UN Expert Urges Gov’t Commitment to Free Media

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UN Special Rapporteur Kaye with a top UNMIL Human Rights official

“Vibrant and sustainable media not possible amid laws that criminalize the work of journalists and the lack of funding…” 

A visiting United Nations official says Liberia has made meaningful progress in the areas of freedom of expression, media independence and government transparency, but the country needs to lock in and expand the gains made in the years since the cessation of hostilities over 15 years ago.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye said this expansion is incumbent upon measures that the new government needs to institute—some of which have no monetary attachment  but political will by the country’s top leadership.

Among the many issues highlighted by Mr. Kaye include the defamation law and indebtedness of government to media houses, which tends to strangulate their operations.

“Liberia needs a vibrant and sustainable media but these are not possible in the midst of some challenges such as laws that criminalize the work of journalists and the lack of funding for journalists to carry out their activities and also live better lives,” the UN Rapporteur said at a press conference in Monrovia over the weekend. He jointly addressed the conference along with Mr. Marcel C. Akpovo, Chief Human Rights and Protection Service at UNMIL.

The strength and diversity of the media, he noted, depend on more than just legal change, though that is foundational,” Mr. Kaye said, adding, “In the face of poor working conditions and extremely limited funding and equipment, the media, governmental actors, and international donors should collaborate to improve the sustainability and professionalism of journalism in Liberia.”

After a week-long interaction with stakeholders, he said the new administration’s commitment to freedom of expression deserves the strong support and encouragement of all sectors of Liberian society and the international community.

“Liberia has come a long way since the civil war, and the space for open and indeed vibrant debate in the country is remarkable,” Kaye said.

In such a moment, Mr. Kaye said, strengthening guarantees in law would signal globally that Liberia is indeed, in President Weah’s phrase, ‘open for business.’

At the top of the priority list should be the decriminalization of defamation, in keeping with basic international and regional standards, and the transformation of the state broadcasting system into an independent public broadcasting service, he said.

In 2010 government passed “The Access to Information” Act, but the UN Rapporteur said it depends on political will for its implementation. “I particularly urge the authorities to actively disclose and disseminate information, through online mechanisms, regular press briefings, and other tools.

Accordingly, this is the moment to lock in the gains that have been made. And this is also the message which Rapporteur Kaye said he understood from President Weah’s inauguration speech. President expressed a strong commitment to freedom of expression. With a nod to the role of the legislative branch, he noted, “Together, we owe our citizens clarity on fundamental issues such as… freedom of speech.”

With the purpose of engaging in a constructive dialogue with the government, with civil society and with the international community, he made few recommendations in law, policy and practice that would support the strengthening of media and freedom of expression in Liberia.

He said the country’s Criminal Code contains provisions that are not in line with the country’s obligations under international human rights standards. He made specific references to sections 11.11, 11.12 and 11.14 of the Penal Law that criminalize defamation of the President, sedition, and defamation of public authorities.

“Criminal defamation involves penalizing statements made by members of the media as well as others. It has no place in democratic society, susceptible as it is to abuse against reporting, criticism, and opposition,” he noted.

“Nearly every government official with whom I met understood that it was time to remove the anachronisms of criminal provisions governing the press,” because, according to him, “This, at times, leads to self-censorship and severe economic difficulties for journalists and media outlets.  A case in point is the 2013 case involving the editor-in-chief of FrontPage Africa Newspaper and former Minister of Agriculture, Chris Toe, in which a whopping USD 1.5 million was charged for damages”.

In view of this, Mr. Kaye recommended that the existing legal framework be amended to provide for a reasonable cap on the amount of damages that can be sought in civil libel lawsuits—in line with article 21 of the Constitution that prohibits excessive penalties.

“There is an extensive number of radio stations and newspapers. Only in Monrovia, I understand that there are approximately 40 daily newspapers and over 15 radio stations, at least two of which broadcast nationwide, and community radio has expanded across the country.  At the same time, an extraordinary number of Liberians live in extreme poverty or well below the poverty line,” .

“Many, if not most, Liberian journalists struggle to earn a living, putting severe economic pressures on them,” he said. The newspapers in particular suffer from an extremely competitive situation in which advertising is almost exclusively governmental, though it is not paying its bills”.

In conclusion Mr. Kaye said “Liberia maintains a very good and open dialogue with various human rights mechanisms. I thank the authorities for their openness to engage in frank discussions at the highest levels and I look forward to exchanging information on my recommendations”.

Mr. Kaye was here, at the invitation of the Liberian Government. He met with top government officials including President Weah, the Press Union of Liberia, media institutions, as well as civil society organizations among others.

1 COMMENT

  1. We agree with the UN Special Rapporteur’s perspective and urge the new government to do what EJS, who had signed the Table Mountain Declaration in 2007, failed to do: Review and abolish the ancient statutes criminalizing free speech and freedom of the press. On the other hand, with the hindsight that unscrupulous agenda-oriented print and broadcast journalists drove Rwanda’s ethnic genocide, it is our hope that the Press Union of Liberia will continue to ensure that members of our Mass Media abide fully by the ethics of their profession.

    Reference the poor living conditions of journalists, obviously, fourty newspapers and fifteen radio stations in Monrovia alone indicate that the supply of news exceeds demand for it, particularly in a country where illiteracy and poverty are like albatross around the neck of the vast majority. So, that’s an economic reality. Not to mention that government lacks the financial wherewithal to keep all of them afloat by buying adverts. What government can do though is to elevate PUL to a permanent independent commission whose elected members are paid.

    Unquestionably, it is about time government not only empower journalists to play their all-important role as one of the guardians of our evolving democracy, but also for the public to pay attention to how members of this profession achieve that lofty goal

    For example, the past decade saw Liberian journalism at its best; holding government accountable, being voice of the voiceless, and keeping the public informed, ala Ebola. But between 1991 and 1993, we saw journalists on both sides of the Monrovia-Gbarnga divide engaged in extreme propaganda and disinformation techniques which stressed-out already displaced and scared people. It is because of this split personality of journalism that warrants we readers objectively watch the practitioners at work. No wonder, then, in America the Mass Media is self-correcting to maintain relevance.

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