The long-existing suspicion and distrust between the media and the security sector may wither away soon, now that the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) is taking steps towards bridging the gap between the two.
At a one-day forum held on March 6, through the instrumentality of ACSS with support from the United States Embassy, representatives of various security apparatuses and some members of the Liberian media met for the first time and shared views as to why they do not share information to enlighten the public.
Although the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf-led Administration has given the much needed press freedom to the media and has signed a series of documents including the Table Mountain Declaration and the Freedom of Information Act, there has always remained difficulties in receiving information from security institutions including the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), the Liberia National Police, (LNP) the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, (BIN) amongst others.
At the forum, security personnel accused the media of ethical issues including failure to protect source and publishing of sensational stories that are not balanced and lack elements needed to substantiate the idea portrayed in headlines.
A member of the Armed Forces of Liberia indicated that most journalists in the country do not ascertain their stories before publishing; instead, they hastily rush to put unbalanced stories in the newspaper or on the radio.
According to the AFL personnel, when the Armed Forces of Liberia was sending a troop to Mali last year, the troop could not leave the day speculated in the media, but another day.
“Instead of following the issue to report the actual day the troop departed the ground, the speculation was published and there was no follow-up. This makes us reluctant to believe information coming from the media,” the AFL personnel noted.
Clarifying why security including the AFL does not just release information to the media for public consumption, Capt. Dessaline F. Allison, Chief of Public Affairs of the Armed Forces of Liberia said information is preserved in order to secure their operational activities which enemies do not need to know.
Citing a reference to the crisis in the Ivory Coast, Capt. Allison said the Government of Liberia has committed itself to securing the border so that no Liberian or any rebellious group will cross to cause trouble in that country, but if suspects are caught, they cannot bluntly come out to announce to the public through the media because it will undermine the diplomatic relations between the two countries.
According to him, the GOL's Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) does not permit its public relations aparatus to put out certain information that may undermine the state, and as such the media will always blame government for not giving out information the public needs.
Media practitioners at the forum in separate views also accused the security sector of intimidation and refusing to give information when requested.
They said as a result of the poor relation exhibited by people in the security sector, they (media practitioners) go ahead and publish what they observe instead waiting for the other side of the story.
The six-hour discussion, however, reached a consensus wherein the security sector and media agreed to work together in sharing publishable information and upholding information that may have security implications on the state.
Speaking earlier at the opening of the forum, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Sheila Paskman noted that government does not have to disclose everything to the press because of some legitimate reasons associated with state security.
She cautioned the media to be credible and uphold its integrity by reporting balanced and accurate stories.
Ms. Paskman said if readers do not see credible information in the news article, they will lose interest in reading the paper or listening to the station; noting that journalists have to strive to write balanced stories to arouse readers’ interest.
For Colonel Thomas Dempsey of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “relationships between the media and government are very important in building democracy—especially the security sector.
The forum was themed and styled: “Strategic Role of the Media in Security Sector Reform,” and based on this theme, Col. Dempsey said the Africa Center for Strategic Studies was bringing journalists and personnel of the security sector together to build a relationship through which the public will be involved with knowing what the state security is all about.
Mr. James Momo, a former reporter of the Inquirer Newspaper now working with the ACSS told media practitioners that they have to consider that confidentiality was important in Journalism and that not all information is meant to be published.
He said reporting on security requires accuracy and balancing like any other story, and therefore Journalists should build credibility and integrity by reporting fairly and in a balance manner.
Meanwhile, the security sector in Liberia has been confidentially treated with not much information coming from there to the public.
As a result, civilians perceive it to be more delicate—that acquiring information from there is illegal and would lead to grave consequences.
With the new phenomenon emerging in building a relationship with the media, the phobia may be erased if the relationship is nurtured and consolidated.