Open Letter to the Minister of Information and the Press Union of Liberia
By JM Cassell
Allow me to bring to your attention an egregious violation of my family privacy by a Liberian newspaper, the Liberian Nation. The Liberian Nation in a front page article titled “Gender Minister in U.S. $55,00 Noise” without any prior permission appended a picture of my children stolen from my Facebook page to accompany their scandalous and libelous story. I am used to the fact that a sector of the Liberian Press seems to be infatuated with my wife, Julia Duncan-Cassell, the current minister of Gender and Development. However, when a scandal sheet masquerading as a newspaper chose to illicitly bring in my children, American citizens who live in the U.S. into the fray of a local story designed to impugn the reputation and assassinate the character of their mother without concern for fact or fairness, that is crossing the line. This is the kind of character mugging, and in this case blatant unprofessionalism that has characterized a sector of the Liberian Press; a sector that believes the only way to sell a newspaper is to append a screaming sensational headline at the expense of the hard-earned reputation of a government official. This is not journalism. The proponents of this type of behavior are mercenaries with a pen.
I am bringing this crude violation of ethics to your attention not because I want the press to be muzzled…far from that. Freedom of the Press in a democracy is a mission critical component to our growth, development and the enhancement of government transparency; in an emerging democracy such as ours, the Press also has the responsibility of providing balanced, un-bias information and can play a crucial role in educating the public. However, with that freedom comes responsibility and accountability for what is written. Stealing and posting a three year old picture of our son and daughter eating at a Chinese buffet in the U.S.A. as an indicator of a government minister’s children or family living in the lap of luxury, grossly misleads the reader and exposes the crass ignorance of the editor or reporter who wrote the story; anyone who has visited the U.S. or lives in the U.S. knows that the cheapest place to eat is at a Chinese buffet. There’s lot of food for less money. That’s the idea of a buffet. This is not a picture of me and my family digging into Caviar at the upscale Marriott or Hilton Hotel, that might have added some context to the article. It was a desperate attempt at misleading the public. As the President of Quality Resource Solutions, LLC, a California registered company which has 5 American citizens employed as contracting Quality Assurance professionals with various pharmaceuticals in California, I can afford to take my kids to a Chinese buffet and pay the $10 per person.
The dramatic decline in the quality of Liberian journalism irks me on a personal level. I worked as a reporter with several Liberian newspapers, including the Liberian Age and the New Liberian. I later became a features editor with the New Liberia newspaper before leaving for journalism studies in the U.K. where I also served as a senior Reporter with the West Indian World upon graduation from college. So I know a thing or two about the responsibilities journalists have to society. As a former Liberian journalist, I remember the days when there was a standing rule of checking and verifying before publishing. The editors I worked with during those days, whether Rufus Darpoh, Stanton Peabody or Tom Kamara ensured that all stories from reporters went through a rigorous fact checking regime before publication. They did not rush a story to publication until there was a complete balance; the editors understood that a story had two sides and a one sided story, well, tells one side of the story and runs the risk of possibly maligning the reputation of an individual. This is a universal norm of journalism that is practiced by journalist from Austria to Zimbabwe.
On the surface, if one reads the story from the Liberian Nation, it gives the impression that the family of Minister Duncan-Cassell is a direct beneficiary of whatever bizarre, corruption conspiracy the irresponsible writers behind the scandal sheet have conjured up. This is not journalism. It is a crude and unremorseful character assassination; either it is a result of laziness and indolence , or perhaps, as I suspect, this is mercenary journalism at its worst, wherein the author of the story is in the pay of someone who apparently has an axe to grind with the minister. This perverted form of journalism known locally as “KATO” is not about informing or educating the public; for a few dollars, a “reporter” can perniciously launch an assault on one’s character, as a means of advancing the agenda of an individual/ individuals or even an organization. This is an outrage that must be condemned.
I am not suggesting that the Sirleaf government or any government for that matter is populated with a critical mass of sinless individuals, but it does take an accomplished journalist to hold these individuals accountable if there is a reasonable doubt about their honesty and transparency. This is a job for the skilled and professional, someone with strong research skills and investigative prowess. Not individuals driven by innuendoes and gossips. However, this is the reality of journalism in post-conflict Liberia where newspapers crop up overnight with very little or no regulatory or quality oversight. Add the fact that there’s very little in terms of qualified manpower to choose from, this becomes a toxic mix. The Liberian people become hostage to a scandal sheet like Liberian Nation for their news, a news organ that violates the main currency of journalism: credibility.
The Liberian Nation, sources tell me, made its debut on the stands this month. No surprise there. It appears that there’s a free for all when it comes to buying a license to operate a newspaper, which is fine if there is an oversight organization that will on the one hand strive to protect the rights of individuals, while at the same time preserving appropriate freedom of expression for the press. Within the current environment, there seems to be very little recourse for the aggrieved against media harassment. The press can launch a salacious attack on an individual, drag their reputation in the mud and even attack their family without any provocation. It is high time the PUL in coordination with the Ministry of Information enforce a more stringent code of conduct that will hold editors to account, as well as strengthen regulatory oversight by employing a stronger vetting regime that will hold potential newspaper owners to higher standards. This, I hope will be the first of many steps that will introduce universal journalistic standards of professionalism and accountability while still preserving appropriate freedom of expression.
JM Cassell is a former features editor of the New Liberian newspaper.
He is currently the President of Quality Resource Solutions, LLC, a Walnut Creek, California based pharmaceutical quality assurance recruiting firm.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org