The President and members of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas,
Officials of the Liberian Government, Officials of United States Government,
Representatives of the Press Union of Liberia and other Liberian based professional and civil society organizations, Representatives of other United States based professional and civil society organizations, and
Other distinguished ladies and gentlemen
I bring you greetings from the oldest Republic on the African Continent, the Republic of Liberia, the country bequeathed to us by our forefathers and foremothers, of diverse origins and backgrounds, united in the claim that the country founded on the hope of freedom and equality of all human beings belongs to all citizens equally and determined to resist the marginalization of any group of citizens, on the basis of the status of birth as a male or female or family origin, creed, language or any other identity.
All of us Liberians both at home and abroad cherish the hope that we can honestly say without any fear of the slightest contradiction that we are citizens of a great country. In this dream, all Liberians are united in the hope that all Liberians, especially those who are elected or appointed to positions of trust, will put the interest of Liberia first above personal interest or family interest, because it is only by placing our country first that we can build a better Liberia that is peaceful, progressive, productive and prosperous.
In this kind of Liberia peace will always be sustained by Liberians who have the basic minimum of regular meals, decent shelters, good medical care, good schools for their children, good road networks for freedom of movement, tolerance and respect as well as protection of the differences of views privately and publicly expressed and leaders who govern based on the interest, will, wishes and aspirations of the people as expressed by them through votes and free expressions.
Liberia is a country that is unique in its dream for democracy and respect for human rights, not only because its founders were motivated by the desire to govern themselves and serve as a beacon of hope for all oppressed people of color, as well as, the fact that it is called Liberia, the land of liberty for all. But also, Liberians are connected by one word that shows that the holding of a point view is an inherent part of being a Liberian. My research has revealed to me that the word keh or keeh means the same in the Kwa languages, the Mende languages, and the Mel languages of Liberia. Keh or keeh means butin every existing Liberian language. This means that even if a Liberian agrees with an opinion he or she will give a concurring opinion; therefore, to have a point of view on every issue is an inherent and natural part of being a Liberian. To disagree or not accept everything at face value is a natural part of every Liberian citizen. It is important for Liberian political leaders to understand this inherent characteristic of being a Liberian.
I also bring you greetings from the Liberian National Bar Association, the oldest bar association on the African Continent, and the oldest professional organization in Liberia, having being established in 1907. The LNBA is in solidarity with the Liberian people in their collective dreams and aspirations to make Liberia a better country. The LNBA also considers its role in the realization of the Liberian dream to be playing a leading role in promoting adherence to the rule of law and respect for the human rights of all Liberians. The LNBA is aware that lawyers cannot perform in chaos; therefore, lawyers know that they must do everything professionally possible to sustain the peace through the promotion of adherence to the rule of law.
The journalists of Liberia, over the years, have played a meaningful role in the general effort to attain, maintain and sustain peace and democracy in Liberia. By their investigative reporting they have, over the years, exposed the ills of society, largely, committed by Liberians in positions of trust. During the military rule and the civil conflict, Liberian journalists were investigating and reporting on the excesses of military, political leaders and warlords. For their commitment to investigative reporting, many of them were arrested, tortured and some were even killed. For those journalists who paid the ultimate price, I ask all in the audience to stand in one moment of silence to their memory.
Members of the Liberian National Bar Association are very grateful to the leaders and members of the ALJA for inviting me, in my capacity as president of the LNBA to speak to you on this wonderful occasion. It is not an overstatement to say that the LNBA is a natural ally of the Press Union of Liberia and by extension ALJA, as many of its members have provided legal representations for many Liberian journalists over the years.
For this great evening, climaxing three days of hard work, you have asked me to speak to you on the topic: The Role of the Media in The Sustenance of the Liberian Democracy. In order to deal with this topic with some degree of clarity, I must first begin by raising the issue of whether or not the Liberian media has a role to play in the sustenance of the Liberian democracy. My answer to this question is a resounding yes. The question that logically follows this answer is what is or should be the role of the Liberian media in the sustenance of democracy in Liberia. My short answer is to report the truth and to place the interest of Liberia first in the performance of their duties in information gathering, analysis and dissemination, even if bullet is placed to their breasts. These are my brief and honest answers to the questions imbedded in the topic I was asked to speak on tonight. However, because I believe that brevity will not do justice to the topic, I will say a little bit more on the topic. In order to get to the truth of any issue that the media reports on, it must say to the public what happened, where it happened, when it happened, who did it or is suspected of doing it, why it happened, what were the circumstances surrounding, what happened, what law, rule, regulation, ordinance or custom was broken, whether what happened has ever occurred in Liberia; If yes, then, when did it happen and what was done to deal with what happened; if no, then, find out whether what happened has occurred in another country and if yes, then find out and report on how it was dealt with and what happened in that country following the manner in which what happened was dealt with. Having gathered the foregoing information, the next steps should be to inquire from experts in the specific field regarding what happened, such as former and current civil servants and government officials, lawyers, journalists, researchers in the field, professors, or religious or traditional leaders, if what happened has religious or cultural dimensions or implications.
It appears that what I have given the media tonight is a long shopping list. Liberian history has also shown that the process of obtaining the truth and reporting the truth can be very difficult and sometimes life-threatening. But these difficulties and risks should not be and cannot be a justification for reporting to the public what is not true. Lying to the public in the use of the radio, television or newspaper or even, the social media could lead to the promotion of disputes between individuals, tribal and religious communities, or among government officials, officials of government and the people they serve, and thereby promote mass disenchantment and undermine peace and stability in Liberia.
Democracy cannot be sustained in chaos. Therefore, if falsehood has the propensity to cause chaos, then journalists must commit themselves to reporting the truth under all circumstances. In Liberia, most often, some government officials and even persons out of government who engage in wrongful conducts, tend to complain about every information that is given by the media, irrespective of whether or not such information is true. Some even say, irrespective of the fact that what is reported is true, it is not every information that should be given to the public because some information tend to make Liberia look bad, thereby suggesting that the media should engage in cover-ups or give information to the public in ways that make Liberia look good on the world stage. Some even go to the extent of blaming the media for driving away investors. But it is important to note here, tonight, that it is not the manner in which a particular story is reported that makes Liberia look bad. It is always the story itself. If an act or conduct that is reported on is bad, there is nothing that a media institution can do, without violating the ethics of journalism, to make Liberia look good in reporting it. The blame for stories that make Liberia look bad must always be squarely placed on the perpetrators of the bad acts and conducts that are reported on and not the media. (Emphasis supplied). Therefore, the media must always remain on the side of reporting the truth as a way of sustaining peace and democracy in Liberia.
In reporting the truth, the media must report the whole truth and not half-truth. Before a story is reported, the journalist reporting the story should conduct a full investigation of all aspects of the story in order to adequately inform the public. If the story being reported is breaking news, then the media should keep the public informed about the events connected to the story as they unfold. The obligation to report the truth, especially about the actions of government officials, is a fulfillment of the right of the people to know about their government and its functionaries as provided under article 15(c) of the Constitution of Liberia. This article provides, amongst other things, “… there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries.” In other words, the people have a right to know about their government and its functionaries and the media has an obligation to inform the people about the truth of what their government and its functionaries do.
The Liberian media now has no more excuse for not reporting the truth about the government and its functionaries because the laws that criminalized free expression in Liberia have been repealed. Last year, President George Weah spearheaded the repeal of Sedition, Criminal Malevolence and Criminal Libel against the President. These were the laws that made it difficult, over the years, for Liberians to speak and write freely about their government and its functionaries. These laws do not exist anymore.
Sometimes when I hear threats by officials of government about criminal actions for comments in the media about the government that they do not like, I wonder whether they know that there is no law any more in Liberia that criminalizes speech. Another law that has created an enabling atmosphere for the media to report the truth is the freedom of information Act. This law places an obligation on those in the public service and the private sector who possess information that is of public interest to disclose them when requested to do so by journalists and others engaged in advocacy, research and reporting, except for information regarding national security, diplomacy and trade secrets. Given that the media no more has any legal constraint in reporting the truth, journalists should exert all efforts to get to the bottom of every story and not rush to report a story without conducting full investigation. The harm that may be done by not reporting a full story is greater than the harm that may be done by any delay in reporting a story.
The obligation to report the truth is not restricted to the private media, but is also, equally on the government media. Government media entities should resist all temptations to give false information to the public because such conduct undermines the integrity of government media and the credibility of any information that is given by the government.
In addition to the commitment to report the truth, the Liberian media should publish the truth in decent words. In other words, the media should avoid using insulting words and disparaging language about newsmakers. Such a manner of reporting the truth undermines the importance of the truth that is being reported. Like falsehood and disparaging language tend to undermine the integrity of the media and to discourage the public about the media. One cardinal consideration, in this regard, is the children. Children must be protected from learning to use indecent words, through the media. This appeal for decency in the use of the media goes to all users of the mass media, including the independent press, government press, and supporters as well as non-supporters of government who use the media.
My plead tonight, therefore, as someone who has over the years provided legal services to so many journalists and media institutions before law enforcement institutions and the courts, is for the Liberian media to always report the truth and to do so in decent words. This is the role that the Liberian media must play in sustaining peace and democracy in Liberia.
The Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas, many of whose members are not engaged in active journalism, should undertake initiatives to assist active practicing journalists to remain committed to reporting the truth. I suggest that ALJA raise funds to support active practicing journalists and the media institutions they work with. I suggest two objectives to ALJA for raising funds. One, ALJA should be ready to support the legal defense of journalists and media institutions whenever they get into trouble for performing the duties. Two, ALJA should encourage journalists and media institutions that report the truth and indecent words, by giving awards to those who do what is right.
The Liberian National Bar Association under our administration will remain a committed partner of the Press Union of Liberia and all actors in the Media, including the Association of the Liberian Journalists in the Americas and users of the social media in the collective struggle of the Liberian people for sustaining peace and democracy in Liberia. Over the years, the Liberian National Bar Association has been promoting adherence to the rule of law in various ways. This administration of the Liberian National Bar Association has made a clear commitment to provide general counsel to the Government of Liberia, the Civil Society and the business community on adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights. Let me highlight a few things that the LNBA has done in this regard. We provided legal advice for members of the civil society who demonstrated for accountability for the missing 16 billion Liberian Dollars and the June 7 demonstration by cautioning the organizers of the demonstrations to conduct themselves, peacefully. We also cautioned the government of its legal obligation to protect the demonstrators and the result was that there was not a single incident of violence.
Early this year, the Liberian National Bar Association at its 2019 Assembly held in Kakata, Margibi County, unanimously voted to support the full implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission including the establishment of the extraordinary tribunal for war and economic crimes. Subsequently, the LNBA produced a draft bill for the establishment of the tribunal through a special committee of five lawyers chaired by Dr. Jallah Barbo, an eminent Liberia jurist. The draft was subjected to a rigorous review by legal scholars in Europe and the United States, amongst others, and representatives of the civil society and the final draft will soon be completed. Currently, the LNBA is engaged in providing free legal services to the indigent, especially those in pre-trial detention, through the legal Aid Committee headed by Cllr. Joyce Reeves Woods and the committee have done a great job in releasing so many prisoners from pre-trial detention. The work of the legal aid committee is supported by the USAID through its legal Assistance and Anti-Corruption program (LPAC) implemented by Chichi Consulting, Inc. The Legal AID Committee is also collaborating with the Carter Center on legal aid to the poor. Additionally, the LNBA with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights just completed a project under the title “ Justice First.”. The focus of the project was on the creation of community awareness on the Constitution, statute laws of Liberia, human rights and the procedures for gaining access to justice. The Justice First Project was executed under the chairmanship of Cllr. Finley Karngar.
Based on the quality of work the LNBA is currently doing in Liberia, its profile has been raised so high that it has inspired the confidence of the African Bar Association to be the chosen host of the 2019 Annual Conference of the African Bar Association. The request for the LNBA to host the annual conference of the AFBA was made when the conference could not be held in Cairo due to the difficulties experienced by delegates in obtaining visas to enter Egypt.
With the support of the Government of Liberia, the LNBA accepted to host the conference. Currently, the government has promised to grant gratis airport visas to all delegates of the African Bar Association upon arrival in Liberia. The government has also placed at the disposal of the LNBA, the Conference Hall of the Ministerial Complex for the 2019 Conference of the AFBA. I want to publicly thank the Government of Liberia for assisting the LNBA to host the 2019 Annual Conference of the African Bar Association. This is the first time since the establishment of the Liberian National Bar Association in 1907 that it will be hosting such a major international conference of lawyers from Africa and other parts of the world. I want to publicly thank the Chairman of the Local Organizing Committee of the conference, Cllr. J. Bima Lansanah and members of his committee for the great work that they are doing for the success of this historic conference.
Once again, I want to appeal to the Liberian media to remain committed to the truth in the performance of its duties. With the media’s uncompromising commitment to reporting the truth under all circumstances and the Liberian National Bar Association’s commitment to promoting respect for the rule of law and human rights in Liberia, peace and democracy will be sustained in Liberia and Liberia will experience progress and prosperity for all Liberians.
I thank you
Main Photo: Liberian Bar President, Comrade T.S. Gongloe