“THE ROLE OF THE PRESS IN PROMOTING AND PROTECTING PRESS FREEDOM IN LIBERIA”

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Mr. President, other officers of the PUL And Members of the PUL, Platform Guest, other invited guests, other distinguished ladies and gentlemen:
Before, proceeding any further let us bow our heads for one moment of silence to the memory of Liberian journalists who were taken away by death over the last year. Thank you! This evening, members of the press who have devoted extra time, care and commitment to their duties of in informing, educating and entertaining the Liberian people, will be recognized and honored for excellence in the performance of their duties.
In honoring the journalists that have been judged to be best suited for recognition and honor in various areas of the journalism profession, during the past one year, the PUL is encouraging all Liberian journalists to commit themselves to improving the standard of journalism in Liberia.
In other words, the PUL is saying that if, as a journalists, you choose to give information to the public, then give information to the public that is true, either based on what you see or hear or based on an account from a credible source. If on the other hand you want to educate the public on a topic that you consider to be of interest to a community, region or the nation, then educate yourself sufficiently, first on the topic by reading or conducting research on the topic, before you can take the pen, microphone or camera in order to educate the people. Similarly, if as a journalist, your interest is in the entertainment of people, you must prepare your work in a manner that takes into consideration decency and clarity, thereby making your work interesting and persuasive.
It is for the freedom to inform, educate and entertain the Liberian people that many Liberian journalists and advocates, over the years, have been subjected to arbitrary detention, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments by various governments of Liberia.
Resistance to freedom of the press by the Liberian Government, have, over the years, also been manifested by the closure of newspapers and private radio stations. Even, as we speak, the Chronicle Newspaper was shutdown by the current Government of Liberia, about a year ago, and it is still closed. However, the general feeling is that comparatively, journalists and newsorgans have a little more freedom, now, than in the past. The challenge for all journalists, given the past, is to practice their profession in a manner that promotes greater freedom of the press and to make the people to resist any attempt by government to hinder press freedom. Therefore, I have chosen to speak to you on the topic: “The Role of the Press in Promoting and Protecting Press Freedom in Liberia”:
One of the key responsibilities of the members of any professional body is to promote their profession by showing how relevant it is in the lives of the people. This can be done by the quality of service members of the profession give and the benefit that is derived by the people. The support of the people is very crucial to the survival of any profession. In the case of the journalism profession in Liberia, the Liberian people are beginning to complain about how the profession is practiced by some journalists. One complaint is that some journalists rush to report stories without taking time to check the facts. The question in this case, is why should a journalist rush to give information to the public about somebody, something or some event, when the facts have not been verified by him or her.
The general excuse that some journalists give is that time is important to every story and if too much time is taken a story may lose its importance and relevance or become history instead of being a current event. One frequent excuse that some journalists give, also, is that efforts to interview the person the story is about or any eye-witness to the specific event of interest proved futile. In such a case, there is no story to inform the public about, because it would be unfair to the person the story is about and the listening or reading public. The danger in rushing to publish any information that has not been verified to be true is that, besides the fact that it has the potential to subject the journalist and the media which publishes such a untrue story to unnecessary litigations, the frequency of publishing untrue stories has the potential of gradually eroding public confidence in such journalists and the medium through which such untrue stories are published.
Given the growing number of media institutions in Liberia and the competition for being the first to inform the public about events, the potential for the truth to be sacrificed in such competitive atmosphere is very high. If deliberate effort is not made by journalists, editors, publishers and the Press Union of Liberia, to curtail the frequency of giving information to the public that is not true, then the journalism profession risks being considered more harmful than good for the Liberian people. Obviously, when care is not taken to prevent the people from reaching such a conclusion, then instead of the people calling for greater freedom of the press, they will begin to call for scrutiny by the government, which will definitely will provide an excuse by government for censorship and muzzling of the press.

The burden is therefore, upon members of the press to prevent this from happening. Members of the Press must commit themselves to report the truth and nothing but the truth, without any form of compromise.

The second complaint that has been voiced by the public is that there is evolving some level of mercenary journalism-a situation whereby some journalists are paid by competitors in business or politics to write untrue stories about their opponents. This type of conduct undermines public confidence in the journalism profession and press freedom. The third complaint that I have heard is that some journalist who conduct interviews do not research on the topic and the background of the persons that they intend to interview. The result is that such uninformed journalists do not ask the appropriate questions that could provide an opportunity for the interviewee to give adequate information to the public on the subject of the interview. It is wrong for a journalist to conduct an interview based on hearsay or very scanty information. The fourth complaint that some members of the public have against Liberian journalists is that some journalists are not spending time to verify words that they use to communicate with the public in terms of spelling and usage.

While the English language is difficult and many of us who learned to speak it as a second language, do still make a lot of mistakes, journalists are, generally expected to do better than the average person in society. I have heard many people say that in many years ago, they learned how to pronounce words and to speak or write English properly from Liberian journalists such as Jonathan Reffell, Olivia Shannon, Tommy Rynes, G. Henry Andrews, Bill Frank Enoanyi, Jesse Karnley, Martin Brown, Wilbert Stubblefield, Kenneth Best, Chauncey Cooper, J. Reilly Gunpa, just to name a few. Liberian journalists who started their careers, before many of the journalists here this evening were born, excelled here and abroad based on hardwork and love of their profession. Ted Roberts, Sherman Brown and James Butty for example who started their radio journalism in Liberia, later worked for VOA. I am sure that all of us here are always pleased and proud when we hear
James Butty, on VOA. These persons have served as ambassadors of Liberian journalism. Strive to keep the standards that were set by these great Liberian journalists.

For some members of the public, frequent mistakes by journalists in pronouncing, spelling, or using words is a turn-off and discourages them about the quality of journalism that is being practiced in Liberia. Therefore, some people prefer these days to listen to BBC, VOA and other foreign stations more often than they do in the case of local radio stations. It is the obligation of the Liberian journalists , led by the PUL to reverse the growing negative reactions of the people against the journalism profession and press freedom. For those of us who believe that the only way to build an open and democratic society is to promote greater freedom of the press, we feel so much pain when suggestions are made about limiting press freedom in any form or manner. But, I must say that if much effort is not made by members of the Press Union to improve the quality of journalism in Liberia, those of us who have even put our legal profession at the disposal of many journalists over the years, as a demonstration of our support for press freedom, may lose the battle for press freedom. Members of the Press Union must not let this happen.

Journalists suffered too long in this country. So don’t let the little freedom that you now enjoy on the sweat of those who made great sacrifices, to slip away by your failure to maintain a high degree honor and dedication in the practice of your profession. Think about the Late Tuan Wreh and imagine him carrying a perforated bucket of human feces on his head while walking, virtually, nacked on the streets of Monrovia with armed soldiers walking behind him, only for writing a truthful story that the Government of Liberia did not like.

Think about the venerable Pamphleteer Albert Porte and the many times he went to jail for writing and speaking the truth and many other journalists who were jailed, tortured, murdered as well as the many media institutions that were burned, shutdown or looted for reporting the truth and do nothing to reverse the gains that have been made in the profession. If for poor journalism the Liberian people call upon the Government of Liberia to close the media space, it will be a herculean task for the press and lovers of press freedom to reopen it. Therefore, I call upon all practicing Liberian journalists to commit themselves to promoting press freedom by practicing their profession with honor, dignity and the highest degree of professionalism. With the existence of the Freedom of Information Law in Liberia and a very effective Information Commissioner, journalists should make all efforts to seek the truth before giving information to the public.

As a lawyer who has dedicated a substantial portion of his legal career to providing legal defense for journalists who have fallen in trouble with government and powerful interests in the Liberian society, I consider it one of my professional duties to tell you some truths about yourselves. In doing so, I am both trying lessen my burden as your lawyer and helping you to improve on your professional image to the people of Liberia. The building of a democratic Liberia depends, largely on the work of the press. All journalists must keep this in mind in the performance of their duties as journalists.

I have no doubt that those who are being honored this evening have kept the dignity and honor of the journalism profession. I congratulate them and appeal to them to use their elevated position in the profession as distinguished members of the 4th Estate to help their colleagues in the profession to improve their technical skills and commitment to ethics of the profession.
I thank you.

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