Liberia: Upholding Press Freedom in A Thriving Democracy

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this commentary are solely of the author and do not necessarily represent that of the Daily Observer newspaper.

From UNDP

Liberia declared independence in 1847 and immediately instituted a democratic form of governance. This, however, started off as a single party democracy which lasted for more than four decades and was followed by almost a decade of military rule.

Multi-party democracy through free and fair elections materialized in 2005 after a decade and a half of civil conflict that threatened the very existence of the nation and its democratic foundation. The country’s first democratic succession from one party to another took place in 2017 after more than 170 years of nationhood.

Chapter three, Article 15 of the country’s Constitution and the proceeding sub-subsections, provide the foundational principle and guarantee of individual and collective rights to exercise freedom of speech in a form and manner consistent with international best practice. The government continued to 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.

Liberia is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), article 19 of which embodies the principles of free speech.

Furthermore, the Press Union in 2016 instituted a National Media Council which developed a Code of Conduct that allows journalists and media organizations to self-regulate.  The country has a vibrant media landscape, with more than 40 newspapers, including online publications, and 130 radio and television stations, according to Reporters without Boundaries (RSF). This year, Liberia was ranked 75/180 on the World Press Index, an improvement from 2021, when it ranked 98/180. This is impressive.

Democracy thrives where freedom of speech and expression are upheld. It is therefore fitting that the UN, this year, dedicated the International Day of Democracy  (September 15) to “Protect Press Freedom for Democracy”. The media is critical for creating space for people to express their views, giving voice to the voiceless including groups such as the youth, women, and people with disabilities, all of whom are marginalized but critical for achieving the SDGs. The media is key to facilitating inclusivity and participation of the whole of society in democratic processes and governance. 

One of the intrinsic principles of democracy is that the institutions of governance must be transparent and accountable, and governed with integrity. While the Liberian media are undoubtedly progressive in reporting and highlighting issues affecting the society, there is a need to step up their watchdog role to help national institutions foster a more deeply entrenched culture of transparency, accountability, and integrity. 

Both mainstream and digital media, including social media, should foster deeper inquiry into how the country’s governance institutions function and their effectiveness in delivering services to the people of Liberia. 

While Liberia has made significant progress in establishing integrity institutions in its post-war era through the Anti-Corruption, Governance, Human Rights and Auditing Commissions, these institutions are yet to reach their optimal potential. The media are in a unique position to raise difficult questions on behalf of the people of Liberia on whether key governance institutions are performing optimally to improve the lives of ordinary Liberians and to achieve the objectives set out in the country’s Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development.

The media must also take full advantage of the conducive working environment in the country to go beyond traditional reportage on civil and political rights, and seek to understand, explore, and highlight Liberia’s progress towards achievement of the SDGs, holding to account the various duty bearers. More must be reported about access to basic services such as safe drinking water, quality health services, justice, and so on, as this is the essence of the SDGs.

The media should also proactively look for and tell the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help solve the multiple development challenges the country faces. This can help motivate more citizen-inspired action. Over and above this, the media should also ratchet up its role in informing and educating citizens; this can help empower people to act and take part in the country’s democratic governance.

As we approach the 2023 Presidential and General elections, we all have a collective responsibility to ensure that the civic space required for all citizens to freely express their opinions and ideas is safeguarded. It will be a great testament of Liberia’s maturing democracy to see peaceful dialogue between all stakeholders - government, citizens, political parties, the private sector, and other interest groups – on the choices to be made to promote the country's development. The media can play an important role in promoting and mediating these debates and discussions.

Finally, we applaud steps taken by Government to increase access to information on its programmes and activities, including the budget. It is important to continue moving in this direction, which is critical for empowering citizens and enabling meaningful participation in discussions and decision-making on public-policy issues.

Despite the challenges which remain, Liberia is on a good path to strengthening its democracy. Continued investments in ensuring and safeguarding freedom of expression and freedom of the media will not only help to consolidate the gains made by the country but will also contribute significantly to the achievement of the SDGs and the goals outlined in the PAPD. A credible press working in tandem with the government, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders augurs well for the country’s future.