The media is seen as the mirror of society to the extent that whatever is published or aired by us, the public swallows line, hook and sinker. Truth be told, while majority of the Liberian media continue to jealously guard this watchdog role, a few of our colleagues continue to waddle in non-factual, sensational reportage that continue to bring the credibility of the entire media into question.
A serious case in point is the recent publication from the Hot Pepper newspaper where the paper made a number of sweeping allegations against reputable and outstanding members of the Liberian society without providing a shred of evidence.
In one its publications, the Hot Pepper accused Dr. James F. Kollie, Deputy Minister for Fiscal Affairs, Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, of secretly transferring $US600,000 into a private bank account. The paper did not even stop there, but went on to say that the said amount was intercepted by the Federal Reserve and wired back.
These are grievous allegations that, if substantiated, warrant Dr. Kollie’s immediate prosecution by law. Against such background, it is only sensible for the Hot Pepper and its publisher to come clean and adduce the necessary evidence.
As the media continues its fight for press freedom and unfettered reportage, we ought to be seen as responsible. Freedom of speech is not a license to make unsubstantiated statements based on mere street gossips. The media must live above reproach just as we expect the larger society to toe the moral, ethical and legal lines.
We cannot be calling for the decriminalization of libel law, yet dabble in fictional writing, presenting our opinions and biases as hardcore news.
As former Ambassador Deborah Malac stated in 2015, the public depends on us the media to provide those facts and information that would help them to make informed decisions.
“The first tenet of journalism is to verify information,” she had said.
It is trust we must keep to stay above the fray.