LIBERIA: On World Press Freedom Day, Africa’s Oldest Republic Still Struggling to Get It Right

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LAST MONTH, President George Manneh Weah took a bold and controversial step when he presented a recently-constructed modern edifice to the Female Journalists Association of Liberia (FeJAL) as its headquarters.

THE GESTURE, while unprecedented, raised a lot of eyebrows due to the proximity of the building so close to the President’s 48-unit multi-million dollar complex and a church aptly named the Forky Jlaleh Family Fellowship Church. Both edifices have drawn the president in a line of fire amid questions about regarding his failure to declare his assets and issues of how he secured the money to build these massive structures – less than a year into his presidency.

MR. WEAH’S PREDECESSOR, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in 2008 – two years after taking office, donated US$100,000 for the construction of the headquarters of the Press Union of Liberia.

GESTURES ASIDE, the press in Liberia has come under immense fire from authorities in recent years. It is a history, the nation founded by freed American slaves have struggled to come to terms with even as those at the helm of power undertake such gestures in hopes of making amends with the Fourth Estate.

LIBERIA IS OLD – AND TURNS 172 this year.

SINCE DECEMBER 1993 WHEN UNESCO’s General Conference recommended that the third of May each year which falls on the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek be celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day, Liberia has joined the world in celebrating the day, offering an opportunity for members of the Fourth Estate to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

THIS YEAR’S THEME IS Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation is discussing current challenges faced by media in elections, along with the media’s potential in supporting peace and reconciliation processes.

THE MEDIA PLAYS A VITAL role in the development of any society, which is why it is important that whoever is at the helm of power ensures that the rights of journalists are protected at all cost.

SADLY, TODAY, the story remains the same.

FROM THE DAYS William V.S. Tubman, who battled veteran pioneering journalist and crusader Albert Porte, to Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and now George Manneh Weah, journalists often find themselves in the line of fire.

THE COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALIST in observing this year’s celebration laments: “It can be discouraging to see press freedom increasingly threatened around the globe, but the resilience of these reporters keeps us motivated, and the stakes for a free press have never been higher. This year to date, CPJ has counted at least five journalists who have been killed in the line of work — three of whom were singled out for murder in direct retaliation for their reporting.”

ANTONIO GUTERRES, Secretary General of the United Nations states: “No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”

IN THE PRACTICE of their craft, journalists in Liberia continue to endure immense attacks for performing their work. Many have been jailed, killed while scores have found themselves in exile.

THIS WEEK, CPJ took the Weah-led government to task and expressed concerns over a $500,000 civil defamation lawsuit filed against the Roots 102.7 FM radio station and two of its hosts by the Liberian minister of state for presidential affairs, Nathaniel McGill and continuing the trend of civil lawsuits against media institutions and journalists.

ANGELA QUINTAL, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator noted: “Civil defamation lawsuits involving massive claims for damages remain a major challenge to press freedom in Liberia. Nathaniel McGill should stop trying to harass or bankrupt Roots FM and its journalists, and the government of President George Weah should build on its successful repeal of criminal defamation and sedition from Liberia’s penal code by reforming civil defamation laws.”

MINISTER MCGILL’S LAWSUIT filed in the Montserrado county civil court, alleges that Roots FM, Costa, and Saydee “slandered, badmouthed, vandalized and vilified” people for political gain by alleging financial improprieties surrounding the 2017 Liberian elections. The filing calls the Henry Costa Show “a very divisive program that rivals the pre-1994 Radio Rwanda style of broadcasting.”

MCGILL TOLD CPJ via WhatsApp that he filed the suit to clear his name and denied that the show’s claims fell under the umbrella of press freedom.

IRONICALLY, Liberia has repealed its criminal defamation laws but civil suits demanding large damages still result in the closure of news outlets and jail time for the accused for nonpayment.

WHILE ACKNOWLEDGING concerns over the state of the media in Liberia and international condemnation, Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe told CPJ that the government was considering placing “reasonable limits” on damages in civil defamation cases, and said that such cases should not result in imprisonment, but added, “freedom of speech is not freedom to destroy character and malign people.”

CPJ NOTES that the minster’s comment echo the concerns of a 2018 report by David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which called on Liberia to “establish strict limits on damages available” in defamation suits. In two instances earlier this year, Roots FM was temporarily forced off-air after its radio transmitter was sabotaged and then stolen, as CPJ reported at the time and last April FrontPageAfrica fell prey to a frivolous lawsuit involving the publication of a land notice which had all the markings of a political undertone.

AS THE WORLD OBSERVES World Press Freedom Day, we hope that the Weah-led government would go beyond donations of modern edifices to media institutions like FEJAL and go a step further in putting its words into action. WE CAN NEVER lose sight of the real issues dogging journalists while allowing them to be eclipsed by sugar-coated presentations mired in nagging controversies and conflict of interest.

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