By Tamba Jean-Matthew 

In Liberia, perhaps no independent media innovation has been as successful as the Daily Observer over four decades.

During that time, as in many countries under autocratic military regimes, the Daily Observer has suffered several brutal incidents at the hands of soldiers in retaliation for clearly objective reporting that the armed brass deemed offensive.

The incidents included government censorship, unwarranted closures, arrests and detentions of journalists and even its innovator, Kenneth Y. Best, as well as two arson attacks, including a grenade blast that pulverised the newspaper’s office in September 1990 on the cusp of the country’s 14-year civil war.

In the space of eight years, Best recounted the paper was closed five times, the fifth for almost two years.

“We can never forget the challenging, critical and costly pains we endured during our formative years – pains, even crises, we suffered,” Best recalled.

Best, now 84, had categorically refused to bow to any pressure to compromise truth and objectivity in fulfilling the social responsibilities of the press.

Speaking at the occasion of the paper’s transition to the digital hype nearly a decade ago, Liberia’s former President Madam Sirleaf recalled that both Best and his co-founder Stanton Peabody were journalists, who spoke the truth, regardless of fear or favour.

But she was quick to posit that “the present circumstances, conditions and terrains have changed everything.”

Best is presently weary with age and practically isolated from the public, but more so by the undying pain of the demise of Stanton Peabody, his co-founder, erudite and punchy editorialist.

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New innovators with odds

Slightly over a decade ago, Bai Best, the hitherto unknown journalist, and son of Best took over the reins of the publication, striving to catch up with the journalistic and managerial charisma of the founding fathers.

In the process, the paper has shed off some of its qualities including the superb content which “glued readers from the front page to the last,” says Elizabeth Kollie, a retired English teacher.

In her late eighties, Elizabeth is still reading without glasses and admits to having achieved hundreds of the newspaper’s publications since its inception in 1981.

“In its (the paper’s) heydays, we learned a lot of new words and expressions … for example, I learned the figurative expression: ‘To cross the Rubicon’ which means to take a decisive step from which there is no turning back – I draw my inspiration from that expression,” she said with a soft smile as she gazed over the horizon.

“Now, she continued, the paper has stopped providing us with such inspiration through its editorials, and is no longer whetting our appetite and aptitude in English, although it is helping us to catch up with unfolding issues and events which we find in the ubiquitous media around us.”

In the report issued by the US Embassy in Monrovia and reproduced by the African Star newspaper the American diplomat noted that Liberia is “a country that is tied for last place (worldwide) in average days of school attendance.”

Elizabeth agrees wholeheartedly, adding that “the declining standard of education is certainly having an impact on the current generation of journalists in Liberia”.

Chat room radio and music boxes

Until the end of Liberia’s 14-year civil war in 2003, the state-owned Liberia Broadcasting System radio and its counterpart, the state-owned New Liberian newspaper, maintained their world-class status by adhering to the principles of professional journalism, despite minor glitches.

For Peter Kahler, editor-in-chief of the Liberia News Agency and former station manager of West Africa Democracy Radio in Senegal, a series of fully-funded workshops by institutions such as UNESCO aim to improve writing skills, creativity in programme design and documentary production which will help the new generation of media innovators recapture past glories.

This is the view of Peter Quaqua, former president of the Press Union of Liberia and the leading innovator of private journalism training in Liberia.

Currently, what haunts broadcast journalists in Liberia is the poor pronunciation of English words. In addition, presenters on several radio stations would present programmes of up to 45 minutes without giving the signal or the nomenclature of the station.

Furthermore, very poor sound quality, especially when picked up from outside the studio, and the near absence of prepared scripts by presenters are the hallmarks of electronic media in Liberia.

The lack of creativity in producing documentaries and a variety of programmes has forced virtually all radios to become music boxes and chat rooms that receive hundreds of callers for most of their daily broadcasts.

Reporting supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab


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