A Look Back: How Liberian Media Foiled Attack on Democracy

The nation’s media led the fight against a stifling election-year order they deemed more dangerous than the deadly Ebola virus.

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Newspapers in 2014 during Ebola crisis

Newspapers in 2014 during Ebola crisis

Newspapers in 2014 during Ebola crisis

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As Liberia prepares for its third general elections since the end of a brutal 16-year civil war, it is worth reflecting on how media helped ensure that crucial senatorial elections were held three years ago – despite the deadly 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak and attempts by the president to use the ensuing panic to postpone elections. Skeptical from the outset about an earlier emergency order that had also imposed some limitations on free speech rights, news organizations doubled down when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued the now-infamous Executive Order 65 that banned political rallies and demonstrations in the capital, Monrovia.

The oldest republic in Africa, Liberia had re-established a democratic order with its first post-war elections in 2005. Sirleaf, its new president – the first woman elected head of state in Africa – was widely hailed as a savior and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Then came Ebola! Of the three West African countries ravaged by the disease, Liberia was hardest hit. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 29,000 Ebola cases were documented in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Liberia alone accounted for almost 11,000 cases, including more than 5,000 deaths.

State of Emergency Declared

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

On August 6, 2014, the Liberian Government declared a 90-day state of emergency. Acting under her emergency powers, President Sirleaf ordered the postponement of mid-term elections, which were constitutionally required to be held that October 14. This created a potentially serious constitutional crisis because the terms for 15 of the 30 seats that make up the Liberian Senate expired on January 15, 2015.  Unless elections were held before that date, the seats would become vacant.

President Sirleaf soon made another move that worsened the looming constitutional crisis.  Although the legislature had earlier denied her request to extend the state of emergency, the president issued Executive Order 65 on December 3. Among other things, it banned all “concerted mass movements of people on the streets of Monrovia, including, in particular, rallies, and parades.”  The order, issued ostensibly to strengthen “the efforts of the Government of Liberia to contain the spread of Ebola,” drew the ire of the opposition and many members of the public.  They saw it as an attempt to mute criticisms of the government for its handling of the Ebola crisis and to stifle the campaign of the opposition leader, George Weah, an international soccer star who was running against the president’s son, Robert Sirleaf, for the senate seat for Montserrado County, where Monrovia is located.

Immediately, the media took the lead in framing the order, the possible postponement of the elections and the president’s use of her emergency powers in a way that engendered significant public support for holding the elections despite the Ebola crisis.

“Gov’t ‘State of Emergency’ Not to Fight Ebola, But to Muzzle the Media,” a headline in The Daily Observer charged. The article quoted the president of the Reporters Association of Liberia, Keith Zalee Morris, as saying that what the country needed at the moment was a “vibrant and proactive media, rather than one that is muzzled and harassed” under a state of emergency. The critique from the Observer, Liberia’s oldest independent daily paper, was significant. With the second largest circulation in the country, it was well respected locally and internationally.

FrontPageAfrica, the largest-selling Liberian newspaper, soon joined the Observer in sharply criticizing the government. Echoing a statement by the Alternative National Congress, a major opposition party, a FrontPageAfrica headline on October 8 described the president’s request for emergency powers as “a power grab that is inimical to liberty and justice.” Noting that the president had sought broad powers to suspend basic rights guaranteed by the constitution, including the right of the people to peaceably assemble, the paper said, “even assuming that the current Ebola health emergency may justify the declaration of a state of emergency, we believe that the powers the President now seeks under the state of emergency are simply too broad and sweeping in scope.”

Then on December 10, the Observer took dead aim at Sirleaf’s order with a news analysis piece with the headline, “Executive Order #65 recalls memories of 1985 rigged elections.”  This was a not-too-subtle reference to the 1985 general elections that were blatantly rigged by former Liberia military leader, Samuel Doe, something that many Liberians believe set in motion the chain of events that culminated in the country’s deadly civil war. And the implicit charge the paper was making here was clear: Executive Order 65 was part of an effort by President Sirleaf to rig the Montserrado County senatorial election in favor of her son – just as Doe, who similarly banned political rallies, had rigged the 1985 presidential election.

Media are suspicous

The suspicion of a plan to rig the election was given credence by the fact that the ban on rallies and public demonstrations was limited to Monrovia, the main battleground of the contest between the president’s son and his main rival for the Montserrado County seat. As the Observer noted in an editorial on December 10, “The question is, why the streets of Monrovia only?  If the banning of these parades, demonstrations and rallies are intended to contain the deadly Ebola virus, which has engulfed the entire country, then why is the Executive Order restricted to Monrovia alone, and not the entire country? What about Bong County, which just recently showed more than 30 new Ebola cases?” Thus, the editorial concluded, “President Sirleaf herself can fully understand public suspicion surrounding her Executive Order #65.”

Emboldened by the media, civil society leaders, opposition figures and politicians of all stripes joined the chorus of opposition to Executive Order 65, with 14 sitting legislators signing a petition calling for its revocation. On December 14, the Observer quoted one of those legislators, Sen. Geraldine Doe Sheriff, as stating that the executive order “threatens peace and stability.” She added: “The pronouncement by the President to restrict people’s movement by banning rallies for a thirty-day period before and after the elections is in complete disregard for the rule of law and the separation of powers.”

International media amplified to a global audience the negative response of the Liberian media to the order. In a December 7 story headlined, “Liberian President’s Ban on Political Rallies is Seen as Political,” the New York Times noted that, “anger has been building for days over a decree by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf that bans all political rallies in Monrovia, the capital, which she said had been meant to prevent the further spread of Ebola.” The story then repeated the allegations of President’s Sirleaf’s critics that her “real motivation was to promote a victory for her son, Robert, in a hotly contested senate race against George Weah, a former soccer star, presidential aspirant and opponent of Mrs. Sirleaf.”

The Voice of America (VOA) soon weighed in.  On December 8, the VOA posted a story on its website, entitled “Backlash Over Liberian President’s Executive Order.”  Noting the widespread opposition to the executive order, the VOA quoted an opposition leader who claimed that, with her executive order, President Sirleaf had “usurped powers that could only be given her by the legislature in an emergency situation,” and vowed “to go to court to force the president to withdraw” the order.

This was all too much for even Robert Sirleaf, the president’s son.  His mother’s executive order had become a political liability for him. “Liberian president’s son wants rally ban lifted,” the Associated Press reported in a December 8 story. In fact, he told the VOA in an interview that he “will file a lawsuit against the government” to revoke the order because it “discriminates against the residents of the capital.” He did file a suit with the Supreme Court, joining other pending suits asking the Court to enjoin the government from enforcing the order.

On December 8, the Court invalidated the order and authorized the National Elections Commission to set December 20 as a new date for the senatorial elections. George Weah handily defeated Robert Sirleaf, garnering over 100,000 votes compared to about 10,000 votes for Sirleaf. All told, all but two of the 15 sitting senators lost their seats. The 13 newly-elected senators were sworn into office on January 15, 2015, as required by the constitution.  Liberia’s democracy had survived the Ebola scare.

Whats Happening in 2017

On October 10 voters will choose a new leader, replacing President Sirleaf, who is not eligible to run again after completing two six-year terms. At least 20 candidates are running. Voters will also elect legislators for all 73 seats in the House of Representatives. Newspapers stories about the elections range from court cases challenging the eligibility of candidates who must meet the standard of a code of conduct to assassination plots.

In a press conference held by Sen. Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) on August 24, the CDC accused an official of President Sirleaf’s Unity Party of plotting to assassinate Weah, who is running for president for a third time.  Police, according to the Observer, have pointed fingers at Weah’s own youth leader, accusing him of concocting the plot simply to win voters’ sympathy.

Among other contenders is the current Liberian vice president, Joseph Boakai, who has held key positions in three previous governments. He is a favorite in many circles. Another contender is a former Coca Cola executive, Liberian-born Alexander B. Cummings, who relocated to Liberia from Atlanta, Georgia, in 2016 for the elections. Voters believe he is fit for the job, but question whether he is in touch with the current Liberian reality. Charles Brumskine, a lawyer, who served as President Pro Tempore of the Senate in the government of warlord Charles Taylor, is also running for the third time.  Benoni Urey, who is linked to Taylor as purchasing weapons used to kill tens of thousands in the civil war, is also vying to be president.

That the issues this time around are as commonplace as they are in other democratic societies is perhaps the greatest testament yet that Liberia is on its way to a stable democracy girded by a robust press.

 

 

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