Press must not cover up for war crimes suspects 2

I think one of the major hurdles linked to investigative process of genocides in Africa (Liberia) is the fact that the entire process remains straddled in sheer ignorance, compounded by wild misconceptions. This doesn’t only rest with those who unfortunately, remain subject of abject poverty and high illiteracy, but also people who claim to be so-called “educated” within society but tend to deliberately deceive and distort information due to personal agendas. Another factor could be because it’s a new phenomenon. Albeit, as people continue to push for trial of alleged perpetrators of massacres, the local media, (Watchdog of society), seems unprepared for the tasks ahead regarding such important global topic, as already indicated via the way certain news organ(s) has/have  begun to approach war crimes issues in Liberia; writes James Kokulo Fasuekoi, former war correspondent. 

The Inquirer newspaper story that prompted this reaction is a common example, and minus whatever may have serve as motivating factor(s) behind the paper’s poorly written crimes report that prompted this series, it also appears folks at Liberia’s Inquirer Newspaper are completely clueless as to what the process of war crimes trials actually entails; how it begins and the ways investigations are carried out before it reaches a point where an alleged war criminal is arrested and indicted. For now, allow your humbled servant to briefly shed light on the intricacies that may result during such investigations such as those undertaken by the GRJP and Civitas Maxima aimed to help people victimized by the civil wars obtain fair justice. This is necessary in order to help minimize or avoid embarrassment and confusion such as those caused by Inquirer’s publication of February 25th.  

What does the process of war crimes investigation entails? Over the years, I came to familiarize myself with investigative processes surrounding war crimes in Africa, and other third world countries ,such as Nicaragua and Guatemala, where war occurred, by getting involved in exhaustive research on war crimes and related topics of violent abuses against women and children. As part of fuzzy insight into this topic, I learn to talk to people from all walks of life. All this happened against the backdrop of my williness to frankly discuss the bloody wars with both locals and international visitors to Liberia, some, mandated by United Nations (panels) to investigate massacred related issues. It dates far back to the 1990s when I was in West Africa, covering civil wars in both Liberia and Sierra Leone.  

Firstly, an investigator of war crimes must be a credible individual, trained and ready to live up to the tasks; that is, doing everything possible to achieve the desired results with accuracy as hallmark, avoid causing disrepute to his/her bureaus and country. The process can be painstaking and sources may be interviewed multiple times; even at that, the results from the findings may still go through strenuous verification processes in order to insure a desired outcome. In some cases, a probe may last longer, up to even years, which depends on the magnitude of the alleged crimes involved. In any case, investigators may reach out to as many as hundreds witnesses in connection to a particular incident. It’s a familiar territory for trained journalists who take their job seriously.

In powerful industrialized countries such as United States of America, Canada, Britain, and their European and Middle Eastern allies, to include Israel, Belgium, and Switzerland, the process obviously can be well sophisticated because they have all the tools plus many more-from money, logistics, to time and energy. In the end, the results can be transparent for all parties-victims, alleged perpetrators, fanatics, and the world, to see. In other words, the process that leads to obtaining final results is well advanced and very far different from similar probes conducted in Liberia, where there’s always high probability one will find some  “stain” of corruption in similar probe(s) carried out there. Hence, I thought it sounded too good to be true that “Over 70 residents” will be interviewed by The Inquirer about a known rebel commander implicated in war crimes matter(s) and none will differ but that all will speak in unison which seems to suggest alleged culprit is being falsely accused.

To many Liberians and foreign friends who encountered NPFL rebels during the war (writer included) this sounds surreal, knowing that rebels belonging to NPFL largely carried out targeted killings of unarmed civilians due to ethnic affiliations and other unclear reasons, just as other factions. Yes, one could even raise a hypothetical argument and suggest that “Gen. Martina Johnson,” as she was popularly known everywhere, acted as a “Good Samaritan” and often rescued civilians and as well as spared lives of surrendered Krahn AFL soldiers caught at the battlefronts, acted according to unconfirmed rumors Prince Johnson’s INPFL former chief of staff, “Gbowou Gbleewon”(not sure of correct spelling) allegedly did for some surrendered Samuel Doe’s Krahn soldiers (INPFL then sworn enemies) to the dismay of his men.  But in the case of Martina, plus the NPFL horrible war conducts I think it’s highly unlikely that a cracked investigative team will find her faultless. 

Nevertheless, I shall certainly be the first to say “Amen” if she, or any other war crimes suspect is tried and acquitted by the courts system which is the final arbiter. This is certainly my personal view which this series is all about, and it doesn’t mind whether persons standing trial for such alleged crimes are my relatives; the main point is JUSTICE must be served.  

Politics put aside, after I heard suspect Martina was arrested in Belgium on alleged war crimes charges, one thought came to mind; the day I left Liberia for exile (August 1999) at the time now indicted former President Taylor held onto power. The name alone: “Gen. Martina Johnson” was a powerhouse not only in Taylor’s rebel army but also when he ruled. For whatever were the reasons behind the “fear” that accompanied the name “Gen. Martina,” in and outside of Taylor’s rebel ranks, I can’t tell. But one thing about the name that hasn’t faded from my mind-identifying with such name in Charles Taylor’s Liberia meant enjoyment, power and security-for oneself. So, having heard frightening, but unsubstantiated rumors that Martina engaged in some mistreatments of people such as “torturing,” and even “murder” during the conflicts, made me worried more as I seriously thought about leaving Liberia and possibly smuggling photographic war materials without detection. 

Traveling via road through Nimba border via Loguatuo wasn’t an option for a correspondent like me because, land routes were becoming dangerous day after day with random arrests, detention of suspicious travelers, amid growing tension and rumors of invasion by LURD rebels forces. The road headed to the Roberts International Airport (Liberia’s single international airport) where Martina Johnson served as overall boss, was as dangerous too, starting from the military barracks of Cam Shefflain onward, with scores of roadblocks manned by soldiers mixed with Taylor’s dreaded Special Forces. In other words, it was a Catch 22 situation. This meant going to the airport and doing a rehearsal of how I would cross my treasured war photographs containing NPFL child-soldiers and brutal massacres. Still I didn’t possess confidence enough till the hour came. I couldn’t stop imagining what the repercussion might ultimately be if caught by Taylor men or ‘men-women’ like Martina.  

At the eleventh hour I suddenly abandoned much of the plans. I decided not to use taxi cab or personal vehicle to get to the airport. Instead, I talked to a fellow local stringer to carry me together with a few family escorts in case something happened. At the airport during check-in time, I saw Martina walked around with a walkie-talkie but luckily for me I didn’t have to meet her. That was my first and only encounter with Martina, honestly. I went through vigorous screening and airport security closely examined my AP laptop and other equipment and questioned the purpose for travelling to New York as indicated in the visa. Former Pres. Taylor was at loggerheads with America by then and his anti-US speeches, remarks told it all. It became increasingly dangerous for local foreign stringers, mainly with American-owned news agencies to stay and work in the country. We were harassed by Taylor’s men at every turn. Taylor’s press secretary Reginald Goodridge, for example, accused me of allegedly wiring news-photos that “misrepresented President Taylor.” 

Not only that, Goodridge instructed presidential guards to prevent me and late photojournalist Musue Haddad from attending Taylor’s lavished 1998 birthday party. Another time, Goodrich cancelled a pre-arranged AP exclusive interview with Taylor when I showed up with the new crew at Taylor’s Cari-Gbarnga resident. That The Inquirer, which previously published stories concerning rebel-assaults on its journalists (including those by NPFL fighters) during the wars, can now pretend in its diversionary story that all went well during both NPFL war and Taylor’s dictatorship is something beyond me. It is nothing less than a slap-in-the-face of all Liberian war victims, and painful in fact for those lucky survivors who endured all forms of abuses, mainly young women forcibly taken away by rebels from their respective families and transformed into sexual tools. But again, can anyone really blame the present staff of the paper, almost all of whom never saw real combat, even when the Octopus war hit door stairs in Monrovia? How so soon could our colleagues forget the horrors of the wars, and unspeakable crimes met out to civilians? 

In any case, Liberians should make no mistake because war crimes are matters of national and global concern. Therefore all those accused must appear in court and face their alleged victims and exonerate themselves of charges made against them and this include suspects Martina and Kosiah. In the same manner, it must be made clear that this whole matter of trying war crimes suspects isn’t about the Swiss based human rights group Cavitas Maxima and its Liberian branch GRJP led by respected journalist Hassan Bility, himself, a victim of NPFL brutality. Nor is this about “tribe” or a particular rebel faction as Liberian lawyer Cllr. Jabateh-Sirleaf, together with ex-warlord Alhaji Kromah and ULIMO-K fanatics in the diaspora continue to deceptively claim because there exists ample evidence to refute such notion.

For example, Dr. George Boley, founder of the defunct Liberia Peace Council, ex-president Taylor, Chuckie Taylor, NPFL military spokesperson Tom Woewiyu, arrested previously by the ICE and ICC, on similar charges before the recent arrest of Mandingoe-born ULIMO suspect Alieu Kosiah, hold no tribal link to Mandingoe ethnicity. 

Even so, the entire process for now only covers those suspected of bearing the “greatest” brunt of responsibility in the commission of crimes against humanity. That is how simple it is. Hence, one can’t understand what the noises are all about when after all, the exercise is meant to seek justice for both alleged perpetrators and victims. Plus, the Liberian communities at home and abroad ought to know that GRJP and Civitas are not in any way in the business of going out and soliciting complaints from would-be victims and initiating courts proceedings against suspects, that is another erroneous impression that war fanatics have begun throwing out there. GRJP/Civitas’ work from investigative standpoint, commences only after a victim(s) files complaint with them and only then a probe is initiated before an arrest is made. And honestly, Cllr. Jabateh-Sirleaf’s is right when she remarked: “Alieu Kosiah is innocent until he’s proven guilty”. The same equally applies to Martina. 

But again, can a strong Taylor fighter like Martina claim to be innocent of all the secret murders carried out by rebels of the former dictator as per Taylor’s “command-wishes”? The five American nuns, the Dokie family, Du Port Road and Carter Camp massacres, the murder of six Senegalese peacekeeping soldiers in Vahumn, Lofa, and two independent Nigerian journalists of the Champion and Guardian Newspapers, Tayo Awotunsin and Krees Imobibie, (both died under mysterious circumstances) in NPFL Headquarters of Gbarnga? Of course, many think this is extremely unlikely and that’s why the trial of Martina Johnson, as well as others, will be considered a milestone in the war history of Liberia. That’s why no one should be surprised at the level of interest and debate the recent arrests of both Martina Johnson and Alieu Kosiah continue to generate around the world among Liberians and international friends of the country. And it’s no wonder too that panic has begun to overcome certain ex-warlords and their fighters previously linked to genocides because, they fear prosecution. 

But if claims by main war-actors, supporters, financiers, of Liberian warring factions, including, the ULIMO-K, ULIMO-J, INPFL, NPFL, NRC (Nimba Redemption Council), CRC, LDF, LPC, LURD, MONDEL, etc., are true that their individual warring-groups fought in “self-defense” or fought a “just war” void of committing ethnic atrocities, what then is the big deal going to trial and clearing one’s names and faction as expected in the Martina-Kosiah situation? (Notice the Dr. Sawyer-IGNU led Black Berets and the Armed Forces of Liberia AFL were not listed as both were one way or other the other at certain point recognized as national armies). So, are they not really telling Liberians the truth when it comes to how their fighters mistreated unarmed civilians? Maybe, justice will find out. However, in all of this, my greatest fear and disappointment lay in the fact that the local mass media (with exception to few) hasn’t proven to the public that it is up to the task before it, for people haven’t seen the type of vigorous reporting on these war crimes matters that one would normally witness when such events take place in other parts of the world.      

Instead of the local media  reporting on these matters in aggressive style by gradually and logically digging into the sticky points and/or subject matters in ways as to help enlighten the public that it may be positioned to judge who might be at faults or not in these pending courts trials, it has become cleared that some in the media aren’t ready for the real tasks ahead. A glaring example of this is The Inquirer infamous  news story that triggered this series title: “Residents Deny ‘Massacre’ Claim.” And it is very important that the Liberian people (including teachers, professors, high school and college students) get themselves engaged with these matters by exposing every negative act(s) found on the side of the media especially when such acts have the potential to derail the war crimes process. They should know that “journalists” too are humans and they have weaknesses just like other ordinary people. And like in every other profession, there are “bad” reporters, untrained reporters who are easily compromised and as such all can’t be left to us. 

Then there might be also a few “reporters”, “press institutions” out there that agents and supporters of suspected war criminals might hire to write favorable sophisticated ‘propaganda’ news stories/article on behalf of those they support, in a way that tends to confuse the atmosphere as well as win favorable public opinions regarding such alleged perpetrators. Last, there might be another group of people, journalists, within the Liberian society who actually mean well for the country and may wish to see fair-play done in these pending and future war crimes cases. However, their style of writing and/or communicating with today’s world may not be as clear to adequately educate, enlighten, first-time viewer-readers, i.e., living in faraway places like Thailand, Philippians, Fuji, Soviet Union, on the Liberian civil wars and war crimes court proceedings. That is why the public and all peace loving people in the world must pay close attention to these events; and that’s where our duty, as a former war correspondent and also documentarian on the wars, comes in.    

I honestly hold nothing against Mr. Wesseh, (a former boss) but kindly allow me present two of his recent articles, “So Who Is Organizing The War Crimes Court?” and “War Crimes Court: Has Anyone Been Indicted?” published by Inquirer in order to make my point. Now Atty. Philip N. Wesseh, he’s Inquirer’s managing editor. Except for two-three opening paragraphs plus, concluding observations, both articles basically, said nothing new in relation to the wars and war crimes in Liberia. His two articles repeated a long list of suspects war criminals published in the FrontPage Africa weeks ago and didn’t go beyond the usual historical narration. At least 6-7 paragraphs in each of Wesseh’s article were devoted to naming some 37 suspected “violators” plus their respective past and current posts in Sirleaf’s government. Mr. Tom Woeiwiyu, the man presently in U.S. prison on alleged war crimes charges in Liberia, is listed, but to the surprise of some, Sekou Damate Conneh the leader of LURD rebels and his abled wife Aicha Conneh, whose forces are credited for  pushing Taylor out of power, are missing. 

It is not clear exactly what Atty. Wesseh sought to achieve by both articles for in one instance, he seems to be advocating against the establishment of a local war crimes court, while in another, Wesseh appears to favor the creation of such court in Liberia. For example, in the 16th paragraph of article one of March 9, he wrote: “Is it that some Liberians want to project themselves as “Mr. Clean” during all these years of conflict, failing to realize that one could even be hooked for “omission” and not only “commission,” which are two key words in the definition of crime?” And then in article two, published March 19, the editor wrote the following in the 15th paragraph in parts, “Also, as it is said, ‘those who come with equity must come with clean hands…The very TRC called for prosecution; why then can’t we implement this, rather than talking about war crimes court?” How do we reconcile the two? Because, he seems to warn people who claim to be “Mr. Clean” against creating war crimes court, suspicious that they too may fall prey to such creation-war crimes court. 

Elsewhere in one of the articles, Wesseh seems to agree with the idea of TRC’s recommendations that calls for prosecution of those who bear greater responsibility for committing heinous crimes against humanity-that which comes with a price-tag of paying for such sacrilegious crimes. Again, here’s the confusion: The editor seems to push for prosecution of alleged perpetrators but on the other hand refuses to want to have anything to do with a “War crimes court” in Liberia that will put alleged perpetrators on trial. But how then does the lawyer expect alleged suspects to be tried in Liberia?  Am I making any sense? Or does he believe the local judicial system, dotted with a stain of “bribery and corruption” is capable to handle such huge challenge? Who does Atty. Philip N. Wesseh think he’s kidding? 

Besides, why will Mr. Wesseh talk of the likelihood that many Liberians could be “hooked for “omission” and not only “commission,” should a war crimes court come into play, but in the same manner failed to consider that many Liberian journalists along the “divide” during the bloody war could also face harsh judgments-if no more than what people saw in Sierra Leone with journalists who betrayed the trust-for “omissions,” as scores of “reporters” evidently compromised their duty and career by taking side(s) in the battle. This was often done either on tribal basis or for personal financial gains, or both. So why wouldn’t you have such war crimes court also try  “journalists” including “foreign journalists,” who committed wrongdoings by “aiding-abetting” rebel groups in the wars, all at the expense of civilians’ lives? Isn’t this fair, or does Mr. Wesseh expect us, journalists to keep this as secret? I won’t certainly be a part of that for the saying goes that “What is good for Paul is also good for Peter.” 

As for the Inquirer purported “investigative” ‘Dry  Rice Market’ report on Martina, I had no idea how terrible some of Inquirer’s former editors, reporter-photographers now living abroad felt regarding the paper’s poor handling of the story till I called two persons to discuss the report. The two persons spoken to were: Ms. Massa Washington, of Philadelphia, a former commissioner on Liberia’s TRC, who previously served as the paper’s news editor-frontlines correspondent and James Momoh of New Jersey, former Inquirer’s photo editor and BBC stringer. The two separately expressed awful disappointment over not only the “Purported” news story as referenced continually, but also Wesseh’s two articles. When asked if I could cite their comments in this article, both wholeheartedly consented, and added, that the referenced Wesseh articles plus the first story at the heart of this series failed to conform to journalistic standards. 

The two US scholars, Washington and Momoh, were part of a group of young local journalists (including this writer) who one way or the other participated in the organization of the paper in early 1991 and set out to make it a second to none in the country. They risked everything, including lives and constantly covered dangerous war assignments in various rebel-controlled territories, wars that heavily fueled by greed and tribal vengeance on all sides. Unfortunately, this is all that is left of the sacrifices of brave men and women that contributed toward building what should have become a magnificent media empire in West Africa, yea the world. Whatever brought it to her current level, it is hoped that other emerging post-war newspaper plus those that came before The Inquirer learn from such lesson. In addition, Washington made some strong points during our conversation and it imperative that the message is put out there for the benefit of doubters. 

She recalled: “No institution of the country was untouched by the war…The media too was polarized; it was caught between good and evil.” I don’t think anyone could have put it better than her. She further stated that a deep division existed between journalists during the war era which is certainly true. “There were journalists who wanted to uphold the rules vs. those who wanted to compromise.”  She is exactly right. Not that I am unaware but, it is also good that other colleagues can come out to speak on these matters. The only thing is that I am afraid this is same crossroad where Liberian journalists of today find themselves and it’s now incumbent upon journalists opting to play by the rules to fight back in order to save this noble profession in the Republic of Liberia, one of the first places where ancient-modern journalism began in Africa.    

The Liberian media has come a long way threading through a rough path, beginning with President Edwin Barclay to Williams V.S. Tubman, and through the military dictatorship of Samuel Doe, crowned by President Charles Taylor. Read: In Chris Toe vs. Rodney Sieh: Daily Observer’s Position Raises Journalistic Ethical Questions. As such, every local journalist must work harder to maintain the gains, mindful of agents who might want to wrongly use the media to achieve their selfish and personal agendas. Those who fought their wars should be left to wage their own “battle” as the hour for reckoning arrives for those who enjoyed unwarranted powers, looting state resources and maiming their fellow brothers and sisters in the name of “liberation.” Liberian journalists must remain uncompromising and stop those acts of mediocrity.

Author’s Note: James Kokulo Fasuekoi is a freelance journalist and documentary writer-photographer with special focus on Liberian-African political, war, and cultural affairs. He previously worked five years at The Inquirer simultaneously in various capacities; a photo editor, frontlines correspondent and features writer. A former Associated Press Liberia stringer, Fasuekoi covered wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 90s. He’s author of Rape, Loot & Murder-Liberian Civil War: A Journalist’s Photo Diary; A Peek Inside Kamajors’ Land and Liberia: Democracy Turns Bloody…will it hold? Opinions expressed in the article above are solely those of the author’s and don’t represent the views of the AP, or news organs used to disseminate the materials.