Accuracy in Media

The major U.S. media have not paid much attention to Liberia over the years but it has now become a major issue, getting mentioned in 72 stories in the New York Times over the last 30 days alone. It is ironic that while the media keep harping on whether President Bush misstated the case for war in Iraq, they have led him to push for regime change in Liberia on far more spurious grounds.

During the year 2002, a review of the New York Times web site shows that the paper ran only 40 articles mentioning Liberia. The increasing attention over the last few months parallels the campaign by the African-born United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who wants President Bush to endorse his plan to deploy a U.S.-led peacekeeping force to Liberia.

Taylor is regularly described as an “indicted war criminal” by the media, when the indictment was engineered by a U.N. court and Annan picked the prosecutor. Taylor became a target when a Taylor-supported rebel group in Sierra Leone took some 500 U.N. soldiers hostage back in mid-2000. The U.N. was trying to seize the country’s diamond-rich areas.

Ignoring far more serious conflicts in such places as Sudan, where an Islamic regime has been murdering Christians on a massive scale, the media have followed Annan’s lead and focused on Liberia, a nation of only 3 million whose government is under attack by mostly Muslim insurgents. Since Liberia is sometimes inaccurately described as an American colony, the controversy enables the media to advocate an American role in resolving the country’s problems.

Typical of this approach is a July 11 Toronto Globe and Mail column by Gerald Caplan headlined, “Blame America for conflict in Liberia.” He wrote, “Mr. Bush should intervene not out of great humanitarian motives, but out of basic accountability. For damages knowingly incurred, his country owes Liberians compensation in full.” It follows that the U.S. may owe financial reparations to all of Africa since, as Bush implied in his July 8 remarks at Goree Island, Senegal, the U.S. was complicit in “one of the greatest crimes of history”?slavery. He didn’t mention, of course, that the slaves had already been enslaved by fellow black Africans.

Annan’s call for a U.S.-led international force to Liberia was enough to convince the New York Times to support such a deployment. It didn’t endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq, supported by President Bush and Congress, but it embraced Annan’s call for intervention in Liberia, saying in a July 1 Times editorial that the U.N. chief had made “a compelling case.”

However, according to the State Department’s most recent report on human rights, Liberia had enjoyed relative freedom of religion and the press and free elections. The report says the 1997 elections that saw Taylor win the presidency and his National Patriotic Party win three-quarters of the seats in the legislature “were administratively free and transparent” but marred by an atmosphere of intimidation.

The Times and other U.S. media have repeated the canard that Liberia “was founded by freed American slaves.” It’s true that American slaves were the first settlers in what was later called Liberia, but it was actually founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society (ACS) with land purchased from African tribes. It paid for slaves to go there. The Society donated its records to the Library of Congress, which features a web site that notes that, “By the 1840s, Liberia had become a financial burden on the ACS. In addition, Liberia faced political threats, chiefly from Britain, because it was neither a sovereign power nor a bona fide colony of any sovereign nation. Because the United States refused to claim sovereignty over Liberia, in 1846 the ACS ordered the Liberians to proclaim their independence.” The Liberians were then on their own. A scandal forced the resignations of the Liberian president and vice-president in 1930 after an international commission documented the existence of slavery and forced labor in the country. Blacks were enslaving some of the natives for their own financial gain.

On their own, they developed a Constitution for Liberia that prohibits non-blacks from owning property or being citizens. As the State Department report explains, “Although the Constitution bans ethnic discrimination, it also provides that only ‘persons who are Negroes or of Negro descent’ may be citizens or own land.”

It’s a messy problem in Liberia, but it’s not one that the U.S. made and has responsibility for. The New York Times is leading Bush into a trap.

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