The Dark Side of Press Freedom under President George Weah

WHEN PRESIDENT George Weah told world leaders at the 77th UN General Assembly in New York that his administration had eradicated laws that in the past suppressed freedom of the press, he was not lying.

HIS ADMINISTRATION has strived to promote a vibrant media landscape, and this year, Liberia was ranked 75/180 on the World Press Index, an improvement from 2021, when it ranked 98/180.

THIS IS AN IMPRESSIVE achievement for Weah, whose administration has continued to try and improve the legal and regulatory environment for freedom of expression by repealing the law on defamation and sedition in 2018, adopting several other laws including the Freedom of Information law, and the establishment of the Independent Information Commission.

HOWEVER, these reforms do not mean that the Weah administration has promoted a totally free media, as he wants many to believe. In an environment where criticism of the government and government officials is a normal part of public discourse, this government has found ways to outrightly silence or significantly suppress the impact of some of the most compelling voices in the media landscape.

THIS HAS COME primarily in the forms of regulatory and economic suppression.

THE ECONOMIC cost means the media is always at risk of incurring the anger of the Weah administration, which deliberately refuses to pay its debt obligations to the media. There are those media organizations whose applications for broadcast licenses have been perpetually delayed for no legal reason.

YET, OTHER MEDIA organizations and personalities that are deemed ‘friendly’ by the Weah administration are thriving in the same space, receiving handsome financial and official support from the government. It’s an imperfectly free media environment, in which criticism bears its own social and economic costs.

BY HOLDING ON to payments, Weah and his officials have developed a draconian strategy that has strangulated quality and independent journalism, undermining the very reforms undertaken to promote freedom of the press and of speech.

THE INDEBTEDNESS of the government to the media under President Weah has caused economic strangulation of the independent press and suppression of its freedom to operate amid the rising cost of doing business in the country. This problem is compounded by dwindling advertising revenues — primarily from the government, the largest advertiser.

SUCH UNNECESSARY indebtedness is deliberate and we believes it is a plan to cajole critical media into submission.  The goal here is for each media house in the country to cower to self-censorship, where critical reports or editorials are euphemized, or the advertisement money, which they have already worked for, would be delayed indefinitely.

THE STRATEGY has worked and it is working. It has created a crisis of disparity in the provision of sustainable and independent journalism in Liberia — one that speaks truth to power without fear.

TODAY, THE MEDIA in Liberia — both the mainstream and digital media — have often had to painfully choose survival from extinction over unadulterated independence, a choice that has limited the media’s ability to check the country’s governance systems and investigate issues of importance in lives of ordinary Liberians.

THE RESULT? Newsrooms feel starved of resources to fund quality and independent reporting, directly undermining the credibility of the Liberian media and the belief that journalism is for the public good, amid a growing proliferation of fake news locally.

THE WEAH government is keenly aware that by promptly settling its media debt obligations, media houses will have the funds to go beyond reporting primarily from press releases and press conferences — seeking to understand, and explore government claims of the success in provision of basic services such as safe drinking water, quality health services, education, justice, electricity and many more, for which millions of taxpayers dollars are allocated every year.

SETTLING GOVERNMENT debts to the media would help “information-poor” communities with quality information, thus empowering people to act and take part in the country’s democratic governance.

IT IS NOT THAT the Weah government does not have the funds to do so, it does.

WE SAY SO because the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, under the leadership of Minister Samuel Tweah, has fast-tracked the payment of nearly US$700,000 to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion University (AMEZU), United Methodist University (UMU) and the University of Liberia combined, just because President Weah promised it.

THE MONEY IN question was released after Weah while serving as commencement speaker at the graduation exercises of the AMEZU, and the UMU respectively, promised those universities that he would reimburse their students’ graduation expenses.

AT THE AMEZU graduation, which took place on June 10, Weah paid the fees of all 356 graduates, totaling about US$160,200. This commitment was made despite the fact the students had already paid their graduation fees; thereby, forcing the university to refund the money the students had paid earlier.

ON SEPTEMBER 1, Weah did the same for UMU.  He paid US400,000 as graduation fees for more than 1,300 graduates, who then benefitted from a refund.  And in March, he paid the amount of US$55,800 to the UL to cover all the expenses for 124 students who were graduating from the university’s graduate program.

ALL OF THESE MONIES were paid quickly despite not being budgeted for. The amount combined is significantly more than what the government owes the media in total.

FOR EXAMPLE, the Weah administration owes the Daily Observer approximately US$40,000, and, for the last two years, the Daily Observer has not been able to collect this money despite submitting proof of work countless times and running after each ministry or agency to get updates but to no avail.

THIS AMOUNT includes debts owed by line ministries as well as parastatal organizations such as the National Port Authority (US$2,500), Liberia Airport Authority (US$2,200), and Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation (US$3,950), to name a few.

AT THE END of the day, the Daily Observer, like all other newspapers and other media outlets, continues to suffer from serious financial shock — hampering its ability to intensify efforts toward more inclusive journalism, alternative business models, and diversified revenue streams.

SUCH SUPPRESSIVE delays by the Weah administration violate the UNESCO Windhoek+30 declaration, which principles Liberia endorsed along with UNESCO’s 193 Member States.

THE WINDHOEK+30 declaration underlines media viability as a core principle of information as a public good. But for Weah’s administration, this is not the case.

IF YOU WRITE or publish a story that is critical of the government, you are either denied advertisement, denied payment, or denied access to further government press conferences. You are branded as “unfriendly media.”

WORST CASE, you get an ad to publish and the bill is never paid or it is delayed for months or even years.

SUCH ACTION, therefore, undermines the “viability” of the Liberian media — balancing income and expenses so that the output of journalism can be sustained.

THE INCOME, which comes from dwindling advertising revenues, with the government providing the largest share, is barely sufficient to cover operational expenses including salaries, fuel, newsprint, and other production supplies.  And the case is even worse because the government does not pay its bills on time, something that most non-governmental advertisers have copied.

IF THE WEAH administration does not end its direct and indirect strangulations of the Liberian media, it would shrink the economic viability of the media landscape — undermining democracy, which survives on the strength of the media.

THE NEWS MEDIA plays a central role in Liberia and its traditional function as the “fourth estate” is a critical part of the checks and balances that make democracy work.

DEMOCRACY RELIES on independent and public interest journalism to nourish citizenship, aid open and accountable governance, and expose malfeasance.

DEVELOPMENTAL investments in training and protecting journalists, as well as defending press freedom, are all moot if there is an ever-declining cadre of professionals making their living through public interest journalism.

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