With the national economy strained since the last five years impacting every segment of the population, Liberian journalists are no exemption. Many media institutions—newspapers as well as radio stations—have since folded, several others on the brink of insolvency. Not many can afford procuring basic equipment and afford production costs, let alone maintain regular salaries and decent office space. Indeed, the local media are feeling the pinch of the dire situation. But there appears to be a government, or say a President, who cares. The other day, the President, George Manneh Weah, took with two hands a long dusting bill from the shelve on media freedom and he personally torpedoed it through the National Legislature to make it a law that decriminalizes free speech and free press. As if that is not a sufficient demonstration of copious goodwill to democracy and media freedom, the Liberia, who is also nicknamed “feminist-in-chief” for his extraordinary efforts in support of the cause of gender equality and women empowerment, stunned his audience Saturday when he turned over keys for a brand new van and office complex for the Female Journalists Association of Liberia (FeJAL) at a program originally meant by the host organization to raise funds and break ground for its headquarters. The Analyst reports the drama.
The President of Liberia, George Manneh Weah, has made yet another history. He has made himself the first Liberian president to build, furnish and turn over to a group of journalists a newly constructed office complex fully decorated and air-conditioned. He included an 18-seater bus to commute officers and members going to and from the office.
The presentation by the President to the Female Journalist Association (FeJAL), one of the struggling auxiliaries of the Press Union of Liberia, on Saturday will go down memory lane as the most historic gesture by a Liberian leader not because it is the first of its kind but also for the mood and style in which it was made.
Seven days before the misery day, the leadership of the struggling organization had taken to public relations of itself, spreading information about its scheduled fundraising and ground-breaking ceremonies, mobilizing potential donors to grace the occasion.
On Saturday, the Monrovia City Hall was jostling. Journalists, civil society actors and government officials were seated, and as the program got underway, invitees were called one by one either as individuals or as institutions, and the pledges rolled on.
With the President himself seated, in his usual broad smiles, representatives of government rose up, took to the podium and announced what they would provide for the construction of the female journalists’ headquarters offices.
The Minister of Gender was on hand. And she made a handsome pledge. There also were Speaker of the House, the President Protempore and many other high officials of government. They also made their pledges and FeJAL must have been glad.
It was almost clear for the audience, including the host female journalists, the envisioned project was far-fetched. Many public and organizational projects have left where their ground-breaking stopped.
FeJAL’s parent organization, the Press Union of Liberia, is still nursing the wounds of a controversial US$100,000 donation made by President Sirleaf—a donation that got embroiled in legal tussles and dusting since the last ten years or so.
Journalists in Liberia are a struggling segment of the population, no immune to the bites of the crunching economy left in tatters by the erstwhile administration.
Raising funds to build a headquarters office complex by a group of journalists, particularly the female practitioners, who were forced to form separate sect due to perceived inequalities and perhaps abuses against them was something doubted far and wide.
Many attendees of the fundraising must have therefore thought it was one of several get-togethers for the mere sake of it.
How the President and his inner-circle, amid massive leak of information from the officialdom, managed the surprise up to the Saturday program was a wonder to almost everyone else.
But the initial comments in the President’s speech at the program put everyone on notice that something extraordinary would happen. Not many were sure what that was, though.
He told his audience that there were two types of people—those who make news and those who make history.
“For me, I have chosen to make history,” President Weah said provoking cheers and smiles in the hall, and sparking reflection of the University of Liberia speech in which he concluded with pronouncements about tuition-free public universities and colleges.
In a moment he put the speech aside and instructed a member of FeJAL to search peep into a certain decorated minute box and pull out envelops.
Envelop after envelop unveiled values. The first showed a parcel containing a processed land, approximately 2.5 acres, something he reportedly purchased while he was Montserrado County Senator at the National Legislature.
Another envelop contained a set of keys for an 18-seated Toyota bus.
There was another envelop which unveiled a US$1 coin. The President described coin as not just an ordinary coin. He said it was his family contribution to the fundraising rally of FeJAL and one reason he took delight in that coin was because it was minted in 1966, the year he was born.
The biggest historic surprise was when the President ordered his staff to film footage of something much of the audience did not know what he would be but certainly knew would be knee-jerking.
Amid anxieties in the audience, the footage filmed a modern one-story building cropping up before the eyes of attendees.
Program scene turned into cheers and applauses. Some hooted “Talk and Do President!” an appellation that depicts the President as someone who keeps his promise.
But there were others who also shouted, “Silent and Do President!” as if to say that the President is more of deeds than of words.
As usual, donations of the kind, however surprising and measured or well-intentioned they may be, are subject to as much cynical appraisals and there are positive reactions so long they are made by political authority.
This is getting apparently worsening in an increasingly conscious and politically charged country where so much electoral fevers are in the air.
It is not a surprise therefore that critics of the President’s presentations for the Female Journalists Association would be swiftly greeted by a barrage of misrepresentation and condemnation by a section of the public.
While some contend that the President was psychologically forced to make the presentation since, according to the critics, he was booked as originally intending the building for the relocation of his private radio station, others said the donations are intended to bribe the female journalists, by extension other journalists who support into submission and reduce their critical stance against him and his administration.
There are other critics who contend that the presentation is a charade because the location of the office complex, lying within the domain of the President’s private properties, will do anything substance because the president can at any time reclaim it should FeJAL acts otherwise against him.
Those who support the President’s presentations to FeJAL say they are in the right direction and that they should be hailed as extraordinary and matchless and selfless in Liberia’s leadership history.
They contend that the President has proven to be the friendliest Liberia president to the media, citing his personal efforts in getting a law that decriminalizes free press and free speech passed, tolerating even the most vocal critics and without a record of suing or jailing a single journalist so far and many congenial overtures to most journalists if not all.