The constitutional and human rights lawyer, Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe, has recommended that if journalists should be licensed, the National Legislature must create an independent media commission to do so.
Cllr. Gongloe’s comment comes in the wake of decision government has made to license journalists beginning January next year before they can practice in Liberia.
This is an entirely new development in Liberia. Not even during the Tubman administration, on which was often hard on the press, did the Department of Information and Cultural Affairs (now Ministry) or any other government entity attempt to license journalists.
The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) that is an advocacy umbrella for journalists has reacted to this decision and described it as an attempt to curtail freedom of speech and of the press.
Counselor Gongloe admitted that with the idea of licensing journalists is not wrong. He mentioned lawyers and medical doctors and nurses as among professionals who are licensed before they can practice.
He said it existed as a law in Liberia that the Ministry of Information regulated the media, but a memorandum of understanding was reached during the interim administration of Dr. Amos Sawyer and that of convicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor, that the Press Union of Liberia polices its members.
Cllr. Gongloe said the PUL had not fulfilled that role, neither had the Union come down hard on its members who behave in an unprofessional matter. So while agreeing that the policy needs to be maintained, that is not the role of government; rather it is the National Legislature who should create a independent media commission to regulate the media.
Taking into account the current Ebola crisis in the midst of which the President is seeking more powers, the move by the Information Ministry to license journalists creates suspicion, the counselor averred.
“The timing for this regulation is wrong,” he declared, adding, “Whether the government has a good intent for licensing journalists in order to promote excellence in Journalism, the intent will not be felt now considering the prevailing situation.”
The closure of National Chronicle newspaper during the current state of emergency makes the licensing of journalists even more suspect, Cllr. Gonglore said.
He said the government of President Ellen Johnson Sireleaf, since her ascendancy, has been encouraging press freedom, and has gone as far as signing the Table Mountain Declaration.
The government needs not to reverse this policy now, but should wait and find an appropriate time after the Ebola state of emergency to ask the Legislature to create a media commission, similar to the Independent National Human Rights Commission.
Cllr. Gongloe noted that while freedom of press is good for an open society, it also has its bad side that makes it necessary for regulations to be in place.
Making reference to Rwanda, he said prior to the 1994 genocide there was free press that propagated hate messages which caused millions of people of one group to be killed.
“Licensing journalists is not a violation if there is a law that calls for that. One needs to be licensed before practicing Journalism as Law is. The only problem is the timing, and if government can do it without the existing MOU, the Legislature, after the state of emergency, must create a media commission that will carry on such regulations,” the counselor maintained.