During my first ever Ministry of Information Weekly Press Conference this past Thursday, I was taken aback by Minister Lewis Brown’s rant that occupied most of the time of the press conference.
In his speech, Brown said an unlicensed newspaper, “consistent with an apparent editorial policy of lies and fabrication,” reported on a transaction during United States President Barack Obama’s meeting with his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari.
Brown was referring to the local daily, Hot Pepper, which reported that the United States government provided a list of “so-called Liberian thieves” and others accused of corruption in Liberia. He quipped about the name of the newspaper, “It’s not hot. That’s a cold pepper. It’s so cold, it’s not funny.”
The minister criticized Hot Pepper’s lack of “desire to be truthful or to verify or to ask the simple journalistic questions.” He continued, “If you challenge us on our record, do so based on the force and power of the available evidence.” Brown challenged the newspaper, “If you will call yourself a journalist, act minimally as one.”
He also read an open letter written by US Ambassador Deborah Malac to the editor of Hot Pepper which criticized the editorial decision to publish the story without reaching out to the US Embassy for comments. In the letter, Malac called the article “shoddy journalism,” a term Brown used throughout his tirade to drive his point.
With all due respect to Brown, while I understand the context of the overall low quality of print media in Liberia, I found his address patronizing and a waste of our collective time. This issue should have simply occupied five or so minutes of his time during the conference, especially when there were more pressing issues at hand – the National Transit Authority bus accident from the day before and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s announcement about the Small Business Administration Bureau that had been recently set up.
To dedicate over 40 minutes to using denigrating language to address the collective press for something that one news outlet did was disrespectful and a waste of our time, especially when Brown himself acknowledged that it was only a minority of the press that carried on these practices.
A more effective strategy would have been to summarize what the issue was, why it was wrong, and let the press know what actions the ministry and other aggrieved parties would take to address the issue. If there were laws broken, would he or the ministry pursue any legal avenues to address it? Did he or the ministry file a complaint to the Press Union of Liberia through the formal channels? What was the response? Brown did not address any of these issues.
In fact, a reporter asked that very question of whether Brown had reported this particular issue to the PUL, which Brown did not answer.
Instead, the minister decided to boast about how the current administration is one of the most open and law-abiding governments Liberia has ever seen, suggesting that we should be grateful to them for not violating our inalienable, God-given rights. This is analogous to someone who you suspect of being an armed robber demanding you thank him for not targeting you.
It is time we change the tone which government officials use to address the Liberian people and the press. Government officials are servants of the people. They are not our lords or masters. As professionals, we do not deserve to be addressed like children under punishment. Perhaps when Brown starts to afford us the respect he desires, he may get some back in return.