LIBERIA Media rights: Daily Observer Newspaper vs ELENITO Minerals and Mining Limited

By Own Correspondent with support from Daily observer – The Media has right and the right to inform cannot be deprived as to the release of credible information and fact for the peaceful environment in a country .The Media is developing in Liberia but as to it independence is a question and with the current state of affair in the country, how and what type of story should be in the media.

The case of Daily Observer and ELENITO Mineral and Minining in Liberia is as follows: The Daily Observer newspaper, a victim of three arson attacks between 1986 and 1990, the third of which totally destroyed its building, has again been threatened with fire.

The threat came at 10:03 last Saturday morning, a day after the Daily Observer carried a Friday morning front page lead story saying “Western Cluster Deal Backfires.” A sub-heading read: “Company Whose Bid Was Rejected Was Set to Invest US$4 billion, Build Steel Plant in Liberia.”

A female caller, from the Lonestar Cell number 0880806192, first called Bai Best, the Observer’s marketing manager, but the caller paused, saying nothing.

The caller, a female, then dialed the phone of Bai’s father, Observer publisher and managing director, Kenneth Y. Best. She said, “We are coming to your house tonight and we will burn it down.” She did not identify herself, but quickly hung up.

Friday’s lead story said that the controversial Western Cluster mining concession deal being negotiated between the government of Liberia and an Israeli mining and mineral company, ELENITO Minerals and Mining Limited, had backfired, as investigation conducted by this newspaper revealed that the Company lacked the financial capacity and experience to run the concession.

ELENITO had been at the center of controversy ever since the Liberian government’s Inter-ministerial Concessions Committee (IMCC) had approved its bid. So when last week the Daily Observer came across new evidence that there were serious problems surrounding the company’s financial capability and track record, the editors withheld the story for a few days. The editors insisted that the story could not be published until reporters had first contacted the company to get its side of the story.

But the editorial team, including News Editor Alfred Chea himself, had great difficulty finding anyone who knew anything about the company, its officials, any company official, its office location and its phone numbers, in order to contact them directly.

Failing to obtain any such information, the editors contacted the Chairman of the National Investment Commission (NIC), O. Natty B. Davies, who insisted that the Observer contact the company itself. When we told him we had had difficulty doing so, he suggested we contact its lawyers, Pierre & Tweh Law Associates, which we did. A spokesman for the law firm gave us very limited information, insisting that we contact the government, especially the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy and NIC. He then told us, “The information I have given you is off the record.” When our reporter insisted on quoting him, since we could not get hold of the principals, ELENITO, he replied, “If you quote me, I will deny it.”

An hour following the appearance of the Daily Observer on the market last Friday morning, one of our editors received a call from one Ansu S. Konneh, who said, “It is my company you people have on your front page today. Who does the loading of your web site? Is it possible to not load the story today?”

“That’s impossible,” the editor told him. “The staff who does the loading is not in the country, and the stories are emailed to him immediately; and they are placed on the website so that our readers wherever they are, may read what’s in the day’s newspaper.”
Ansu begged that the story not appear on the Internet.

A number of calls from anonymous sources followed, clearly aimed at taming the Daily Observer and limiting or discouraging whatever else the editors and reporters had on the company.

Shortly thereafter, a call came to Bai Best from the same number as Ansu’s, but when Bai asked “Who is this?” a different name was mentioned. The caller wanted to know whether the story would be uploaded to the Observer web site. The caller then hung up.

The Observer Business Office recalls that Ansu Konneh has in the past submitted advertisements From ELENITO to the newspaper for publication.

Arson is nothing new to the Daily Observer newspaper. In March 1986, following the prolonged closure of the newspaper by the regime of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), the Board of Directors of the Liberian Observer Corporation (LOC), led by the venerable pamphleteer and constitutional analyst, Albert Porte, acknowledged that Liberia now had a new Constitution, which came into force when now President Samuel K. Doe took the oath of office in January of that year. Accordingly, the LOC Board reckoned, the new Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press, and nowhere in the document was there any provision for the closure of newspapers. So the Board decided to give Justice Minister Jenkins Scott a week’s notice that the Board and the newspaper management had decided that, in the exercise of their constitutional rights, they would reopen the Daily Observer office, which Minister Scott had closed down in January 1985. The Board’s letter was hand-delivered to Minister Scott by Observer managing director K.Y. Best on March 1, 1986. The Minister received it and promised, “I will get back to you.”

Having not heard from him again, the Observer staff used their spare key and opened the office exactly a week later, on March 8, 1986, after taking down the wooden bar from the front door, which government security officers had installed there. Many prominent Liberian women, avid readers and friends of the Observer, came with their brooms and dust cloths to help clean up the building that morning. The staff remained in the building until 5 p.m. They locked the door and departed. Meanwhile, the original front door key remained with the Justice Minister, who took it on the day the paper was closed on January 15, 1985.

The following morning Mr. Best received the alarming news that the office had been set on fire the night before.

The second arson attack came again in March 1990 following the Observer’s publication of a back page story, “Where Is My Husband.” Observer reporter Maureen Sieh had written the story of the widow of a PRC member, General David Karmein of Nimba County. The civil war had just started, and Nimba people became particular targets of the regime. Observer photographer Sando Moore snapped the photo of Mrs. Karmein, with outstretched hands and tears in her eyes, asking President Doe at the Monrovia City Hall, “Where is my husband?” She had earlier learnt that her husband had been taken away from the Post Stockade early one morning and she would not be seeing him again.

Doe and the PRC did not like the Observer back page carrying both the story and the dramatic photograph of Mrs. Karmein that Friday morning. The result of their anger was the fire that started at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning, March 17, 1990. The newspaper’s photo division and library were completely destroyed.

To the surprise of the public, the Daily Observer accomplished the extraordinary feat of appearing on the market on Monday, March 19, 1990, despite the fire two days earlier! The Observer back page headline ran: “WHO BURNT OBSERVER?”

That issue is currently on display in the Observer library at McDonald and Benson Streets, Crown Hill, Monrovia.

The Daily Observer was operated from 1981 to 1990 from a bungalow (one floor house), the homestead of the Charles T.H. Dennis family on Broad Street, Crown Hill, Monrovia. The third arson attack completely destroyed the building and the newspaper company lost everything. The spot is currently being occupied by Libercell Telecommunications Company, which has erected another building on the spot.

Mr. Dennis, who built his family home there in the 1950s, was Commissioner of Internal Revenues, who over many years operated that office in the Treasury Department (later Ministry of Finance) with integrity and distinction.