One Year Later, Reflecting on the Bold Step to Contest the Presidency for the Press Union of Liberia
The conversation on women active and equal participation at all levels of decision-making remains cardinal to the achievement of equality, sustainable development, peace and democracy and the inclusion of their perspectives and experiences in all sector of society including the media.
By Facia Harris, Full Member, Press Union of Liberia
The number of women in the Liberian media is disproportionately low to their male counterparts. This is reflected even more at the managerial level and to media ownership. A study conducted by LIWOMAC and IREX 2015, titled, “Advancing Women in the Media Strategy”, quotes the Female Journalists Association of Liberia (FeJAL) as saying; there are 16% of women in the media and barely 5% in managerial roles in the newsroom and only three women with ownership rights. At the level of the parent body, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), there has been a single woman presidency since its inception/establishment in 1964. Basically, the representation of women at the body considered the “watchdog” of society is dismal and unimpressive.
However, in a field dominated by male, and entrench in patriarchal practices, there is a gradual increase of women media managers. These women are standing out and challenging the status quo – for example, Helen Nah Sammie – of Women Voices Newspaper; Eva Flomo – ECOWAS Radio; Estelle Liberty Kemoh, Liberia Broadcasting System, Patience Baye Koromah – TOP FM; Tete Kanneh, SPOON FM; Lisa Diasay – WOMEN TV; Aryee Davis – Grain Cost Online TV; Beatrice Sieh- Radio Bushrod D-15 and Bettie Johnson Mbayo – She Writes She Lead. We acknowledge your contributions and leadership in redefining women’s role in the media landscape. Keep Pushing!
There are many reasons and analyses into why the statistics are this way; however, this is not the intent of the writer. I basically want to give the picture of what women’s representation, participation and involvement looks like at the PUL as this was one of the legitimate reasons why, after a series of consultations, I agreed to contest the highest position of the umbrella grouping of the media in Liberia.
It is a year already since the PUL held its leadership elections. It was, perhaps, one of the most contentious elections in the recent history of the PUL. The tensions and aftermaths of the elections still persist, with the Union apparently facing some levels of legitimacy deficits. I take a reflective journey into what the issues were and I shall argue and show how a system was used to deny my candidature as part of my elective rights to participate in the 2019 PUL general elections. Before I go any further, my writing is intended to inspire a discussion around meaningful ways the Union can start to address a) equal participation for all, b) diversification of participation, c) increased representation and participation for women specifically; and lastly d) the need to embolden and institutionalize the legal exercise of members’ rights. This is no way intended to bring the Union into “public disrepute”. As we guard the conscience of the society, it remains our duty to be open to criticisms and public debates, and a conversation amongst ourselves.
On October 25, 2019, I was disqualified by the Elections Committee of the Press Union of Liberia. The Committee relied on Article 4, Section IV of the PUL Constitution, which states: “Public Relations Officers/Managers who were full members of the Union as of the coming into force of this constitution shall continue to remain full members of the Union. They shall vote, but shall not be voted.” The Committee cited this provision without any further explanation than linking my Employment Position (or Job Title) at the Independent Information Commission (IIC) to render its decision. The decision was shocking. In my application to the Elections Committee, I was transparent about my position/title at the IIC. I serve and hold the position/title of “Director for Outreach and Sensitization.” It is a departmental position within the IIC, an institution rightly championed by the Press Union of Liberia and other civil society organizations. As Director for Outreach and Sensitization, I serve within a department, responsible to perform two basic functions, linked to stakeholders’ engagement. The first is to interface with government agencies and institutions to ensure that they understand the Freedom of Information Law. The second is to carry out awareness and sensitization for public servants and the general public on the mandate of the Commission as well as to provide skills to citizens on how they can access the FOI law in terms of the procedures and steps. My work as Director for Outreach and Sensitization is not to defend or launder the image of the commission, which would be a conventional Public Relations (PR) function.
Once more, the provision cited by the PUL Elections Committee quotes Article 4, Section IV of the PUL Constitution as stating: “Public Relations Officers/Managers who were full members of the Union as of the coming into force of this constitution shall continue to remain full members of the Union. They shall vote, but shall not be voted”. I would like to underscore the word Public Relation Officer. The Cambridge dictionary defines Public Relation Officer “someone whose job is to build a good reputation for an organization and manage its relationship with the public”. The Union constitution does not define the term PRO.. This lack of an explicit definition including the nature, scope, characterization and typology of PROs has significant consequences for the creation of spaces of exclusion and the abuse and misuse of institutional powers and authority. For example, the lack of a definition means, it is left at the discretion of the PUL Elections Committee or whoever is appointed as Election Commissioner to decide who is and who is not a PRO. As the incumbent leadership of the PUL has the authority and power to appoint the Elections Committee, it become even more questionable whether individuals or applicants seeking to democratically contest against the PUL incumbents could truly be treated fairly by an Elections Committee in the context of defining elective eligibility. Given what I experienced, it is fair to argue that the Elections Committee of the PUL, to varying extents, either operates at the whims and caprices of the incumbents or it is characterized by vested interests. For example, despite legitimately filing a case of mischaracterization and error of judgment before the Elections Committee, I was never given any semblance of due process by the Elections Committee – as would normally be expected in any democratic process. I will argue, again, the Elections Committee of the PUL saw the less defined term of PRO in the PUL Constitution as an opportunity which it exploited to disqualify me. This was skewed reasoning by those on the Elections Committee and form of structural violence.
Howbeit, the process did not provide for a due process neither a redress. On October 26, 2019 a complaint was filed before the Media Council of the PUL. (briefly state the Media Council is and what it does). I sought the interventions of the Media Council in order for the biased decision of the Elections Committee to be overturned; thereby enabling my legitimate participation as a candidate. Here is the saddest thing: This genuine effort of mine and my team was explicitly undermined despite the interest shown in my case by some of the members. To hear my case, the Council needed a quorum. Whether by design or deliberate show of irresponsibility, a quorum was never obtained or met by the County in order to hold a meeting. Some members of the Council, whom I must commend, did turn out. Unfortunately, other members of the Council that needed to be present to make up the quorum completely stayed away. They refused to honour their job, something that raises serious questions. On two counts (occasions) when the Council convened a meeting, a quorum could not be obtained. This clearly shows how power and authority as embedded in institutions such as the Media Council and the Elections Committee of the Press Union of Liberia can be abused and misused with the view to perpetuate injustice without anyone noticing. In the midst of these unresolved contentious issues and acts of injustice, electioneering activities at the Union were going on. No one did care including the incumbent leadership of the PUL. In the midst of all these and with my team deciding to place an injunction on the elections process, through the relevant judicial court of law, in order to enable “our matter of disqualification” to be heard, a peace talk /intervention was called by many prominent senior members of the media and “interested groups”. We listened! The rest is history; we allowed the process to unfold in the midst of these electoral and constitutional concerns for the “sake of peace”. Our decision was not the first. There have been a number of interventions whenever activities of the PUL such as elections are being taken to or brought before the court of law. Interventions become the game of the rule rather than the rule governing the game in terms structuring rights of full participation.
A year after, what are the takeaways? What are the lessons learned? Do I regret “remaining mute for the sake of peace”? What would I have done differently? These are all questions I have taken months to reflect on. There is simply no straight answer, neither a simple response. However, like I mentioned at the beginning of this reflection of mine, the intent of this writing is to trigger a discourse on “righting the wrongs within the Union” and addressing “the elephant in the room” vis-à-vis the creation and institutionalization of democratic spaces of participation, transparency and accountability. I argue that the Press Union of Liberia and its memberships need to reflect on four issues, going forward.
a) Equal participation for all: Outside of the media, there is a general impression about “freedom of expression for all” as guaranteed under the Constitution of Liberia. However, the cardinal concern is, how participatory is that? The general consensus is that we demand national government to allow for a level playing field that enables journalists to practice without intimidation. Yet, within the Union (PUL), this seems to be restrictive. The participation of members in the Union’s daily activities cannot be limited to a bloc, clique, a geographical locale, and gender etc. It must be open, transparent and participatory. This allows for less assumptions, increased awareness of the Union’s agenda and greater trust between members and the leadership.
b.) Diversification of participation– By the last day of voting, it was noticed that a lot of the Union members many of whom were rural journalists we left out of the verified list. A lot more were contested as the Octavian Williams camp, which claimed that these “journalists did not qualify to vote”. In a strong term, I want to say we should be ashamed of ourselves as members of the PUL if we do not have a verifiable record system that shows who’s a member, (active or not). Or it might not be the case that the PUL does not have a verifiable record system to show in terms of membership, rather that the list is there, and that it is manipulated during elections? I recalled, rural Journalists took offense at a statement from one of the camps when they were referred to terms. All these would have been avoided if there was an automated system that recorded all Journalists and members of the Union and could in the same way regularize their status. Lest we forget, Monrovia, is not Liberia. A vibrant Union is one that covers every single member regardless of what geographical locale they reside. The PUL has since been expanding into rural territories, this must be recognized, however this process needs to consider several other factors of define total inclusivity.
c. Increased participation for women specifically: There remains a common confusion amongst some media colleagues on increased women’s participation and general involvement in decision making. Dominant opinion amongst some male colleagues is that “women are less exertive” than their male colleagues. However engrained these opinions are, they do not reflect the truths/facts. Personal experiences have shown, to be considered “good enough” for a reporter role lest say managerial role, a woman would have worked thrice as hard as her male colleague “proving to a biased team that you’re good enough”. In many other instances, women are paid less, disproportionate to their male colleagues. We do understand decent pay for work in the media is still a sensitive issue as the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is yet to be endorsed by media owners. However, it within this pyramid, female journalists are at the bottom. What can we do differently? How can we contribute to an equal work space? What incentives do we provide to allow for more women in the media? I had like to propose to the PUL to commission a study and see which institutions are paying women low or as compared to men in the same system.
On a separate note, a very sensitive yet germane conversation that needs our collective attention and action is the high rate of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) in the newsroom. Young enterprising women are often threatened and exposed to sexual advancement and harassment as a ladder to grow in the profession by some male colleagues and managers- with some male colleagues being sexual predators on these women. Experiences from some community radio female colleagues are way more upsetting and embarrassing. Some female colleagues have complained of being sexually harassed and exploited with many being used as “bait” to collect “great stories”. Either way, this is problematic and troubling. How can we lead on national SEA conversations when as a body these concerns are right in our faces? How can a female journalist thrive and become competitive to her male counterpart when she’s being subjected (in many instances coerced) to sexual harassment and abuse? These unhealthy conditions and environments do not allow for competitiveness than subjugation.
d.) Embolden and institutionalize the legal exercise of members’ rights: The media remains a critical voice and has in many instances encouraged the exercise of the rule of law. There is a need for institutional fairness in decision making. Once we failed in handling issues in a fair manner, members will result to the Courts, then the question we left to answer is who is the best to interpret the PUL Constitution, the PUL or the Court? One may answer that the Court is good, but disputes in organizations are largely negotiated outside the Court to avoid institutional reputational damage on issues such as elections.
A year after, as I reflect on this journey, I’m of the strongest opinion that no member of the PUL should be ignored
I wish to reiterate that increased women’s participation is not a take away from men. Rather, it is in the best interest of institutional growth and the growth of a segment of its membership – women. There has to be deliberate and innovative ways to address what keeps female journalists at the bottom of “the pyramid”. The conversation on SEA must not be at the convenience of our advocacy. It has to be deliberate and ongoing conversations until the both sexes are on par.
Additionally, we must encourage fuller participation of members from every spectrum of the country – in fact, what constitute full and equal participation of all members must be an engendered conversation and the benefits therein for members. How do we target different counties for different program interventions, should we? Should stimulate a process that allows a more technical way to look at the way the Union conducts activities “diversification”.
Lastly, I like to ask, when will the PUL be ready to have a conversation with itself about the issues that came out the recent election? When will we start the constitution review to incorporate the current context of the media landscape and reflect the membership? Are we waiting to prey on the ambiguity of the constitution to silence members and regulate participation?
Many thanks to everyone who made the process last year engaging and believe we can lead the much needed change desirous of all members of the Press Union of Liberia. Let’s continue the quest together. To those who challenged and criticized us, thank you. We can together agree and disagree for the forwardness of the Union. We need you on our side. “It’s much better, much better to talk to one another, than talk about one another” Angela Merkel.
…..toward a vibrant and inclusive media, we labour.