Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am extremely humble today, as always, to be here on the last leg of my official function as an official of the Press Union of Liberia. I am honored and should like to extend profound thanks to you my friends and members of the Press Union for the confidence you reposed in me to have served you for nine long years growing from the position of Assistant Secretary-General to President. I am grateful. I am even more grateful to God for the courage, the will and the energy he bestowed upon me to carry on in spite of the pains and pleasure that came along with the task. To Him be the glory.
Mr. President elect and colleagues, allow me to also say thanks to our government for the space created to strengthen the visibility of our Union in defending the cause of our profession notwithstanding our disagreements. A special thanks to all of our lawyers – I called them willing lawyers, who stood with us in defense of the media during the period. To members of the public and civil society actors who shared our vision, we say thank you. I dare not forget my wife and my family for their support to be here all this time. Most of all ladies and gentlemen, I owe a debt of gratitude to the ones who dreamt this dream and our valued partners who’ve help us keep this dream alive. Permit me for a moment to request that you please stand with me in silence to pay tribute to the sainted memories of our fore bearers who started this vision we celebrate tonight. [Silence]
May the God of our profession, who has brought thus far, continue to bless us collectively, but particularly Lord, that you will grant a double portion of your grace and wisdom to our newly elected officers to lead us with your fear and honor. Amen!
Mr. President and members of the high table, a lot more has happened in the media landscape in the last five years of our stewardship as President of the Union. We have seen the growth of the media in size and penetration. There are up to 40 news papers in print, appearing at different intervals; about 24 radio stations are on the air across Monrovia and its surrounding areas; about 60 community radio station operate around the country and 6 television stations, and all are still growing. We have also seen an encouraging, but rapid growth of the new media with the advent of the internet, cell phone and the social media. All this make the flow of news and information more accessible to the people and difficult for to hide information.
But amidst this boom, is a new kind of problem in our quest for ethical standard and professionalism. Some of these institutions are either own or patronized by politicians and other people with commercial or vested interest. These owners will do anything to get at their perceived opponents and/or comparators without regard for basic norms. This is our challenge.
And that is why we devoted most of our time trying to get media practitioners take responsibility for their errors. We launched the Media Complaints Committee (MCC) to take over the function of the Grievance and Ethics Committee. Unlike the Ethics Committee that was composed mainly of journalists, the MCC is a multi-stakeholders self-regulatory mechanism designed to address the issues of ethics and professional misconduct that is eroding the credibility of the media in Liberia. The committee brings together one representative from the Bar Association, one from the civil society, one from women groups, one from government and three media representatives.
We remained very keen on the defense of journalists against arbitrary actions and/or government control. But as a corresponding responsibility, we insisted on strengthening self-regulation to encourage government’s hands off the media, but essentially, to build greater public acceptability and confidence in our services.
Several media institutions and journalists appeared before the committee. But it is refreshing to note that among the complainants were government officials, diplomats, lawmakers, corporate entities and private citizens.
I submit to you that the Union was not able to hear all the cases that came before it due to other competing distractions; my apologies to all those who never got the desired redress. I am however pleased that we were able to raise the profile of the committee as a forum to check the professional conduct of journalists. Our options are limited in this regard; we must therefore seek to better our self-regulatory regime to engender greater public confidence and support. There are suggestions that we might need a media commission in the future. I interposed no objection in so far as it serves the purpose.
It is not surprising that all governments seek to control the media covertly or overtly. The extent of such control may vary from one regime to another regardless of the approach. You must be ware.
While fighting against attacks and frivolous lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists, the Union could not afford to be a passive observer in the face of gross ethical infractions. We have had a challenge of buy-in from a few media institutions, which are understandably influenced by their ownership and sense of self-righteousness. But it should be said that the media that does not embrace self-regulation, opens itself up for coercive government control.
There is ample evidence that those who turned themselves into regime journalists or worst still those who sleep on the same bed with vested interest to the discomfort of the public, often times fall in trouble with the same regime and interest they protect. Alternatively, history is replete with stories of authorities who intently used their money and their power to influence the media against public interest, were also victimized by the same media or one of the many existing ones.
It is therefore the collective responsibility of all agents of the democratic movement who believe that the media is truly an indispensible pillar of democracy to stand up for good journalism because the consequences of a compromised or hired media have proven to be counterproductive.
With all the pretenses set aside, the independent media in the true sense of independence is actually in a continued adversarial relationship with Government and other segments of the public that support the status quo. The media’s curiosity, exposure of the corrupt and its critical editorials on gray areas of political and economic governances have made it a subject of contempt, harassment, police action, censorship and sometimes imprisonment.
It is only by a continued sober realization of this far-from-rosy relationship that helps media practitioners to keep on the safe side, to avoid the altercations they find themselves on the daily basis. Though playing safe, no matter how, is not sufficient guarantee to avoiding the aggression that we sometime suffered with impunity.
Ladies and gentlemen, our country has refused to accept that media is a sector that needs development; so the media is left to survive in a patronized economy and not an open competition.
And because government is the biggest advertiser in the media market, advertising dollar is seen as a gift and not a legitimate income. Media owners must wait for as long as it takes the government to pay their fees. In some instances, the government was negotiating waivers of the debts owed these media entities that can be best described as small businesses.
This undermines the independence and viability of the media and eventually makes it more susceptible to manipulations.
Our call has always been for our government to waive taxes on media products, but in the absence of that we beg the government to please see it as an investment in the media by endeavoring to pay all its legitimate arrears to the media on time to be able to pay their bills.
This lack of and /or delay in the payment of advertisement fees is the excuse used by some of our media owner and managers to ignore the working conditions of journalists in our country. In some rare circumstances, workers are even suspended when they asked for their legitimate salaries. The case of the three LBS union leaders is a noted example that should never have happened at all. The government station cannot afford to be guilty of such abuse.
Mr. President, colleagues and guests, we should continue to give credit to our government for showing some measure of willingness to improve the legal environment for the operation of the media and free expression. After signing the Freedom of Information Act in 2010, in 2012 President [Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf] signed onto the Declaration of Table Mountain (DTM), which seeks to decriminalize defamation and insult laws on the African continent. These are two significant milestones that we can always use to call the government’s attention when things are going bad. With that signing ceremony, Madam President has committed her government to repealing all the anti speech and press laws still on penal code in Liberia. This also means that our lawmakers must also revisit the excessive fine or penalties levied against media outlets found guilty in label suits.
I believe the case involving journalist Rodney Sieh and Dr. Chris Toe left behind too much lessons to be learned by the entire country. It was a bad situation that caused a lot of image problems for our country – we must run with speed to prevent recurrence.
Ladies and gentlemen, any country that passes an FOI, should be reluctant or should never pass a gag order because it is contrary to the spirit of the FOI. The gag order by the Criminal Court ‘C’ on the Secret recording by Ellen Corkrum was also an embarrassment, but thanks to the government for quickly reconsidering its decision. We should not seek to hide information from the public because it could even worsen the conflict.
The former UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan said this about the media. He said, “…By giving voice and visibility to all people – including and especially the poor, the marginalized and members of minorities – the media can help remedy the inequalities, the corruption, the ethnic tensions and the human rights abuses that form the root causes of so many conflict.”
Mr. President elect, there is one challenge that we are unfortunately leaving behind that you must deal with and that is the issue of the $100,000 gift from the President.Let me admit to you that this $100,000 gift has been a distraction for me going forward but with exist today it could be over. There are those who expected us to suspend every other activity to deal with this $100,000 issue. I would have loved to see a building erected for the Union with or without the President’s gift. But that was not to be. I apologize to members of the Union that we do not have a headquarters building of our own yet, but I do not regret for my stance on how the money was administered from the Executive Mansion to the International Bank. We could not allow our desire for a ‘mansion’ to compromise our standing as an institution.
My friend, our resistance against to the construction was never about Madam Sirleaf; nor was it about George Barpeen and me, this has simply been about the integrity of the Press Union that we took oath to defend. So we should never sweep it because we want a ‘mansion.’ I have no apologies for standing up to the maneuvering that sought to compromise the values of the Union.
Oh yes, but given all the variables and gambit surrounding this money, including the unrealistic and pretended contract, the questionable transfer of the money in the International Bank, I submit to you that I may not have been the right person to achieve the headquarters dream. Let me wish the in-coming leadership good luck. You can choose to withdraw the cancellation proceedings at the Civil Law Court and get ready to raise US$760,000.00 to pay the construction or relief the union of this liability.
So as I turn over to my friend and brother in whom I trust, my prayers are that God will anoint your creativity and your ideas and intentions so that even your smallest task will bring honor to the Press Union. God Bless!
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