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War of Words Erupts Between UN and Liberian Journalists - 2004-03-16

Although the shooting war has ended in Liberia, a new war of words has emerged between United Nations officials and Liberian journalists.

At every U.N. news conference in Liberia, it seems, officials take the opportunity to blast Liberian journalists, while journalists do the same in the opposite direction.

One briefing earlier this month was no exception. After being criticized by journalists for the stalled disarmament process and ongoing lawlessness, the head of U.N. peacekeepers, Kenyan General Daniel Opande, said journalists should focus more on being helpful to the reconstruction process. "You cannot blame the peacekeepers for your own people when they go looting. And it has become a culture. It's become a culture. We are doing all that we can to stop it, but it has also to be impressed upon the people themselves. You should preach to your own people and tell them [about] this culture of impunity, culture of destroying other people's property and then you'll help us," he said.

Liberian media have been filled with stories accusing peacekeepers of abusing duty-free privileges, of setting up illegal businesses with armed rebels, and even of allowing former combatants to smuggle timber. All the charges are unsubstantiated.

Reports have also hinted at training by forces close to exiled former President Charles Taylor in Liberia's Nimba County, even though U.N. officials in that region have found no evidence.

The head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, Jacques Klein, who has been accused in some reports of being a diamond dealer, is outraged by the work of Liberian journalists. He says they are easily influenced by factional leaders looking to settle old disputes through the media. "We don't have journalism here. When you ask them, who is you source, did you have two sources, did you go there yourself, you never get a clear answer. The responsibility of some of these people just appalls me. They will print exactly what they're told to print or what you pay them to print," he says.

One recent newspaper headline in Monrovia that read "Press Union Speaks" Out was a reaction to such opinion. Union members say media professionals are being unfairly targeted. They say that before Mr. Taylor's departure, Liberian journalists were praised by the international community for their courage and resolve.

The head of the Liberia's Press Union, who is also a correspondent for the French news agency AFP, is Terrence Sesay. He works out of an office in a noisy YMCA compound because his previous office was looted.

While Mr. Sesay admits there have been what he calls ethical transgressions by some Liberian journalists, he says overall the criticism by U.N. officials is too broad. "This does not give you the right to criticize all journalists, I mean like what Jacques Klein said, more or less, considering all Liberian journalists as untrained and what have you - actually I don't accept this. We have some trained journalists here and responsible journalists," he says.

Mr. Sesay is also angry that most managers and journalists at the newly established U.N. radio station in Monrovia are not Liberians. He says this could be a good opportunity for training, and he says not having a Liberian station manager actually violates Liberian law.

The U.N. station plays mainly foreign music, interviews with U.N. officials and promotional items such as one explaining disarmament. The spot tells former fighters from rebel and government factions that they will get money, training and jobs if they agree to hand in their weapons.

On another side of town, the Catholic church-funded Radio Veritas employs a dozen journalists and broadcasts in sixteen languages.

Its Liberian station manager, Ledgerhood Rennie, says U.N. officials may be too sensitive to criticism. "The United Nations should not come to Liberia and expect that it's going to get an all thumbs-up for not doing what it's expected to do. It will be criticized when it should be criticized, and it will be commended when it should be commended. I think that media in Liberia want to be a constructive partner to the United Nations efforts and so it should see those reports as a yardstick to the way their work is being done in Liberia," he says.

Both Mr. Rennie and Mr. Sesay agree that Liberian journalists could benefit from training seminars to increase their professional integrity.

But Mr. Sesay, the head of the Press Union, says now is a crucial period for Liberian journalists to be assertive. "We consider this period as a watershed for the Liberian media because this is the only time that we can actually take upon ourselves some rights that we may preserve later in the future. Just by the fact there is no more war, the war for press freedom is never over it is always there, otherwise politicians might want to take away those rights that you have as a journalist," he says.

Mr. Sesay says he fears the criticism by U.N. officials could lead to an erosion of press freedom in Liberia.

International media groups are also concerned. The French-based group Reporters Without Borders expressed alarm last week after a Monrovia weekly called The Informer was shut down.

Even though the transitional government said in October it would suspend previous laws requesting that media organizations be registered on a yearly basis, the government said the Informer needed to be registered before it appeared on newsstands.

Like other newspapers, it often criticizes the U.N. mission for not bringing peace to Liberia quickly enough, to the displeasure of Mr. Klein and other U.N. officials. The Informer is one of the many independent newspapers that have sprung up since the end of the war, trying to make big sales by sensationalizing the news, or according to top U.N. officials, sometimes just making it up.

Still, Reporters without Borders says closing the newspaper sets a bad precedent. The group has called for the government to clarify its position and allow The Informer to resume its sales.