Many people seem to be under the impression that a free press means that the media can say whatever it wants. That is not the meaning, though. Free press means that the media is able to report on all events and issues that affect the lives of the public without interference or limitation by the government. However, the basic tenets of good reporting still apply. What are those basic tenets? Accurate, verifiable information confirmed by multiple sources. It does not mean that the reporter can pull together unrelated quotes to make an article reflect his or her personal point of view.
I recently held a press roundtable to sum up my time here in Liberia as Ambassador for the United States of America to Liberia. I pointed out progress I have seen as well as areas of concern that need the attention of all the people of Liberia. However, Front Page Africa misrepresented both the content and tone of what I said. Especially egregious among the many misrepresentations was a quote attributed to me that questioned the readiness of Liberia’s security forces to assume responsibility as UNMIL draws down. This is absolutely false, as a transcript from this session will bear out. While acknowledging the work that remains to be accomplished, I also noted progress and emphasized the responsibility that citizenry also plays in ensuring a law-abiding culture takes root and flourishes – in response to two different questions, one on mob violence and one on the UNMIL drawn down. I said:
“As for mob violence, it continues to be a concern for us and others, and I think for Liberians themselves to see how quickly some of these incidents can spin out of control. Again, I go back to this need for personal and community responsibility, which each citizen has a role to play in ensuring the security and stability of the State. The government and the security forces have a certain role to play, but they cannot be in every single location. So, it’s really incumbent on communities and counties and districts to develop their own mechanisms to ensure that people don’t allow these kinds of events to spin out of control. When they happen and they end up in either injuries or death to individuals, or destruction of property, you’re only hurting yourselves – you’re not necessarily hurting the target of that anger.
Then in response to a different question on the UNMIL draw down:
“We have confidence that over time that the government and the people of Liberia are developing the mechanisms and the systems and the institutions to assume responsibility for their own security. And, that really is something that has to happen. It’s been a long time coming. UNMIL has now been here for 12 years, almost 13 years…That’s a long time for a peace keeping mission. Over the last several years, their actual role in terms of maintaining security in the country has really been diminishing. You see them around, but they’ve been drawing down gradually over the last couple of years. So, it’s an inevitable process. It’s something that has to happen. We work, the UN works, with the Liberian National Police. We, of course, have been working with the Armed Forces of Liberia. We work with the Drug Enforcement Agency. Other partners are working with BIN. They are gradually developing capacity to take on responsibility. We’ve seen some progress with the LNP. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done, particularly at the level of local police officers.”
Good reporting is an essential part of democracy. It helps the people understand what is happening in their country and with their government. It enables people to become better citizens and respond to issues that affect their lives. However, the press is powerful, and bad reporting is contrary to the goal of a free press. Bad reporting is incendiary – leading to public discontent and reaction that is not in keeping with building a strong, stable country. Journalism is a powerful tool that needs to be used wisely. When used well, journalism improves the country and the lives of the people. When used poorly, journalism is a destructive weapon. I encourage all of the media outlets in Liberia to use their powerful tool of journalism wisely.