When journalism is perilous Dictators of 2 countries in Africa persecuted Liberian journalist

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Freedom of the press is a constitutional right in the United States. But journalists in countries governed by totalitarian regimes face persecution and death when they print the truth, rather than the government line. Liberian journalist Kenneth Y. Best was threatened with death in his native land, and deported from Gambia for printing the truth. My wife Mae Gene and our six children, Kona, Facia, Boto, Bai, Kenneth Jr. and Lilian, left Monrovia, Liberia, in May 1990 for Accra Ghana to escape the civil war that had engulfed the country since Dec. 24, 1989.

At the time, I was in New York negotiating for computers to take back to Liberia to improve our typesetting capacity at the independent newspaper, the Daily Observer, which my wife and I had published since 1981. Mae Gene called me and said, "Don't come back; Mr. Doe wants your head." I asked her what had I done and she replied: "All of the people whose heads we see on the highways and in the bushes - what have they done?"

I suggested that she take the children to Accra where I joined them at the end of May.

The question I had put to her on the telephone was not an idle one. It stemmed from many precarious, brutal and costly encounters we had experienced with the regime of Samuel K. Doe from the time we started the newspaper until 1990, when Doe was captured and killed.

Doe led the bloody military coup that overthrew the government of President William R. Tolbert Jr. on April 12, 1980. From that point, he used terror to rule the country. During the seven-year civil war, nearly 200,000 people were killed, and the country was virtually destroyed.

Doe ordered the closure of our newspaper five times - once for nearly two years - because he did not always like what the paper published. Although we were aware that we were living under a military dictatorship at the time, we felt we had to heed our professional calling to be critical and prophetic, to speak for those who could not speak for themselves.

One time, Doe closed the paper because we had carried on the front page a photograph of him performing some official function, along with the lead story in which a man killed his wife and three children and then attempted to take his own life.

Angry about our placing him on the same page with a murderer, Doe ordered the immediate disconnection of electricity from the newspaper and its printing press, making it impossible for us to operate.

In January 1984, he closed the paper because we ran a story on a scheduled meeting between the nation's teachers and George Boley, the minister of education, regarding salary arrears.

As the civil war raged in the early weeks of 1990, Doe launched a relentless campaign of slaughter and destruction against the people of Nimba County and elsewhere in the country.

Nimba is a political subdivision in the western part of the country along the border with Ivory Coast, where Charles Taylor had fired the first shots of the war. Thousands of people were killed in that campaign, including three truckloads of children who were taken from Nimba County ostensibly for rescue at an orphanage in the capital city. The children were buried alive on the beaches on the outskirts of Monrovia.

A Nimba woman whose husband, a general, was secretly killed by Doe, and whose friends in the army had leaked the information to her, confronted the Liberian leader at a meeting in Monrovia.

With outstretched arms and tears in her eyes, she asked: "Mr. President, where is my husband?" Doe said he did not know where her husband was and walked away. A female reporter of the Daily Observer interviewed the woman shortly after the encounter, and we published the story the next day, Friday, March 16. The back-page headline read, "Where Is My Husband?"

At the breakfast table the next day, just before we set out for the office, a visitor came in and said, "Mr. Best, your office was on fire last night."

He said most of the offices had been burned, and crowds had been going into the building to see the destruction. We went to town and found the building badly damaged by smoke and water. The newsroom was destroyed, but fortunately the office with our sophisticated computer typesetting equipment was untouched, and our darkroom equipment only slightly damaged.

I called the staff together and told them, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to restore electricity this afternoon, and I have given the business office instructions to give you all money to complete your weekend assignments. The paper will appear on Monday morning."

The staff, courageous and determined, set to work, and by 4:30 p.m. Sunday they had completed a 12-page dummy, including a pictorial of the fire. As the good Lord would have it, not a single problem occurred with the press that night. The paper hit the streets of Monrovia before 7 a.m. Monday, to the shock of Samuel Doe and his cronies.

***

We were in Ghana for two months and decided to relocate to Gambia as the opportunity seemed to exist for the publication of a professional daily newspaper there. At the time, only one was printed weekly, a broadsheet published by the government's information department, and several privately owned newspapers were produced on 8-by-11 paper.

We arrived in Banjul, Gambia, on Aug. 1, 1990, and immediately commissioned a feasibility study. The study was completed in late September, and we showed it to many people, including leading businessmen, in the hope of raising capital. Unfortunately, while many admired the study, we did not succeed in raising money. My wife and I had to borrow from the funds we had saved for our children's education to invest in the paper.

In September 1990, as the civil war raged in Liberia, Samuel Doe was captured and killed. After this, his fellow Krahn tribesmen starting burning Monrovia, saying, "No Doe, no Liberia!" The Daily Observer building on Crown Hill, Monrovia, was one of the first hit. It was destroyed.

From Gambia, Mae Gene and I visited New York City in mid-1991, bought computers for the Daily Observer in Monrovia as well as for the proposed Gambian newspaper. We also bought printing equipment for the Gambian operation and several months supply of newsprint, offset plates, chemicals and ink.

By the grace of the Lord, the newspaper appeared on May 11, 1992, and within a few weeks had a successful start, contrary to the doubts and pessimism of most Gambians. Many, including some of the handful of journalists in the country at the time, told us that Gambia was not ready for a daily newspaper. They argued that the country was too small; that more than 80 percent of the population was illiterate, and that Gambians were too poor to take a daily paper.

We also were told that there was no news in Gambia, and even if we stumbled onto something, it would be difficult to get into print. A fellow journalist told me bluntly: "Gambians would not appreciate anyone pushing a newspaper down their throats every morning."

It was not long, however, before the Gambian newspaper, also called the Daily Observer, became the largest and most successful news operation in the country's history, and was distributed nationwide. Gambians of all walks of life, including politicians, top civil servants, business people, soldiers and men and women in the markets, could be seen reading the newspaper or buying it to take for some lettered family member to read.

The people also sent copies to kin in different parts of the world. Many started saying the Observer had spearheaded the

development of a "reading culture" in Gambia.

But two developments caused many of our friends to wonder about the wisdom of our decision to invest in Gambia.

The first occurred on Christmas Eve 1993 when Omar Sey, then the foreign minister, arose during the closing debate of Parliament and, to the surprise of many in the chamber, lambasted the Daily Observer. He accused the newspaper of unprofessionalism, bias, troublemaking, and in particular, of putting the photograph of opposition leader Mustapha Sheriff Dibba on the front page too often, just to sell papers and make the government look bad. A few legislators joined the attack.

Our reaction was to make no comment, but to report what happened.

Little did we - or the legislators - know that this was the opportunity the Gambian people had been waiting for to express their feelings about the Daily Observer. The morning the story appeared, the office was bombarded with phone calls blasting the legislators. We had to remind the public that the lawmakers had a right to express their views about the newspaper. Letters flowed in to the letters page editor, most critical of the legislators, and they dominated the letter page for several weeks, until we stopped them and moved on to other issues.

***

The second development that threatened our investment was far more serious. The coup of July 22, 1994, shook to its foundations the last remaining haven of peace in the West African subregion, Gambia.

Some of my friends, especially those who doubted the wisdom (( of our investment in the newspaper enterprise in Gambia in the first place, appreciated the enlightenment of the Observer had brought to the country, but they said to me quietly, "Now that a coup has happened here, too, we worry about you and your family because you lost everything in Liberia, and all you had left you put into business here and look what has happened. What will you do now?"

Some of our friends at the American Embassy, including Ambassador Andrew Winter, felt the same way when they willingly agreed to grant visas to all our children and ourselves. It was a most magnanimous gesture offered at a time that the country was in a state of bewilderment and uncertainty. But after the Observer produced a comprehensive report of the coup, acclaimed by many at home and abroad as highly professional, we began what appeared to be a warm honeymoon with the new military leaders.

However, when the people and the international community began clamoring for a timetable for democratic civilian rule, and we began reflecting these sentiments in the newspaper, the military became uncomfortable with me. They began harassment. A reporter was arrested for a day, and I was picked up and taken at breakneck speed to an isolated police outpost and kept incommunicado for 36 hours.

Only intense political and diplomatic pressure and several broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Corp. pressured the authorities to release me. However, a week later I was arrested again, and deported to Liberia. The immigration director, a man named Nye Ceesay, handed my passport to the pilot of the Nigerian plane with instructions, "When you land Mr. Best back in Liberia, give him his passport."

The next week, in November 1994, I received an invitation to make a speech at Duke University, where the topic, "Journalists at War," was being discussed at a seminar. Reed Kramer and his wife, Tammy, publishers of Africa News in Durham, N.C., who arranged my invitation, did not know I had been deported.

When they contacted my home in Banjui, and my wife told them what had happened, they said, "That's all the more reason we want Mr. Best to speak." For me, that was another way the good Lord showed again his hand of mercy and deliverance toward me.

My family has been granted political asylum, and our children are back in school, trying to catch up with the time and opportunities they lost following their parents as they pursued what they considered to be their professional duty to Africa.

God continues to be good. The two newspapers, which we still own, are serving the people in Liberia and Gambia, operated by our staff members who remained in the two countries. The papers are striving to maintain the highly productive standards for which they have been noted.

We can never give up on the continent of our birth, for we and our children know that we must continue to do all we can, as long as we can, to help our dearest Africa out of its troubles of repression, corruption, mismanagement and war.

Since my arrival in the United States, I have taught journalism at The American University in Washington, and wrote a book on my experiences as a persecuted journalist and publisher in West Africa. My second book, written as a fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York, is being edited.

We remain optimistic. Many hopeful signs exist in many places in Africa. Democratization is taking root in many countries; South Africa is safe and free and under majority rule; several countries have gotten rid of their greedy, selfish and ruthless tyrants; economic revival is being experienced in many countries, and many civil conflicts of long standing are being or have been resolved.

These small beginnings must be encouraged and multiplied, so that in time, perhaps in the not-distant future, the continent will experience an irreversible African renaissance.

During a fellowship with the Freedom Forum, Kenneth Y. Best wrote a book about his experiences at the hands of military dictatorships in his native Liberia and Gambia. He and his family live in the Washington area.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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