Liberia: Minister Samuel Tweah, What Wrong has the Media Committed?

It is not a secret that the Liberian media is suffering from the lack of more quality journalism. But the root cause of this problem is the refusal of the Ministry of Finance under the watch of Samuel Tweah, Jr. to settle government debts owed to the media. 

We say so because the ministry’s action to indefinitely delay paying what legally belongs to the Liberian media is killing the economic viability of independent news media, undermining our ability to invest in newsroom operations, especially human resources. 

Quality journalism is priceless. But producing it costs money in terms of human and material resources.  If the government pays what it owes the media — and in a timely fashion, the media landscape will be stable financially, with sufficient resources to strengthen editorial and institutional independence, capacity to innovate to improve professional standards and deliver quality to all.

Quality journalism, in all its various forms, is a fulfillment of Article 15 of the 1986 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia. Under Article 15, parts (a) and (b) are concerned with the sharing of information — underscoring the freedoms of expression, of speech and of the press, among others. Part (c), however, guarantees “the public right to be informed…” This cardinal “right to be informed” is the reason why Liberia and other democracies have passed auxiliary laws reinforcing freedom of [access to] information. 

Not everyone with a talk show is a journalist and not every media entity does journalism. And in an era where the consuming public anywhere in the world is susceptible to troves of disinformation, it is quality journalism — not propaganda or entertainment — that keeps any society on its bearings.

This is why “economic viability” is an essential pillar of quality journalism, and this is something Tweah knows about.  But to cower the Liberian media into self-censorship, the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, which he leads, has withheld paying debts owed the media for years, under the guise of performing so-called due diligence. Other government parastatals have followed suit, dishing out loads of cash to those whom they please, while the media are put through the government’s tedious process of financial management redtape. 

All we hear is that “Government is looking in the budget for the money.” 

It is for this reason that we pen this Editorial to ask the minister to quickly pay the money the government owes the media. What wrong has the media committed to be subjected to strangulation, when The Ministry of Finance is dishing out hundreds of thousands of US dollars in presidential favors? 

And it is not that the Minister of Finance does not does not have the funds to pay media debt, it does. As we wrote on Sept 26,  The Dark Side Of Press Freedom Under President George Weah, we clearly see this indebtedness not just as a strategy of economic strangulation of the independent press but  indirect suppression of  press freedom.

We strongly believe that Tweah is not willing to promptly settle media debt, so as to keep us poor and without the finance needed to go beyond reporting primarily from press releases and press conferences — seeking to understand, and fact-check 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.

We say so because the Ministry of Finance, under the watch of Tweah, has fast-tracked the payment of nearly US$700,000 to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion University, and United Methodist University simply because President George Weah promised it.

The money in question was released after Weah, while serving as commencement speaker at the graduation exercises of the two universities, respectively, promised that he would reimburse their students' graduation expenses.

Weah’s promise was fast tracked despite not being budgeted for, yet, the media has nearly six years been crying on Tweah to settle government debt obligations.

We close this editorial reminding Tweah that the Daily Observer, like all of the media houses the government owes, is going through severe financial hardship, hindering our ability to fulfill our promise of quality journalism, even though we are striving to do so.  The government owes the Daily Observer US$40,000 and, for some other media houses, the figure is less or more.

Therefore, we are appealing to Tweah and are calling on all those who know him to add their voices to ours to end this draconian strategy of withholding payment of government debt to the media, which has led to the strangulation of quality and independent journalism, undermining the very reforms undertaken to promote freedom of the press and of speech.