By K. Abdullai Kamara
When the veteran Stanton Peabody and his colleagues organized the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) back in 1964, their challenge then was to ensure that journalists were not jailed for reporting and discussing events of the day. We agree with them, that is why we have maintained this organization across these years. And of course, the challenges of those years have simply gotten worse. Laws that criminalized discussing government are still threatening today, as they were then. Contempt charges by the courts and the legislature still remain a ridiculous show of power, and are not in any way meant to instill respect. Interestingly, most contempt issues have hindered the exercise of speech – Cllr Marcus Jones & Emmanuel Wureh vs the House of Representatives; Peter Quaqua vs Justice Soko Sackor; Rodney Sieh vs the Supreme Court;…regrettably, the authors of our constitution required the legislature to define contempt but after nearly 20 years of order under this constitution, the legislature is yet to responsibly assume this role!
State of the media: In the Liberia of today, the media is threatened by laws which do not conform with the democratic credentials of the 1986 constitution. By all measures, the situation, freedom and respectability of media is a measure of democracy and development, anywhere in the world – it cannot be any different in Liberia. The environment in which media grows is one that does not seek to limit its reportage, for fear that it will bring someone down, or demean someone, who has in effect not been self respecting in any case. In all regions where media is free and fully functional, the living conditions of the people are better, impunity does not lie and there is a reasonable attempt to ensure equitable distribution of national wealth, services and opportunities.
To reach this level in Liberia, we must challenge ourselves to ensure that the legal and operational environment favors the basic measure of democracy. By the account of local and international freedom of expression/press groupings, the situation in Liberia is unfavorable.
True, there is an increase in media opportunities in Liberia, but that is also a reflection of the aspirations of the people and not necessarily a goodwill gesture. Currently, Liberia still runs a statutory regime that criminalizes speech. We have a situation with more than $20m in potential libel claims hanging over media – simply for reporting a fair apprehension of the use of public resources. There is limited will to acknowledge dissent, and the people manning the media have numerous technical and technological limitations. In addition, the media landscape is inundated with many persons who are more interested in the profit side and the prestige generating attributes of journalism than the integrity based, truth telling and society redemption challenges. These we must address.
Even as we have embarked upon this transition, we have been troubled by reports of harassment of media houses, and deliberate acts to undermine their participation in the governance of our communities. These can be corrected, not as an act of kindness or random discretion, but as a responsibility of the government and the society at large to ensure the application of laws to guarantee freedom and justice for all.
On this note, we like to remind the government of its repeatedly announced pledge to initiate actions to repeal criminal libel, criminal malevolence and other unfriendly media linked laws from our books. Towards this effort, is fair to state that we have already been in collaboration with relevant actors, including the Ministry of Information, Culture & Tourism (MICAT) to review the current drafts of the proposed legislations in ensuring that they do not necessarily reflect the choice of the government, but as a reflection of the truly democratic response to media freedom and plurality.
As we assume this dialogue, it is a pleasure to note the presence of members of the legislature, who have also got responsibility to ensure that our laws further the pursuit of justice, freedom and democracy. We tonight obligate ourselves to remain engaged with you in this process.
Responsible Journalism Leadership: We aspire to a broad-based leadership, guided by the effects that people from all persuasions have an obligation to participate. It is only with the widest possible configurations, partnerships and consultations that we can make meaningful inroads into improving our circumstances. Ahead of this task, we are mindful of the absence of a woman in our direct leadership. As troubling as it seems, we can make it better. The other elected colleagues are agreed that involving women in the overall planning and implementation of union activities will make the activities more appealing to all members, and reassure others who see themselves in a minority role that the platform is available for all persons to play meaningful roles in our union. We are also guided by complaints from hundreds of colleagues who work at various community radio stations, especially in rural areas that the union is not responsive to their circumstances. Our concerns are also extended to the hundreds of persons who work at various community radio stations across the country.
As the professional body most visible to the public, we are of the conviction that the inclusiveness we showcase will serve as a telling example to the greater Liberian society.
Our clamor for greater female inclusiveness has nothing to do with other elected persons in the leadership, but a simple attempt to address the historical practices that have held women and minority groups on the margins of society. This injustice is also true among intellectuals, including the media, and must be adjusted in line with inclusive growth and development that have taken over our contemporary world. Whether cherished or bellowed, the roles of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, and other women across the globe show that women can be just as illustrious and controversial as men in the promotion of societal aims.
As a group that seeks to ensure that basic human rights prevail in our society, the Press Union of Liberia has to be wary that our every action must have and project attitudes that promote the rights of all members and the society at large. In keeping with this pledge, it is our desire to ensure that the voices of our sisters and all other disadvantaged groups are heard, and quite loudly. As a guarantee that female journalists serve in the leadership of the Press Union of Liberia, I hereby announce the appointment of three of our most organized and exemplary female colleagues as Chairpersons of 3 Standing Committees of the PUL, and by extension – membership to the Executive Committee – Mrs. Winnie Saywah Jimmy – Membership; Mrs. Carolyn Myers Zoduah – Welfare and Mrs. Tetee Geebro – Sports & Entertainment. In the same token, it is my pleasure to name Messrs Frank Sainworla and Zenu Miller to chair the Media Complaints Committee and the Press Club.
In addition, I commit to working with all committee chairpersons, especially and including the ladies to ensure that their roles are not only in name, but will be remembered for the impact upon the development of the media and setting the agenda for Liberia.
PUL as a Partner in Civil Society: We shall remain proud members of civil society in Liberia by maintaining our engagements and solidarity in standing with the government and other sectors of society to provide totally beneficial and accountable leadership for our country.
There are too many issues that we must keep engaged with: distribution of county development fund; debates on the allocation of national resources; corruption in public service, etc. Unfortunately, this groundswell of public participation has become subject to abuse and manipulation. Too often than not, paid opinions and skewed advocacies have entered the scene, stifling legitimate and meaningful public debates. The media must not only resist this, but has a responsibility to also expose it as a component of bad politics that is bent on keeping our country in a constant state of turmoil.
While we absolutely agree on the right of people to come up with diverse views on issues, but there must be caution when a so-called civil society group suddenly gets created, simply because some oversight body has drawn attention to shortcomings in the work of specific public servants. We cannot afford this.
In this arena, the PUL will work with the media to becomes a lot more relevant in helping to set the national agenda for peace, democracy, human rights, justice and development. In this day in our country, one would feel elated that there is an increasing sense of awareness by the populace, to the effect that they must be a part of the governance process. Our people are only too aware that they must engage the governors to ensure that the right things happen. We fear that if nothing is done to stop the flow of injustice, we just might be rolling over into the cycle of conflict and war. The Press Union under our leadership will always be a part of these efforts!
Our work with the PUL shall aim towards enhancing solidarity with the poor and the downtrodden in all that we do as journalists. The high and mighty already have the means of making their voices heard. This must be compared with the lowly, who need a platform to have their say. We come to this obligation with the hindsight that ours have been a country of undeserved privileges and disproportionate denials and limitations. At one point, you needed to belong to one group or another to participate; at another point, sexual status determined your role; at another point, you were disenfranchised on account of your belief; residence status determines your capacity; domiciliary defines your opportunities, and increasingly, economic status has a wide differential that keeps growing. This is so wrong and lays the premise for further division and conflict in our society. Under our watch, the media is obliged to identify these shortcomings and to participate in whatever activity is available to set the agenda of improving this. Today is to modern a date to continue disenfranchising people for doing nothing wrong. We must insist upon making our work empowering for all.
The next issue for which the PUL insists on participating in the agenda setting is the mid-term elections of 2014. This is an important indicator in our constitutional process, and a new item in our democratic exercise. As with all elections, this is poised to be tense, and the PUL insists on pleading for a peaceful process. To ensure success, we are inclined to remain engaged with the more than 500 journalists across the country to exercise the greatest degree of responsibility and to avoid getting used by unscrupulous people to distract from the core issues of governance, poverty alleviation and the provision of basic social services.
Better Businesses; Improved Condition of Services for Journalists: All of these come in the face of a very daunting situation involving the ordinary journalist who reports fire outbreaks, strike actions, natural disasters, absence of basic social services, corruption, etc. While it is fair to report that more media institutions now boast of several vehicles for key staff, individual computer terminals, basic internet connectivity and well furnished offices, the journalist is still among the lowest paid in Liberia. This is unfortunate, and must change.
We recognize the challenges media institutions have in respect to sales and adverts, but in the very least the conditions in the newsroom must reflect the opportunities we all anticipate for a better Liberia. It is in this respect that we wholeheartedly embrace the process leading to the adoption of a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between news reporters, media owners and the PUL. There cannot be a fairer way of working for better opportunities for journalists.
In support of this, we pledge to work with the advertisers, especially the government, to ensure that their advert distribution process is transparent and procedural. In keeping with this, we are also aware of the distribution and reach of media houses, but we are still aware that some media with severe limitations get a disproportionate advantage of ads. This does not help, and rather draws attention to discrepancies in public service.
We have lately seen a roster of more than 500 bad debtors posted by the Liberia Bankers Association. Our readings have shown only one media house. Even at that, the responsible persons at that institution is lesser known for a media role. It is good news that media houses are not bad debtors, but the hard truth is that media houses have no access to credit. Regardless of the cause of that situation – studying the reason- it does not project the media as an important component of the economy. We can change that. The presence of the Central Bank of Liberia in these events have now signaled the start of a conversation to ensure that media houses and staff access much needed credit to improve their circumstances. Mr. Governor, a pleasure to have you here!
More Professional Journalists: Our work will be hinged towards creating an environment that sees journalism as a full force professional calling – not a transitional one. By this, we hope to nurture the next generation of journalists in Liberia to insist on pursuing the truth, even as it is becoming fashionable to use public platforms as a forum to trade falsehood for dollars. This involves strengthening our professionalism and telling the Liberia story responsibly such that anyone found guilty in the court of public opinion growing out of our reportage is truly guilty by all reasonable standards;
Given that the object of our work is to ensure protection for all journalists, we also endeavor to build the capacity of the journalists to protect themselves. In this way, we propose to work with all
journalists to input the greatest degree of professionalism in their work; Maintain an advancement of the self regulatory posture, including getting universal subscription; and continuing our engagements to improve and strengthen the legal and operating environment for a free and professional media to flourish
A Better Press Union: In this administration, we will aspire to sustain advocacy in ensuring universal acceptance of a free and impartial press in Liberia, and improve popular understanding and appreciation of Freedom of Expression, not only as is applied in Liberia, but in terms of what is expected universally to support democracy, accountability and development.
In this role, we will remain partners in the development of Liberia by engaging the leaders in government and civil society in pursuit of exemplary governance. It is through this that we can fulfill our role of setting the agenda.
But more specifically, as to making the PUL a more professional and inclusive organization, we look forward to strengthening our membership base to cover journalists in all parts of the country, and to further efforts to complete a place all journalists can call home – sooner, rather than later. We are of the firm conviction that the PUL deserves a home, and they should be provided that opportunity to arrange one. That will require partnership with others, but will also require the commitment of all members of the Press Union of Liberia.
Speaking of headquarters, it will be unfair to ignore the clarion call from our members about the $100,000 donated by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf some five years ago. As a professional organization, we insist upon being accountable to our members, the public and our donors. This administration will pursue the matter with a degree of urgency. W e are happy that both Messrs Peter Quaqua and George Barpeen, who have been variously linked to the administration of the money have provided explanations of their roles. Starting with these accounts, we are hopeful of a progressive resolution of this matter in the shortest time possible.
The following oped is a recent Induction address delivered by K. Abdullai Kamara, the newly elected president, Press Union of Liberia December 27, 2013 Executive Pavilion Monrovia, Liberia