The Press Union of Liberia and the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICAT) last Wednesday signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that gives the Union the authority to register all journalists in the country.
But the MOU also gives authority to MICAT to register all Liberian media houses. This is not a bad idea in itself; however, we trust that it will not be done for a fee. We make this point for three reasons: first, MICAT, a hopefully well-funded government Agency, does not–or should not—need a penny from media houses, most of which are small businesses struggling for survival. Secondly, media houses, like all other businesses, are already "Registered" with the Commerce and Industry Ministry. These registrations, which enable media houses, as all businesses, to operate legally in the country, are for a fee.
Thirdly, we fear that should media houses be compelled to register with MICAT, that GOL Agency might be tempted to deny registration to those it does not like, signaling dangerous implications for press freedom.
We think it is better for the Liberian government to be satisfied with the Commerce Ministry registering media houses. This is, frankly, the only registration necessary, for all of the required information are contained in such registration–who owns the media house, where it is located, when it was founded and its nature (print or broadcast).
We submit that there is no more information other that what is submitted to the Commerce Ministry that MICAT or any other government body would need. It would therefore be superfluous to "register"
again with MICAT.
But we further submit, that the PUL should, purely as a matter of information, be the one to supply to MICAT, on a regular basis, a list of media houses operating in Liberia.
In all honesty, the Press Union of Liberia has itself to blame for MICAT's intervention in the Union's affairs. Why do we say that? This is because the PUL should know that it is in the best position to monitor and regulate media houses in the country. That has been since day one in 1964, when the Union was founded. We have not only been a fraternity, organizing social events for journalists and media houses. We have been an organization that has always been there for journalists and media houses, shouting to the top of our voices when we think either is in unnecessary trouble. This is a highly positive role that PUL has historically played.
But–and this is a BIG BUT–the PUL has failed to take seriously its REGULATORY function. What does that mean? It means carefully monitoring journalists and media houses alike, making sure that they operate according to the highest professional standards, and in strict adherence to the international Code of Ethics and the PUL's own Code of Ethics.
To the contrary, unfortunately, the PUL has over the years, especially since 2005, sat supinely while journalists and media houses violated every legal or ethical principle, and it said and did nothing or very little about these ethical transgressions. But as soon as the chips fall, and the consequences of unprofessional, even illegal behavior are reaped, and journalists and media houses get into the trouble they themselves have created, then the PUL starts shouting from the roof tops, crying interference with press freedom.
This means that the PUL views the constitutional principles of Freedom of Speech and Press enshrined in the Liberian Constitution as carteblanche–a free rein, complete freedom. No, no, no, they are not!
For to every freedom comes responsibility. And here we invoke the ancient common law principle: the rights of one individual stop where another's begin.
So there is no law that is carteblanche. In other words, an individual or institution is free to speak, write or print: this is guaranteed by the Liberian Constitution, but it is immediately followed by another critically important phrase, “being fully responsible for the abuse thereof."
The PUL must, therefore, take seriously its responsibility to uphold, protect and defend the ethics of the journalism profession as practiced in Liberia. It is because the PUL has not taken this particular role seriously that the renowned constitutional and human rights lawyer, Counselor Tiawan Gongloe, has recommended an independent Media Advisory Body created by the Legislature to monitor and regulate journalists and media houses in the country.