Interview with Gabriel I. H. Williams

Printer-friendly version

Interview with Gabriel I. H. Williams

Former Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia, founding member of the Association of Liberian Journalists in Americas, and author of Liberia: The Heart of Darkness

May 30, 2002

The following interview was conducted at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, which serves as Secretariat of the World Movement for Democracy. The interview was conducted by Mr. Ryota Jonen, Project Assistant for the World Movement for Democracy.

Q: How did the Press Union of Liberia emerge, what was your role in it, and how has it managed to stay together despite numerous challenges during and after the war?

The Press Union of Liberia started in the early 1960s. It was the result of continuing suppression of press freedom. The journalists in those days decided that there was a need for organizing themselves to secure their collective professional interest and to advocate for better press conditions in the country. During that time, journalists were not respected. They were held in the lowest regard of any professionals in the country. The creation of the Press Union was intended to raise the profile of journalists and to give them a collective voice.

For about 15 years after the creation of the Press Union, it was not really progressive because during those days many of the members worked for the Ministry of Information and other state-owned media agencies. There were independent media houses and newspapers, but they were not strong enough due to limited resources. That situation continued until the early 1980s; in 1981, to be precise, Mr. Kenneth Best, Managing Director of Liberian Observer Corporation, returned from abroad and established the first really independent newspaper, called the Daily Observer. It introduced the American style of journalism to the country: investigative reporting, news analysis, advocacy, and drawing attention to the ills of society. From there, journalists in the country began to raise more public awareness, while the need for media advocacy became more pressing.

So the Press Union was reorganized and revived. The first president of the Press Union after this reorganization took it in a more progressive direction. In 1987, I was elected to the Executive Committee of the Press Union as an Assistant Secretary General, and in 1989 I was elected Secretary General. But then the war came, and many of the trained journalists, who were educated and experienced, left the country. When the war reached Monrovia, much of the media infrastructure was destroyed completely.

At that time, all the media in Liberia was controlled by various factions. For example, when Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front, one of the warring factions, reached Monrovia, it seized the national radio and television station, called the Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS), and began its own broadcast basically advocating Taylor's positions. There was, then, no independent journalism. During that time, I myself was in hiding.

The president of the Press Union at the time, Isaac Bantu, who is an internationally known and respected advocate of press freedom, was in danger for his life and fled the country for America. I was wanted dead or alive, and thus sought refuge in an American Embassy residence where I stayed for almost a year. Many other leaders of the Press Union went underground, and, as I said, the media was basically serving the cause of the various factions. When the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force came in and fought Taylor to get him out of the city, his supporters looted the state radio and TV station and took the equipment with them, and re-installed it on their own bases to continue propagating Taylor's cause. By that time, the radio and TV offices and the offices of all the other media had been destroyed. Both the government forces and the rebels targeted them because they were seen not to be in their interests. So the only information people had in the country emanated from the various factions.

When the peacekeeping force came, they brought in a short-wave, mobile radio station, connected to the Voice of Nigeria, which they installed on their base, and that station began to disseminate information. They consolidated control in the region, and there was a semblance of normalcy. By this time, Samuel Doe, then President of Liberia, had died, and his forces had been confined to their barracks, but there was no independent journalism.

Several colleagues and I decided to do something to introduce some alternative means for disseminating information that would not simply cater to the factions' positions. We therefore launched the Inquirer Newspaper, which is now the leading newspaper in Liberia, and I was the managing editor. Given the conditions, we started the newspaper using personal typewriters and candles, and we typed wherever there was a generator. We worked overnight just to present independent positions on issues, and this how the Inquirer came about. It became successful because people were hungry for balanced information, and we were able to present it. That positioned us to be the source on which the people depended over the years.

But this did not come without risks. There were many times when I was almost killed, and there were threats to have me eliminated. In fact, there was a time when Prince Johnson, a leader of one of warring faction, planned to bomb the newspaper office because we criticized him for killing people (he used a sledgehammer to kill several of his senior commanders, and the newspaper condemned him for it resoundingly), and ECOMOG, a West African regional peace-keeping force, had to station its troops at the office for about six months to prevent us from the rebels' attack. I told Prince Johnson, "you might as well do what you want to do, but we will continue to condemn any attempt to stifle the press and to prevent us from doing what we have to do." So ECOMOG stationed some troops to protect us.

Meanwhile, Bantu, who was in the United States, met with some grant-making organizations and made a compelling case to them to help the Press Union do its work and to thus help keep the independent press alive. With him in the U.S. and me and other colleagues on the ground in Liberia, we were thus able to coordinate and continue the work. This is how the Press Union remained alive at that point.

Q: What are the biggest challenges that the Press Union and journalists in Liberia currently face?

The biggest current challenge is a lack of trained journalists, a lack of adequate education and training. The media is the foundation or bedrock of democracy. If journalists are not well prepared to articulate the ways in which democracy will be more vibrant for the country, there will be no democracy. Over the past ten years or so, the university has been closed most of the time and training opportunities have been very limited, and most journalists now in the profession are therefore not well trained or equipped to their work. I think that's the single greatest challenge.

The government oppresses freedom, but I don't think that's as grave as the lack of journalists who are prepared to meet the responsibilities of independent journalism. If journalists cannot articulate what democracy is, and if they cannot raise consciousness in the society, there cannot be democracy in Liberia. Elections are not going to solve the problem. We need educated journalists, and this is a matter of utmost urgency. The media in Liberia right now is unprepared. About 98 percent of all the trained journalists are out of the country right now. Our focus has thus been on how we can provide basic training for those journalists who are there on the ground now. In fact, in 1992-93, the Press Union provided journalists with training workshops. This was one of the key things that I raised during my time with the Press Union, because at the end of the day if journalists do not know what they are doing, they are not going to be effective, and that is a very, very serious problem. This is the gravest problem among all the others that the Liberian media is facing.

Q: What strategies has the Press Union used successfully to overcome challenges to promoting freedom of the press, and what experiences have been unsuccessful?

I think the Press Union to a large extent has been successful in serving as the torchbearer by drawing international attention to the need for political reform, for democratic change, for respect for human rights and civil liberties. But again, as I said, the challenge is that the media is limited by a lack of trained people. If you are not educated, there is nothing you can do! The capacity is lacking, and this is serious. The society depends on journalists to educate people about their rights. The African tradition has been that people do not understand what their democratic rights are. That the Press Union and the independent media in Liberia have not been as successful as they should be is due to the lack of trained manpower. Right now, anyone can come in off the street and say he or she is a journalist. But if this person has not been schooled, has not been trained, how is he or she going to conduct an interview or write a story that is going to inform and educate others? You cannot have an illiterate and uneducated citizenry and expect democracy to be successful. That is the real problem now.

Q: What role has the press been playing in Liberia to promote democracy and human rights? And how do journalists in Liberia work with other civil society organizations, such as human rights organizations, to promote democracy and human rights?

Over the years, during the period of reorganization of the Press Union, the press has done a very wonderful job of drawing public attention to excesses and abuses perpetrated by whatever government has been in power in Liberia, whether it was the Doe government, the Taylor government, or if it was during the days of the war when we didn't really have a strong government.

Concerning collaboration with other sectors of civil society, there have been a number of activities. When Chancellor-at-law Benedict Sannoh started his Center for Law and Human Rights Education, we worked with that organization on ways to provide education. The newspaper that I headed and the Center agreed to publish articles in the newspaper to educate people. The press and social centers, like the Center for Law and Human Rights Education, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, often work together. The Justice and Peace Commission and other civic groups have helped us to conduct workshops to educate journalists about the rule of law and human rights work. The workshops focused on how the media can be used to educate the public about their rights by working with human rights organizations. We also sought to work with United Nations agencies and other organizations. For instance, we worked with organizations focused on health education. We collaborated in helping people get vaccinated, get basic education on issues such as how to take care of their own health and well-being.

From human rights groups we learned what the laws were and what the rights of people are. Armed with that kind of information we used our media to provide the public with what they needed to know to empower themselves. And the collaboration grew. The current Press Union has been building on that collaboration, and is working with other civil society organizations on workshops and other training exercises to educate journalists. The purpose is to enable journalists, through their daily stories and articles, to educate the people and prepare them, not only in the area of human rights, law, and the constitution, but also in areas such as basic health and sanitation. All of these things are part of the general plan to prepare the people for a democratic society.

To be able to do things effectively, you have to be healthy in body, mind and soul. We did as much as we could to stay healthy. We collaborated with religious entities, since they are the soul of society on the issues of morality and the commitment to doing the right thing. The churches and the Muslim mosques had programs that catered to the well-being of people. We collaborated with and learned from them, so that we would be able to learn how to empower our people.

Q: Since you left the country, you have kept in touch with a number of Liberian journalists, both within and outside of Liberia. How do you think that exiled Liberian journalists, like yourself, can help journalists inside Liberia to promote freedom of the press? For instance, the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas - how can this exile community help people inside the country?

That's a question I'm dealing with right now. As I indicated earlier, in the wake of the war, most of the experienced journalists left Liberia. When Mr. Taylor's government came in, the condition of the press became worse. Press freedom was in a bad situation since he was planning to just wipe out everything. So a few of us, specifically Bantu and I, got together and collected all the resources we could muster. Once I left Liberia in 1993 and joined Bantu in the U.S., we wrote letters individually to the Liberian government to advocate for press freedom, but individual efforts were not enough.

Many of the individual journalists who came to the U.S. from Liberia during the war advocated for freedom of the press. What we needed was an umbrella group that would be much more effective than just individuals, like myself, like Bantu, or Kenneth Best writing our own letters. In 1998, we brought together many Liberian journalists in the U.S. and other places in Washington, DC, to identify our collective interests, and we decided to organize ourselves. This was the launch of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA), and, believe me, it made a huge difference. Here in the U.S., we can do as much as we want without any government trying to assassinate or suppress us.

Since the launch of ALJA, we have been drawing the attention of the U.S. State Department, United Nations agencies, and international organizations to what is going on in Liberia. We have been doing what the Press Union and the independent media inside Liberia is unable to do because of the prevailing situation. For example, in December 1999, we wrote a five-page letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, then president of the UN Security Council, and the president of the General Assembly, specifically detailing the gross human rights abuses in Liberia and the country's contribution to destabilization in Sierra Leone and Guinea. We called for a committee to investigate Liberia's situation, and it was not long before we heard that a UN team had been sent to Liberia to investigate. Shortly afterward, all the sanction measures started coming into place.

The ALJA has also been issuing regular press releases drawing attention to the situation. If a media house is closed, we issue a press statement and disseminate it to the international community. We've constantly appeared on international radio programs. The Liberian government doesn't have any control over what we do here, and we have succeeded fairly well in reporting on those things that the Press Union and the media on the ground in Liberia cannot. We receive information from reliable sources and we release it to the world. There is nothing Mr. Taylor can do about that.

Our next move is to find the necessary resources for training programs for people who are now in charge of media activities in the country. If they are prepared, they can do their share. In addition, we can pressure the government to the extent that it cannot afford to ignore what we've called for.

This is what we have been doing. It's basically to continue to draw international attention to abuses taking place in the country that contribute to the degeneration of Liberian society, and, to that extent, we've succeeded. Even though I'm now the outgoing Secretary General of ALJA, I will have a series of meetings to seek support for our effort until the new leadership can come in and until the Board of Directors can be constituted. In the resolution that was accepted at the most recent ALJA conference, we called on the international community not to recognize any group that seizes power by force of arms. The best option in Liberia now to save lives and put an end to the continuing destruction is to create an atmosphere for free and fair elections. It may take a long time, it may take a lifetime, but I'm sure it can be achieved. But it cannot happen in the midst of chaos.

The recent publication of my own book, Liberia: The Heart of Darkness, is part of the process of continuing to draw attention to the situation in Liberia. I'm also thinking about writing a second book or doing a video-documentary, for example. If I can raise the necessary resources, I intend to go into the West-African sub-region, visit refugee centers, interview people, and get their stories. My own story is already published, but there are hundreds of thousands of Liberians who have gone through similar experiences. If we don't document what has happened, we will not have the lessons to guide us in the future. This has been Liberia's problem all along; we don't have enough documentation of the past, and this is the reason why I have committed myself. It took me eight years, for example, to get this first book out, and I'm going to continue to do whatever I can to provide some additional means of documentation. So besides the ALJA and individual initiatives, in general, we have to save our country. If we don't, no one else will.

Q: This is the last question. As you know, there are a number of countries facing challenges similar to those of Liberia. Based on your experience, what do you suggest to journalists in those countries to overcome their challenges?

I hope that journalists in those countries can learn from our experience because to a very large extent we have been successful. Many current international actions against Liberia's undemocratic regime are not being undertaken in isolation from what we have been doing. It takes credible journalists who can provide accurate documentation to convince the international community to initiate action. We have been planning to bring together all the journalists who are in exile from African countries. We should all begin to work together to pursue our collective interests. We have always told the international community that if there's no peace in Liberia, for example, there will be no peace in Sierra Leone. So we have to work together.

Before September 11 last year, we were planning a program, with the Freedom Forum, to bring together journalists who are residing in the U.S. from all African countries. This conference was planned for October but was unfortunately cancelled because of what happened on September 11. But this is an example of our initiatives. If I had the opportunity or the means to travel even to Sierra Leone or the Democratic Republic of Congo, I would do that, and I would ask, "Look, this is our experience. This is what we've been doing. How can you learn from it? How can we learn from what you've been doing that may have been successful?" You know, it's all about networking - networking with the people in Nigeria, in Sierra Leone, in Ghana, etc.

Our problem now is that in the absence of requisite resources, we can only do so much. We are only working with what we have so far, but we hope to build on it. First, we didn't have a journalists association. We didn't speak with one voice. But we are doing that now, and the international community is seeing what we are doing. And that is opening doors. So if we can begin to reach out to our colleagues in other parts of Africa, in other regions of the world, we will be only too willing to take the message to them because whether you are in Liberia or Sierra Leone, people are people, and we have to begin to work together. We have to understand each other's problems. That will make it much better because the collective effort counts for so much more than individual initiatives. So, that's where we are.

Finally, I'm going to take this opportunity to make an appeal. There's a need for other organizations to help us. They can contact me through the World Movement for Democracy, or they can contact the ALJA, to see how we might fit into their programs and to network. That is the only way we are going to get rid of these dictators, these demagogues, these corrupt, incompetent regimes that continue to feed off the rest of us. The more they are unable to be effective, the easier it will be to eliminate them. .I have a fairly good feeling about the future of Liberia. This is because just as I'm doing my level best as an individual, so we are working as hard as we can as a group, and as a result we are able to draw international attention to the situation in Liberia and demonstrate that even more can be done for our country.

Our cause is not easy. We are all in exile, and everything that we owned in our country is lost. Our efforts are mostly at our own expense, but we have to make this sacrifice. We have to step up and do what we can for our people. With other support, we can constrain undemocratic regimes. Support for development can only be effective if there is law and order, which cannot be achieved if you don't have people who are capable of standing up and doing what is right. To develop a peaceful, orderly, and wholesome functioning society is our goal. And you know, by God's spirit, I think we shall achieve it. It may take a long time, but no matter how long it takes, if there are resources we can muster, we shall do it. It's for our country, and it's for my own salvation. I need to go back to my country and live there. It has not been easy, but we have been successful to the extent that we have because of our determination that we are doing the right thing and that's all that matters. Thank you very much.

Q: Thank you very much. We wish you the best for a democratic Liberia, and I hope that other journalists and other democracy activists around the world will take advantage of your experience by contacting you to share information and ideas.

<