Dear President Sirleaf,
The West African Journalists Association [WAJA] and the undersigned media partners and freedom of expression groups wish to express our grave concern over recent threats against media freedom in Liberia by senior state officials, which we strongly condemn. We are also worried about the reported stance of the Office of the President on the matter, which unfortunately is apparently not supportive of media freedom.
Information received from WAJA member, Press Union of Liberia (PUL), indicates that in one of the most recent manifestations of this intolerant attitude, on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) 2013, Mr. Othello Warrick, Director of the Executive Protection Service (EPS), described journalists as “terrorists” and threatened: “Be careful, because you have your pen and we have our guns. And if you incriminate the character or integrity of Liberians, like myself, we will come after you.”
A few days later, on May 12th 2013 Your Excellency was also quoted as stating “I don’t care. If the Journalists like they should continue the protest for one year,” in reaction to a PUL led protest which included a black out of the Presidency. Neither Your Excellency nor Mr. Warrick has denied making these weighty statements.
It is particularly shocking, disappointing and ironic that these statements were made during the celebration of this year’s World Press Freedom Day whose global theme was: Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media. States all over the world were expected to reflect on the theme and identify ways in which to increase media freedoms and create an enabling environment for journalists and media workers to work freely and safely.
Your Excellency, it is regrettable that a senior official of your government has chosen to act against the spirit of the world press freedom day by issuing such threats which unfortunately also indicatearising pattern of impunity against journalists and the media in Liberia,which the PUL has been trying to address as reflected in its invitation to the security sector. Mr Warrick’s comments on World Press Freedom Day and your apparent stance are worrying signalsof your government’s growing intolerance of the watch-dog role of the media as the fourth estate of the realm.
Mr. Warrick’s reference to the use of arms in his statement: “you have your pens and we have our guns” leads us to believe that an armed agency of your Government intends to use harsh tactics to prevent journalists from doing their work.
These statements further signal a worrying state orchestrated interference with the free flow of information, willingness to illegally interfere with the processing of news and ideas without recourse to or respect for any form of legal procedure.
Your Excellency, your position on the media blackout would suggest that your Government is not living up to its obligations under international law to protect and defend the rights of media practitioners and ensure that they are not subjected to any form of disability in the performance of their professional duties. It would accordingly imply that your Government does not intend to promote the free flow of ideas and divergent views.
We respectfully remind Your Excellency that, as a public figure and head of state and government, under international law, you are expected to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny and criticism from the press than other ordinary citizens and that you are in fact expected to tolerate such higher level of scrutiny and criticism.
Your Excellency, you are no doubt aware that the Press Union of Liberia is to host the WAJA Congress scheduled to take place in Monrovia in July this year. As the sub-regional association of journalists and parent body of the Press Union of Liberia, we chose Monrovia based on your Government’s many positive strides, including the passing into law of a Freedom of Information Bill in September 2010, your personal endorsement of the Declaration of Table Mountain in July 2012, and your Government’s accession to the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) Declaration in September 2011.
WAJA also wishes to remind Your Excellency that by the adoption of the Freedom of Information Act, the Government of Liberia has implicitly identified the free flow of information and ideas as being among its main priorities for national development. The Liberia Constitution of 1986, also commits to the fundamental principles of free expression.
We consider the statement of Mr. Warrick repressive and inimical to the exercise of independent journalism, free expression and freedom of opinion while we find your stances on the matter extremely unhelpful. The recent statements run contrary to the spirit with which we chose your country, Liberia as host of our important gathering and will be consulting with the PUL to further consolidate their position on the matter.
We also wish to bring to your attention our unflinching support to the Press Union of Liberia, independent journalists and all media partners in Liberia. WAJA stands by each and every position that the PUL has so far taken in protestand looks forward to the resolution of this crisis.
We the undersigned hereby demand:
A clear and unequivocal statement by the Government of Liberia dissociating itself from the statement credited to Mr. Othello Warrick, Director of the Executive Protection Service.
The Government of Liberia directs Mr. Othello Warrick, Director of the Executive Protection Service to publicly withdraw the statement credited to him, which amounts to undue threat and intimidation against the media community in Liberia and issues a public apology to the Liberian media
The immediate removal of Mr. Othello Warrick as the Director of the Executive Protection Service (EPS) because his conduct is inimical to on-going peace and reconciliation efforts in post-war Liberia in which the Liberian media has been playing a vanguard role
The issuance of a firm assurance by the Government of Liberia on the security and safety of lives and property of journalists and the media in Liberia.
The Government of Liberia should express a clear commitment to freedom of expression and media freedom in Liberia.
Your Excellency, should Warrick’s statements not reflect on your Government’s position on free expression and freedom of the media, we also call on you, to publicly reiterate the Government of Liberia’s commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
1) Association des Editeurs de la Presse Privée (ASSEP), Mali
2) Conseil des Diffuseurs et Editeurs de Presse du Sénégal
3) Federation of African Journalists (FAJ)
4) Gambia Press Union (GPU)
5) Ghana Journalists Association (GJA)
6) International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
7) International Press Centre (IPC), Nigeria
8) La Festival International de la Liberté d’Expression et de la Presse (FILEP)
9) La Société des Editeurs de la Presse Privée du Burkina Faso (SEP)
10) Le Forum des responsables des medias de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (FORMAO)
11) Le Groupement Patronal de la Presse au Mali
12) Maison de la Presse du Mali
13) Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Nigeria
14) Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ)
15) Réseau des journalistes pour la promotion de droits de l’homme, (RJPRODH), Mali
16) Syndicat des journalistes et techniciens de la Communication sociale (SINJOTECS), Guinea Bissau
17) Syndicat des Professionnels de l’Information et de la Communication du Sénégal – SYNPICS
18) l’Union des journalistes indépendants du Togo(UJIT)
19) Union des Radio et Télévision Libres du Mali (URTEL)
Hon Lewis G. Brown, Minister of Information Culture and Tourism, Liberia
Hon. Norris Tweah, Deputy Minister of Information, Liberia
Hon. Edward McClain Jr., Chief of Staff, Office of the President, Republic of Liberia
Peter Quaqua, President, Press Union of Liberia (PUL)
H.E KadreDesiréOuédraogo, President, ECOWAS Commission
H.E Dr. NkosazanaDlaminiZuma, Chairperson, African Union Commission
Faith Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, ACHPR
Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, UN
Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President, World Bank
Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund
Donald Kaberuka, President, African Development Bank
George Soros, Founder and Chairman, Open Society Foundations
Pic: WAJA PRESIDENT MOHAMMED GARBAH