Chasing the news at the Executive Mansion, like covering the Presidency of any other nation, in my opinion is one of the prestigious but challenging tasks I have ever faced in my life as a journalist in my own country-Liberia for the past ten years.
As I once stated in two previous feature articles about covering the Liberian Presidency, there are a lot of things one has to adjust himself to, some well-defined and spoken, while the others are ambiguous.
The Executive Mansion is usually referred to me as the nerve of government activities owing to the volume of work that exits there, and considering the fact that journalists covering the Presidency are most often interacting with individuals from diverse backgrounds.
For instance, ambassadors of sovereign nations and international organizations. There is no doubt that some of these people are well schooled or knowledgeable when it comes to contemporary global issues. In this case, does a journalist who covers the Executive Mansion have to be told by the press secretary or protocol officers that he needs to put his house in order before trying to conduct an interview with a guest of the President? Or if a diplomat representing an international organization or a sovereign nation is due to present letters of credence, does a journalist covering the Presidency have to be told to go ahead to do research on that international organization or the country being represented by the ambassador in question if that individual journalist must do a better work? Do protocol officers or security officers have to open tutorial classes for journalists to impact knowledge concerning the need for media personnel covering the Executive Mansion to beware that such assignment entails being one’s own security? There may be those who may not agree with me. But whatever the case may be, I am under moral obligation to respect the opinion of anyone who does not see things the way I look at them. But I think these are some of the unspoken things I am talking about.
In the life of a contemporary journalist, chasing the news at all cost or digging out the news is almost like a daily undertaking. This is why in most cases journalists fall out with those who try to restrict them, either by time, how far they should stand, and how many questions to ask and where their questions should come from, etc.
Protocol vs. Expediency and Reality
This is where protocol wrestles with aggressive and timely news gathering in some instances.
Yes, etiquette, as code of behavior for people in a particular certain seeks an orderly conduct of programs in the most civilized manner. But a journalist chasing the news under pressure from his managers is likely to be angered by any situation that appears like a butterfly as he equally tries to execute his duties with timeliness. This is why protocol officers are always striving to stick to the rule so that national programs, especially at the level of the Presidency achieve maximum results. But the dictate of protocol, though necessary to ensure orderliness, may not suit the taste of an aggressive journalist who wants to get certain information when time seems not to be working in his favor.
Protocol officers are always ready and committed to the task of ensuring that those attending programs are always seated before the arrival of VIPs, especially the President. Anything short of this appears like trying to either challenge them or overlook their work. In most instances, confrontation is likely to take place between the two sides-protocol officers and journalists when the two minds fail to meet.
Yes, I do recognize the important role protocol plays when it comes to the execution of ceremonies at the level of the presidency. But there are times protocol officers or security people are economical with the truth concerning some of the events relating to presidency.
For instance, at one point you are told that the President is going to Point ‘A’ for three hours, at another point the information changes. I do understand that protocol officers also work in collaboration with personnel of the Executive Protection Service (EPS) formerly Special Security Service (SSS).
But I am a witness to a number of occasions where the two sides do not communicating well, thereby leading to misinformation from one point to the other, mainly for anxious journalists who want to get details or backgrounds of some of the programs at the Presidency for appropriate news writing.
> For instance, during the Visioning process in Gbarnga City, Bong County last December, the press vehicle took different direction and headed straight for the Gbarnga administration building while the rest of the convoy took another direction and headed straight for the superintendent’s compound during the evening hours. We sensed that there was no proper communication regarding which specific direction the convoy was taking. I understand those responsible for the mistake were quickly assembled by top brass of the EPS and warned seriously. This was a risky adventure, not only for journalists travelling with President Sirleaf but the President herself.
>At another point we covered a program just on the same day the mother of Liberia’s Peace Ambassador George Weah was due to be laid to rest. Right after the program we asked if there was any other presidential event to be covered for the day. We were told no, and so everyone decided to leave. About an hour later we received another call to return to the Foreign Ministry as the President was due to attend the funeral of Ambassador Weah’s mother. Most of our colleagues did not show up apparently due to several factors, one of which could be transportation. I rushed with my stories and found my way back to the Foreign Ministry just to be told minutes after arrival that the President was not going to the funeral again. And most of us covering the Executive Mansion ride on motor cycles most often to get there on time and to get back to our respective offices.
> ‘’Jacob, by 7:00 AM please be available tomorrow for a trip out of Monrovia and make sure to be on time before the convoy leaves you behind.”
Recognizing the need for timeliness in news gathering and to avoid being late, we take the challenge but at times departure is delayed by several hours.
There are also instances in which you are even asked more questions when you get to the point of departure in time. Security people are inquisitive to ensure maximum protection while journalists are also doing likewise to get the news. This is why the tributary of the two sides sometimes gets rough and noisy. But obviously we are not enemies as the tongue and teeth also have their differences at certain time in life.
Someone who is well-schooled in security and presidential issues once told me that while it may be true that protocol officers sometimes make mistakes while doing their work, there are other cases in which people become economical with the truth owing to security reasons.
I recall during President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s recent trip to Bomi County where she inspected several projects intended for the 2013 July 26 celebrations, I received a call by 7:45 AM that I needed to be at the Foreign Ministry for departure for Tubmanburg. When I tried to find out the actual time, I was told, ‘’I don’t really know but you need to go now because the convoy will soon leave.”
My fear was that the convoy could pass by me while on my way to the Foreign Ministry since the time was not established and considering the abrupt nature of the call. Thanks be to God I already had one jeans that my wife did not quickly put in the water when she was washing that Saturday morning. For every time I asked her to put the jeans in the tub she would say ‘’ Jake please wait I will wash the jeans.” So as soon as I got the call that very jeans became the only available trouser that was fit for the assignment so I quickly start dusting it off to go. This was about 10 minutes into the call time so I started leaving my house. But again, not still certain with the time issue, I called to find out whether it was advisable to wait across since the convoy was due to pass through the direction I was coming from. I do know that the convoy does not normally stop along the way to pick up journalists but I was only trying to seek advice based on the situation I found myself in, especially when a senior person at the level of the Presidency and I were coming from the same direction the convoy was due to take. But it was also possible that the convoy took another direction to get to Bomi County since we are told that protocol changes at anytime and that the President has her own schedule that people may not understand.
‘’That will be good because I am also waiting in the Brewerville area,” said Christopher Sele, Second Deputy Press Secretary to the President. So from 7: 45 AM to 12: 45 PM, the convoy could not arrive so I received another call from my colleagues (journalists) asking me to join them at the Foreign Ministry because the convoy was still there. “Had that been the case I would have joined you long time but because no one knows the time so I have been suffering from indecision,” I told my colleagues.
As God would have it, an EPS officer, Charles, who has won the admiration of most journalists covering Executive Mansion for being very friendly saw me around the bus stop near Freeport and asked me to ride with him to the Foreign Ministry. I knew that once I was riding with ‘Charlie’ who was part of the trip to Bomi County, there was no more fear of the convoy passing by me or leaving me behind while trying to get to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We left for Tubmanbourg almost 1:30PM on that day contrary to information passed onto us that morning that we were leaving just about the time the call was made. Whether the information passed unto us concerning early departure for Bomi was due to lack of communication among those responsible to execute these programs or on the basis of not wanting to expose the actual travel schedule of the President, the EPS officers and protocol officers could be scoring passing marks for managing the information based on their professional orientations. But for the journalist who wants to get all the information available for prompt and professional work, the EPS and protocol people could score an ‘F’ for being economical with the information and leaving the media in the state of uncertainty. You see my point, two different groups performing their respective duties but with different approaches based on professional orientation.
Therefore, the EPS and protocol officers could deem it expedient to do things the way they do at times based on various ‘acceptable reasons’ giving their backgrounds, but news gathering entails veracity and candor and not guess work.
I therefore pray that there will be improvement in some of these key areas I touched in this feature, representing my personal opinion.
The author has worked extensively in the Liberian media for more than ten years, including LBS where he served in various editorial capacities: news director, editor-in-chief (twice) sub-editor, news editor and currently covers the Executive Mansion as correspondent, etc.
Jacob has published dozens of articles, including three on the Liberian Presidency and can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org
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