Press must not cover up for war crimes suspects

Martina Johnson is facing war crimes charges in Belgium

Martina Johnson is facing war crimes charges in Belgium

Few weeks ago, I was doing research online and came across a news story published February 25, 2015 by the Inquirer Newspaper of Liberia titled, “Residents Deny ‘Massacre’ Claim.” The story is related to charges of war crimes against one Martina Johnson, a well-known former NPFL rebel commander who was arrested last year by Belgium authorities and placed in custody regarding whatever roles she may have played in several massacres inside Mr. Taylor’s rebel territories, particularly, during the faction’s deadly “Octopus” war (she reportedly oversaw) in October 1992, in the quest to overrun the capital and seize power; writes James Kokulo Fasuekoi, former war correspondent. 

Prior to reading the Inquirer story, I had read similar story written by Mr. Nvasekie Konneh entitled, “Alieu Kosiah is a Victim of the Liberian Civil War.” Alieu Kosiah is an ex-ULIMO-K rebel commander whose story of violence against civilians stands out during the ULIMO-NPFL-LDF wars in Lofa and like Martina, Alieu Kosiah was arrested and subsequently imprisoned last year in Switzerland due to his roles in alleged “Tortures and killings” after he was identified by some of his victims. His detention has been extended to three more months by a judge before his trial can begin. Kosiah’s alleged victims who gave a tipoff that led to his arrest are expected to be represented by Civitas Maxima of Switzerland and its Liberian branch, Global Research and Justice Project (GRJP).           

The Inquirer story was based on what it calls, “Fact-finding mission” by a “Team of international and local journalists” that allegedly toured “Dry Rice Market and Johnsonville” communities and spoke to residents regarding a wartime “massacres” in the areas and Martina’s possible connection to any. The Inquirer however failed to state what exactly prompted a fact-finding in the Martina case because, other Liberian ex-warlords and rebel commanders arrested previously by the ICC on similar war crimes charges, like former Pres. Taylor, his son, Chuckie Taylor, Tom Weoiwiyou and Alieu Kosiah, never enjoyed such privileges of background investigations in their behalf by local reporters, let alone a group of local and foreign “journalists” as reported by the paper. 

Of a group of “journalists” who allegedly formed part of the “Fact-finding” tour in the referenced communities, it is interesting to note that only The Inquirer so far has released a story though seemingly skewed in a way to serve a particular interest shall be closely looked at later. Who the rest of the journalists are, and when they will publish their own findings are things not clear. And why The Inquirer took special interest in the Martina Johnson’s case is also something worth for the general public to know since this is untraditional. In any case both stories’ headings appeared conclusive, particularly the Kosiah story with no quotation or question marks, acts usual considering the gravity of the crimes involved in both cases.  

Except that one was written presumably by an independent daily, and the other by a freelance writer who holds tribal affiliation to one of the war crimes suspects, the objective for both stories are clear in the story contents-they set out to defend the two former hardcore rebel commanders against acts of “war crimes” for which the two have been separately indicted and are awaiting trials. And just by coincident, the Inquirer-Konneh stories also exhibit striking similarities in many forms.

On separate notes, the two vehemently denied the accused, Martina and Kosiah, were ever involved in committing egregious crimes against civilians during the war as alleged. Indeed, the Inquirer story and that of Mr. Konneh’s went to extra length and portrayed the two diehard-rebels as “Innocent” bystanders and “victims” of the brutal African war that killed an estimated 250,000 people. This is all happening when in fact, no trial has begun and although both accused may have initially denied every charge brought against them, it is universally the normal thing all war crimes suspects do. Charles Taylor denied “everything” and likewise, Chuckie Taylor, and Kosiah. Even former Chadian leader Hissene Habre, indicted by Belgium courts on similar crimes, according to reports, “is still denying.”   

Though either story failed to give accounts on the war activities of Martina and Kosiah, all agreed the two served as ‘commanders’ for the rebel National Patriotic Front (NPFL) of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, and Prof. Alhaji Kromah’s ULIMO-K rebel factions. Taylor is presently serving a 50-year sentence due to war crimes he reportedly committed in neighboring Sierra Leone during the 90s. However, it is not the Kosiah story this piece is about. What prompted this article is that unconventional “journalistic style” that The Inquirer adopted in treating an important matter that holds not just local but deep international interest as well. It ignored all journalistic ethical rules and published a story ostensibly embedded in pure deception. The paper did so cleverly, making it to appear the story was based on feedbacks gathered from residents of the two townships. 

Notwithstanding, it was no different from a case where someone would describe this way: “Rabbit thought it was hiding, not knowing its tail was still exposed.” In other words, the Inquirer piece  compromised its so-called “Fact-finding” report in attempt to cover up for war crimes suspect, Martina Johnson. For example, the paper’s story, among many others things, failed to even draw a line between the Taylor-led NPFL that recruited and armed Martina Johnson along with thousands of Liberian youths to fight. Mind you, the suspect Martina Johnson, fought for the NPFL, the faction known to have systematically targeted and murdered thousands of civilians, mainly Mandingoes and Krahns, on the basis of their ethnic affiliations. These are basic facts no news organ writing about such high-profiled case will ever ignore, unless the primary goals for that organ isn’t about protecting and serving the public interest.  

For the referenced Inquirer report, one doesn’t really have to be a savvy editor or reporter in order to detect that something is wrong, that the story was indeed comprised. Any literate individual can easily tell this just by basically examining the paper’s story contents, version of the “fact-finding mission.” Let’s go over a few paragraphs in the referenced Inquirer story so as to attempt to find out whether or not the Inquirer editorial followed the rules or did in all fairness apply “objectivity” in in the referenced report as required in the journalism profession. In its opening paragraphs, the following is what Liberia’s Inquirer, once considered, a credible source by international news agencies during wartime, wrote: 

“Some residents of the Dry Rice Market and Johnsonville communities have clarified that there was no incident of massacres in both communities during the Liberian civil conflict. The residents further clarified that no act of massacre was committed by a former SSS Officer who later became the head of the Roberts International Airport (RIA) Madam Martina Johnson as has been alleged. Members of the communities said both communities were considered free zones during the heat of the civil conflict something that contradicts allegation by Global Research and Justice Project.” 

As indicated earlier, the paper stated the information was gathered last January when a group of “journalists” visited the areas during which the reporters conducted interviews with “Over 70 elders and youths” concerning reports that “massacres occurred” in those vicinities. The Inquirer story said, citizens denied such allegations. However, what seems unforgivable is when the paper alleges without quotes that “residents” in both townships described the GRJP’s report as “misleading and intended to destroy Madam Johnson” and demanded they “want all charges against Martina Johnson dropped.” 

“Meanwhile, residents of Dry Rice Market and Johnsonville communities want all charges against Martina Johnson dropped adding that the allegation by Global Research and Justice Project is intended to solicit international support and attention from the international community. Residents in that area also stated that the information provided by Global Research and Justice Project is misleading and intended to destroy Madam Johnson.”

But those are not all; perhaps, the most revealing and damaging to this questionable report that seems to lend credence to suspicion that the Inquirer “report” may have been heavily influenced by a special favor, including money, could be the following line in its story: “Currently residents of the various communities are benefiting from the humanitarian gesture under aegis of Madam Martina Johnson the former RIA boss, one of the leaders of the community disclosed.” It is unconceivable that a paper of this caliber as The Inquirer will attempt to rob the public of its rights to know the truth in an allegation that involves genocide by failing to provide an accurate picture surrounding a so-called “fact-finding” tour of which other participating “journalists” are yet to publish their own accounts.    

From reading the above sections of the Inquirer story, isn’t it rather ironic that a “fact-finding mission,” with the sole purpose to thoroughly investigate and verify gruesome mass murders, could now suddenly turn into a praise and worship band by the usage of unnecessary and flattering praises as per this remark: Currently, residents of the various communities are benefiting from the humanitarian gesture under aegis of Madam Martina Johnson the former RIA boss. And see, the paper even referred to the suspects multiple times as “Madam” in its well-polished story. Can a newspaper claiming “independence” actually afford to condone such practice by also joining a chorus of praise singers in such high-profiled critical matters?     

In the first place, it is outrageously awful that the Inquirer article would choose to use phrases as: “Residents have clarified” that Martina Johnson didn’t commit “act of massacre” in the two communities, as if the alleged mass murdered incidents are more like the everyday corrupt practices Liberians have come to be accustomed; that the discussion is about some stolen goods. At least, that’s how simple the paper made it looked when in fact this entire episode is about genocide in one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars, heavily fuelled by strong anti-tribal sentiments, and often the victims were vulnerable women, children and elderly, some often raped before they were viciously beheaded by drugged rebels. It isn’t a honeymoon story-this involves peoples’ loved ones-just like us, the living and that’s why it sounds bizarre that the Inquirer’s editorial team will think such a case can be closed with a mere “clarification” and after that everyone walks away.  

Another section of the Inquirer’s story that raises eyebrows is the claim that “over 70 elders and youths” were interviewed by “journalists” regarding the suspect’s role during the “fact-finding” exercise but failed to identify a single interviewee, for the sake of its own credibility. Also, the story had no byline which adds to a long list of questions as to the sincerity of the report. Even twenty is too big of a number let alone, “over 70” that an “independent” newspaper will not cite a single name in a crucial story especially when the war crimes suspect is being highly “hailed” by all and not even a single person gave contradictory view of her. With this apparent level of eagerness by “residents” of the areas to tell the “good deeds” Martina, it is however shocking that no one appeared bold to speak on record. 

But few of the troubling questions in this case are: Who, and where exactly, are some of the residents that were allegedly interviewed by local and foreign reporters? How credible are they? And how can they prove they lived in the referenced communities during the first phrase of the civil wars? For the sake of trustworthiness, I would have provided names and also group picture of interviewees and I think the paper should do so without delay in the public interest. For what is the reason for one to hide when he thinks highly of neighbor that presumably holds a clear record and gives to the community? I hope that the paper’s editor is aware of the serious credibility questions its publication raises. Perhaps, it may recover by releasing names, photographs, or phone numbers, addresses of the interviewees with consent for verification since it seems the rest of “journalists” on the trip disappeared.     

It claimed further that residents described Barnersville Township as “free zone,” meaning, the area was a safe heaven that was untouchable in wartimes. By now, it is no surprise that The Inquirer of today will take such assessment from someone without a second thought to verify such claim before publishing. Of course, this type of act will belittle any paper when after all, almost everyone who rode out the wars in Liberia, not to mention journalists, knows that not even an inch of Liberia was deemed safe, or left untouched. Except the ECOMOG-IGNI’s controlled territories, Monrovia, no parts of the capital including, suburbs were save. For if there existed a so-called “free zone,” why then the over 600 slaughtered Gio and Mano civilians didn’t seek refuge at such place but were forced by circumstances to stay at the Sinkor Lutheran Church where they perished? 

The Inquirer story repeatedly cited a place it called, “Dry Rice Market.” What is it exactly? It is a tiny flea like-market, about the size of a football field and located inside Barnersville Estate in Monrovia’s northwest suburb. It isn’t itself a “town” as inanely portrayed by the paper. The portrayal however is typical of the way some local reporters communicate, write stories, with only Liberian audiences in mind. The market is probably less than a mile from the last bus stop before entering the estate. The same place (near the last bus stop) the Inquirer report now says residents claimed to be a “free zone” is where the charred remains of a small vehicle used by two of the five murdered American nuns were found in 1992 during NPFL’s multipronged attack on the capital. 

How do I know? I was among a team of local reporters taken on a tour of the Barnersville area by former press secretary, Ministry of National Defense, Col. Arthur B. Dennis, now a resident of New Jersey, just days after the combined forces of ECOMOG peacekeeping troops, the Sawyer-IGNU’s led Black Berets, assisted by Mr. Alhaji Kromah’s ULIMO movement, ejected Taylor’s men from the area. I was able to photograph the charred remains of the car owned by the murdered American nuns, films editors at The Associated Press would take interest in when I began to work for the agency as stringer photographer. 

The story goes that two of the nuns, Muttra and Joel Kolmer left their Barnersville convent October 20, 1992 to drop off a security guard but got murdered moments later by Taylor’s rebels when they encountered them not far from the convent. Years after the murder of the nuns, an investigation compiled by US FBI agents blamed the NPFL that controlled the area. The FBI’s probes were based on countless testimonies given by mostly eyewitnesses, including NPFL kidnapped survivors, the Catholic Archdiocese, US embassy, ECOMOG force and residents who saw the killings. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this work has been who to pinpoint among the “killer commanders” for the deaths of the nuns. While some suspect Martina, others blame one Christopher Vambo, who goes by the nom-de-guerre General Mosquito. Read: Is This Man Responsible for the Murder of 5 American Nuns? 

To be continued: