By Tamba Jean-Matthew 

It has been a long and hard battle for media innovators in Liberia to stay aloof in shaping public opinion in Africa’s first republic.

When black American Charles Force left America and landed in Liberia in 1826 to launch the first media innovation to champion the cause of black emancipation, little did he know that he would die just after the first edition of his Herald newspaper.

Charles however, received posthumous accolades for launching the spadework to shape public opinion against racism and colonial tendencies through the Herald.

The publication became the longest-publishing newspaper in Liberia until April 1996 when the worst clash in the country’s civil war hit the capital Monrovia, burning down more than half of the city and forcing all media outlets to shut down including the Herald.

In the publication’s 170-year lifespan, the Herald remained outstanding in edifying several milestones that molded public opinion while mobilising society to attain their rights.

Among the landmark events was the attainment of Liberia’s independence on July 26, 1847.

Other equally important media-instigated events include Liberia’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany in 1917 and the offering of the first base to allied forces.

And yet another milestone event to which media innovation contributed to shaping public opinion and support is the ability of women, the indigenous estate, and other property owners to vote for the first time in the 1957 presidential election.

A year later in 1958, local media innovators effectively mobilised public opinion to abolish racial discrimination in Liberia and in return, received memorable accolades from the autochthones, according to historical events recorded by the Herald and the Liberian Age newspapers.

But the twist came in 1979 when the Americo-Liberian-led True Whig Party of Liberia slammed ‘underground’ media innovators and mostly indigenous elites for instigating a rice riot that killed about 40 people in Monrovia.

That episode heralded the end of nearly 132 years of Americo-Liberian political hegemony, recounts George S. Khoryama.

“The event also opened the floodgates to an unstoppable proliferation of media innovators and innovations on the progressively polarised social, political and cultural landscape in Liberia,” Khoryama said.

Khoryama edited the state-owned New Liberian daily for nearly a decade up to 1990.

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George, like his predecessor Emmanuel Z. Bowier, acquiesced that virtually all of the media innovations from the advent of the Herald in 1826 to the Rice Riots, maintained the lead in shaping public opinion on practically every human activity in Liberia.

But they argued that the divergence and the fall in the matrix of the media in shaping public opinion did not occur with the advent of the 1980 military coup that ended 132 years of Americo-Liberian political hegemony but rather, with the fratricidal civil war which Charles Taylor (the ICJ-jailed Americo-Liberian rebel leader) triggered in 1989.

That civil war chapter introduced into the media landscape, some hitherto unknown politicians, self-styled journalists, journalism professors social commentators and prolific writers representing different factions and schools of thought.

They pelted accusations and counter-accusations in a desperate attempt to win the support and sympathy of the public opinion either in favor of the embattled military-cum-civilian government of the slain President Samuel Doe or to officialise Charles Taylor’s war doctrine as a necessary evil.

Hence, between 1991 and the end of the war in 2003, about 11 media innovators and their outlets were engaged in a war of words with diametrically opposed viewpoints that made it difficult for the public to decipher the truth from falsity and publicity from propaganda.

This eroded the confidence and respect that the public had reposed in media innovators and their outlets as credible agents in shaping public opinion, says Terence S. Sesay.

Terence was elected President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) in 2003 as Liberia emerged from the gruesome war, but he seemed too remote to change the calculus of the organised confusion that was obtained on the ground.

Hence PUL, the once highly respected media watchdog and the Liberian Daily Observer newspaper which was the leading publication, became toothless bulldogs in the pell-mell generated by various representatives of civil society and the warring factions.

Commenting on the contribution by media innovators and innovations in shaping public opinion, Liberia’s former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf recalled that both the managing director of the LIiberian Observer newspaper and his co-founder Stanton Peabody, “were journalists who spoke truth regardless of fear or favour… but the present circumstances, conditions and terrains have changed everything.”

The confidence and respect that was once the trademarks of media publications and organisations in Liberia had dissipated under the pressure created by warlord propaganda machines.

It required the intervention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), other media-friendly institutions and PUL’s indomitable spirit to uphold free speech at all costs to recapture the rightful place of media in shaping public opinion in Liberia.

PUL eventually made the score by expediting capacity-building workshops and rapprochement dialogue with government, civil society, and the general public and by compensating meritorious media practitioners for their efforts in regaining the lost glory as public opinion builders.

Fallah J. Matthews emerged as an outstanding symbol who crossed the Rubicon to reinstall the public trust in the media as real agents in shaping public opinion.

Matthews’ professional coverage and incisive analysis of critical court proceedings during a no-war-no-peace situation, saw him become a household name across Liberia and bagged PUL’s covetous “Best Judicial Reporter” award for consecutive years (1999-2002).

To date, he retains the unbroken record and is the first to be ushered to PUL’s hall of fame.

As further proof of his prowess, Matthews graduated from Liberia’s prestigious James A.A. Pierre Judiciary Institute’s Professional Magistrates Training Programme in 2017 and has since become a magistrate.

Reflecting on his experience as a judicial reporter and eventually the bureau chief at the state-run ELBS radio and in contrast to his incumbent function he said: “You know covering the courts and working as a magistrate can be likened to riding on the back of a lion… You have to be conscious and skillful, lest you fall and be devoured by the beast.”

Reporting supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab


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