Warity Speaks On Voice FM, Media Issues

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A former President of the Press Union of Liberia and ex-minister of information, Lamini Waritay, is encouraging the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (with the assistance of the Ministry of Information) to reach an out-of-court settlement with Voice FM that will ensure the regularization of the frequency issue that some say has ostensibly kept the station off air.

Professor Waritay, who himself was once a Minister of Information as well as Commissioner of the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA), said while the case involving the radio station is currently sub judice, there is nonetheless a need to have the matter amicably resolved given its implications for our burgeoning democracy and the legacy of the present political dispensation.

Commenting on the matter to the Daily Observer, without going into the legalities, Waritay hoped that ultimately the issue will be resolved in a way that will allow staff of the closed radio station to continue to be a part of the liberal media landscape in the country.

He pointed out that while freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and not a privilege any government or authority can extend to society or to any one, Prof. Waritay cited the level of freedom of expression under the existing political environment as “the one legacy over which few Liberians will (hand on heart) quibble.”

He therefore posited that against this political backdrop, it would be most unfortunate if the present government, which has less than twenty months left in its lifespan, leaves the scene with a major radio station remaining off the air—having earned for itself (the current government) a generally positive record for political tolerance over the past ten-plus years of its existence.

The media veteran, activist and erstwhile Acting Chair of the Mass Communication Department of the University of Liberia said he is aware that some Liberians may view as ‘distasteful’, ‘socially irresponsible’ and ‘incendiary’ the way and manner in which some sections of the media may be exercising their constitutionally-sanctioned freedom of expression. Notwithstanding, he argued, periodic professional and ethical infractions are part of the price society will have to pay in ensuring that no one’s voice is muffled.

While noting with some satisfaction the due process approach that is being applied to the case with Voice FM, in contrast to the extra-judicial actions that characterized past regimes, the former PUL Prexy, however, points out that he is somewhat uncomfortable with the perception in certain circles that the LTA

Frequency issue is only an excuse for stopping the radio’s operation, and that the radio station can only hope to get justice at the hands of an unfettered judicial system.

He recalled that much of the struggle for press freedom he and many others waged (at considerable risks to their lives) during some of the most brutal and dictatorial regimes in the history of the country, was based on the principle that freedom of expression (no matter how it is being exercised) should never be enjoined by anyone or any institution other than an unencumbered judiciary.

Prof. Waritay further pointed out that freedom of expression, as “an indispensable pillar of democracy, is conceptually so all-embracing that all must be allowed to freely express themselves no matter how disagreeable we may be with what they say or write, and that only the courts, consistent with the requirements of the Constitution, can circumscribe the misuse of freedom of expression.”

He urged all persons always to have at the back of their minds in discussing the concept of freedom of expression, the famous maxim attributed to the French writer, Francois-Marie Arouet (carrying the pen name Voltaire): “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Mr. Waritay added that given his national and international political and professional experience over the decades, it is always better to have individuals and groups to openly express themselves (particularly in regard to governments and their officials) and be limited only by the law, than to have them go underground. Ongoing technological innovations in the communications industry, he pointed out, have in fact made it virtually untenable to shield the public from any manner of expression of ideas.

The former LTA Commissioner hopes that the commendable level of political tolerance established by the current dispensation will continue to be maintained and even improved upon so as to serve as a precedent for any subsequent leadership that may become crazy and dictatorial enough to attempt to turn back the hand of media freedom that the country has seen in recent times, and for which so many endured so much suffering in the past.

Meanwhile, Prof. Waritay hopes the injunction placed on the use of the frequency does not deny access of the staff to their studios/property but only to the use of the now controversial frequency. He cites this because as a former Commissioner of LTA, he recalls that whenever the LTA had been compelled to withdraw the license of a telecom or related entity, it never denied staff access to the premises of the entity.

Waritay says given the huge price that was paid by media personnel and advocates during some past anti-media regimes, he is usually very sensitive to any action that may give the appearance of a “chilling effect” on media activities.

It is against this backdrop, he noted, that he entertains some misgivings about talk of establishing a media regulatory body—never mind that both the government and the Press Union are all rooting for it. Waritay pointed out that with the best of intentions, such a regulatory body may not necessarily be a bad idea, but, he noted, “best intentions do not necessarily translate into best practices or a desired end, and that in fact sometimes the road to hell may as well be laden with best intentions.”

He explained that experience with “such media commissions or regulatory outfits in some neighboring countries shows that they can be used by an intolerant/frightened regime as a subterfuge or willing tool to clampdown on the media, in the same way a controlling or overbearing government can teleguide a timid judiciary.” He said the ideal regulatory mechanism is one that is “highly independent of government control and manipulation, and one whose membership composition reflects competent and fearless individuals drawn from across the political divide.”

It’s a “similar case” with state-owned broadcasters, he opined; citing that government controlled radio stations can never ever behave like independent, non-partisan state-owned public broadcasters as long as they remain dependent on government largesse for their survival, and as long as virtually every appointment at such entities comes directly from the Presidency.

Waritay recalls that it was in consideration of this state of affairs that in drafting the policy framework for converting the Liberia Broadcasting System into a public broadcaster some fifteen (15) years ago, he went to great lengths to spell out the details for the governance system of such public broadcasters (PBs).

These included a Board of Directors drawn from diverse sections of society, who will in turn contract the services of successful professionals following a transparent competitive bidding to fill such key positions as Director General and Deputies. The draft policy framework also provided a detailed strategy by which such PBs can be largely independently financed.

Prof. Waritay lamented that fifteen years after an erudite lawyer (in the person of Cllr. Oswald Tweh) had hammered out a very good legal instrument for legislative action out of the policy draft he (Waritay) had prepared at the behest of the Liberia Transition Initiative (LTI), and even after the election of an otherwise liberal leadership, and two successive sets of legislators, virtually nothing concrete thus far has come out of the internationally supported efforts to transform the state-owned, government controlled broadcaster into a truly independent public broadcaster. And with elections beckoning in less than 15 months, Waritay has little hope that any major stride will be made in this direction before that time.

He regretted that “even opposition lawmakers in the legislature who should be putting more efforts in in this direction have not been able or willing to ignite the necessary fire in their bellies to champion the cause of the PB proposal, let alone shepherd it through the legislative process. And so fifteen years after the efforts began to have LBS converted into a Public Broadcaster, and three years since the only public hearing on the proposed amendment in the House of Representatives took place, the document continues to gather dust there.”

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