It is our greatest pleasure to be celebrating World Press Freedom Day - the biggest festival in journalism - in Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County, more than 500 kilometers from the urban center of Monrovia. World Press Freedom Day is an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom - a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered. It is a date to encourage and develop initiatives in favor of press freedom, and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide. It serves as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.
World Press Freedom Day 2015 is being held under the theme: Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality & Media Safety in the Digital Age. This is one observance in which the UN will adopt the Sustainable Development Goals, raising the question of media’s relation to the objectives of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and its potential contribution to Goal 16, to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.
Relevant to this broad backdrop, WPFD 2015 will examine three inter-related issues:
Bringing this celebration to Zwedru shows that the development of journalism in Liberia is without boundaries, and furthers a determination to bring colleagues together on a common platform. When we argued in 2013, that we were seeking to bring all hands on deck, it was never our desire to keep pushing one group higher, while keeping the other at arms’ length.
In our celebration today, our thoughts are tuned to the challenges journalists are persistently faced with, even in Liberia. These have been properly articulated in the Press Union of Liberia’ Strategic Direction – and eventually emphasized a little over a month ago, at the PUL Annual Congress.
During the congress, members of the PUL were accorded the opportunity to discuss such salient issues affecting the media space as Media Freedom and Accountability, the Collective Bargaining Agreement, as well as issues in Media Development likes Sustainability of the Community Radio Sector; Opportunities for Advancing Media Business and exploring Training Needs for Media Strengthening.
At the close of the Congress, the members who mustered the courage to remain till the end, highlighted a wide range of issues, including:
a. A need for increased transparency by the use of improved accounting methods at PUL;
b. Need for improve working conditions of journalists in Liberia;
c. Limited use of FOI Law in the work of journalists;
d. Need to draw attention to the work practices of journalists including
their ethics; and
e. Limited role of women in the media- will lay the patchwork for generally moving Liberian journalism to a better and more productive future.
Unfortunately, the colleagues who had Responsibility to follow up these recommendations are not forthcoming. This is as similar to the colleagues, who have been called upon to serve on various standing /working committees of the PUL. A similar apathy is also shown in the contribution to union activities. This is rather unfortunate, and does not indicate our belief in the journalism profession or the correlated fraternity that keeps us standing up for free expression.
Today, as we observe World Press freedom Day in Zwedru, we have been confronted with the challenges facing the Smile Radio – the community owned media establishment in Grand Gedeh. Within the last 48 hours, we have been informed about absence of a functional management on one hand; the detachment of the community at large from the operations of the station; the disillusionment of staff – and the transformation of the station into a one sided forum. This is not unique to Smile Radio. In fact, it is a tendency that has spread within the community radio sector – Bong County, Grand Bassa, Cape Mount, Sinoe. But the good news is this can and will be corrected. Any effort aimed at making the community radio better must include a sustainability component, which must, of course, be determined through a community based approach. Simply put – all sectors or influences in the community must be utilized to make Smile Radio better, and the Press Union of Liberia will be engaged with this process – beginning now! This effort to help Smile Radio resume its role as a community based, owned and managed facility is but a small step in our larger effort to ensure that the sustainability of community radio become a reality.
This situation in Grand Gedeh is simply an element of a wider range of safety and professional issues confronting the media in Liberia. When the mini Congress concluded on the “Need for improved working conditions of journalists in Liberia,” there were unfortunately less than five publishers in the room. This is frightening, considering that we need the buy in of publishers and media owners to effect strategic changes in the working conditions of journalists.
Unfortunately again, as we come to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, which coincidentally has a theme that emphasizes safety of journalists , our publishers are barely here. We can understand the constraints of traveling 500 kilometers, but what about the minimum contribution to allow a reporter to attend and participate or the institutional contribution? Ignoring participation in media freedom, support and solidarity issues is a signal that we are downplaying the significance of a free press in our democracy.
As part of our plans to drive the Press Union of Liberia into the future, better prepared to compete on the platform of professionalism from a position of knowledge, we embarked upon a collaborative process that culminated in a Strategic Direction of the Press Union of Liberia 2014-2016: Advancing Liberian Media by Professionalism, Accountability and Open Engagements. This plan proposes to define structural, professional and institutional parameters upon which to accelerate the space for media in Liberia by the 3 pillars of Advocacy, Promoting Professionalism and Strengthening Institutional Capacity.
The Advocacy pillar will seek to sustain our perennial Campaign to safeguard Journalists, Improve Working Conditions for journalists, and as well promote Gender Equality and Freedom of Expression.
Under the Professionalism Pillar, we propose to establish a Journalism Institute; strengthen our multistakeholder Media Complaints Committee and undertake Long term capacity building;
On Strengthening Institutional Capacity, we are considering the development of Human Resources, policies & procedures, the Acquisition of Infrastructure – including setting up for the actual construction of our headquarters, as well as Strengthening our global membership & solidarity. On the latter point, I am pleased to note that the International Federation of Journalists has waived the latest dues and fees for the Press Union of Liberia on account of the ebola crisis in the country. That however does not mean that we would not provide such fees in the future.
My Dear Comrades, Ladies & Gentlemen:
While awaiting the fund raising and challenges of inadequate laws to protect journalists, we have remained engaged with self-regulations – to guarantee people offended by our practice that we would point out the misfits and mischief makers in the pack. One way we have taken the lead on this is by our media monitoring program. Through this process, we monitor 12 newspapers and 5 radio stations over a 3-month period, highlighting ethical transgressions and holding monthly conversations that point out those shortcomings for corrective measures. This is designed to limit the strains on the Media Complaints (Grievance & Ethics) Committee, and provide an opportunity to get media to make corrective measures before complaints come forth.
All of these policy measures would not accomplish much, so long as our national democracy, search for peace and equitable development are not sustainable. As the struggle to solidify our democracy continues, so would the role of the media continuously remain challenged. As disappointing as it might look for some, we however find solace in the fact that journalists in Liberia, and the entire Liberian people as a matter of fact, have remained resilient, ever determined to show that they cannot be taken for a ride.
The media landscape is a lot different from - say 10, 15 years ago. Today, there are about 35 newspapers in Liberia – mostly in the Monrovia area. A few define their mission for specific counties, but still operate mainly from Monrovia. Their frequency range from the better known dailies to some that make it to market 2-3 times a week, others that come weekly, and those that make it periodically. Of course, newspapers have developed to the extent that several now have their own printing presses and a lot more have effective and interactive online editions. Unfortunately, some cannot prove that they have a functional laptop, least to mention a simple office.
There are also about 80 radio stations – seems a crowded airwave. While up to 30 might be within the Monrovia area, there is now at least one radio station in each of the other 14 counties. Some larger counties like Bong, Bassa, Lofa, Nimba may have anywhere between 5 and 15 stations. And do not overlook them, reporters have come from those backwaters and made it big in Monrovia.
Membership in the Press Union of Liberia has now loomed into the golden 500. This includes a record number of women, as well as members in all of the 15 counties. The Press Union even has an authorized representative in Gbarnga, Bong County and committee members are in all counties.
My dear brothers & sisters:
In all of this growth, the freedom and rights we dreamed of, and stood tall for, continue to elude us. At the State of the Nation in January, President Sirleaf announced a commitment to decriminalize media offenses by repealing a number of laws. Unfortunately, that was at least the third time we would be hearing this. On 27 January 2014, President Sirleaf told the Legislature that “Antiquated laws that retard the promotion of our fledgling democracy should be abolished,” and boasted that Liberia was “one of the first two African States that signed the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls for decriminalizing freedom of expression,” and promised to submit bills “to repeal all repressive laws as found in the statutes and in decrees of the PRC.”
Previous to that, at the signing of the Declaration of the Table Mountain in 2012, President Sirleaf vowed to repeal criminal defamation laws loud and clear, and “… committed to advancing free press and free expression not just in Liberia but to use [her] leadership … to promote it on the entire continent of Africa.”
Rather unfortunately, 2014 ended with a newspaper shut down arbitrarily – with no recourse to the law. Our attempt to get judicial response to this action is still stalling, with the Supreme Court reserving ruling – until perhaps at the end of the term.
These, my brothers and sisters, do not make up for the democracy we have always craved. But we can never be stopping where they demand, we remain determined to go to the length of our aspirations.
But we would not be stopping there. Across the last year, we remained engaged with the government, and agreed on a mutually acceptable draft of the act to decriminalize media offenses. Our call now is for the government, including the legislature, to ensure that the law is passed, ensuring greater space for media in Liberia.
Practical Questions about safety: Our colleague Herbert Johnson returned to the country a few evening ago, faced with a grave medical condition. On a more tragic note, a veteran journalist – John Taweh – former News Editor at the Liberia News Agency passed away a few days ago. There is presently no social security or insurance scheme to guarantee life after years of selfless work. This is a challenge that must be corrected. The most we can do now is raise funds to assist. But has this ever been sustainable?
Thank you for your resilience in living up to the dreams of a free space for media to operate. We look forward to your continued confidence and solidarity, and we commit to working towards ensuring a fully functional and all serving Press Union of Liberia, with a further commitment to helping to make a better platform for democracy and development in Liberia. Happy World Press Freedom Day!
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