The Media Can Trust Your Words Only If You Build the Trust, Mr. President

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In his Press Freedom Day Message to the Liberian Media, which we must say was creatively and impressively presented, President George Manneh Weah emphasized a couple of things to make the media and journalists feel at ease in discharging their duties. In his emphases, the president mentioned his government’s commitment to freedom of speech and of the press, cordial working relations and forming of a stronger partnership with the media.

The issuance of a goodwill message to the media on World Press Freedom Day is customary nowadays in Liberia and in our modern democratic dispensation. Abiding by promises of tolerance of free speech and free press has, however, sometimes remained questionable. During the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Administration, the government issued a release on every World Press Freedom Day, urging the media and journalists to feel free to do their work without fear.

Even though there was no occasion where former President Sirleaf made a threatening statement against the media, there was, however, one instance where The National Chronicle was shutdown. There was also another instance in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, where former President Sirleaf’s Chief of Security Othello Warrick made this threatening statement to media practitioners:

“To require information about presidential movements, presidential activities, we consider that as an intrusion into the safety of the president. Be careful questioning the integrity of Liberians, because you have your pens and if you incriminate the character and integrity of Liberians like myself, we will come after you [DW Radio].”

Despite affixing her signature to the Table Mountain Declaration, President Sirleaf did not follow through with that commitment by decriminalizing libel and other laws against free speech. Yes it is, to her credit, true that she never used such laws against the media; but those incriminating laws are still on the books. We admittedly do not blame this Table Mounting failure in Liberia on President Sirleaf alone.

The blame must be equally shared by the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), which did little to work towards the repeal of these laws; nor did the PUL engage the Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA) to join in campaigning to repeal these undemocratic and draconian (harsh) legislations.

The quest for forming a strong partnership, as recorded in the Executive Mansion statement this year, represents, as we in the media understand it, the government’s willingness to exercise tolerance while media and journalists do their work without intimidation, fear, threat or anything else that would impede their professional functions.

We cannot assume for the president the meaning of “forming a strong partnership” beyond how the media understand it in terms of its ethical role and/or the tolerance it expects from the government as enshrined in the 1986 Constitution.

Nevertheless, the president’s unexplained statement in response to Jonathan Paye-Layleh’s question about the establishment of a war crimes court remains hanging; and Jonathan is in fear in spite of braving the storm to return home from the United States, barely three weeks after he fled fearing presidential wrath.

A stalwart of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), without acting against other institutions that published the identical advertisement that agitated him, used a court to order the shutdown of Frontpage Africa newspaper and the arrest of its entire staff, including janitors.

Even though Acarus Gray, Mulbah Morlu and Jefferson Koijee, while still in opposition, used the media extensively to propagate their messages and in most instances insulted sitting leaders, it is the same Koijee, acting presumptuously as a mouth-piece for government, that lambasted Frontpage Africa and demeaned its publisher Rodney Sieh.

These instances, which occurred while President Weah was right here in the country, forces us to wonder how seriously we can take his pleasant words to the Liberian media on World Press Freedom Day. Equally, we cannot doubt the President’s willingness and ability to create an enabling environment for the press in Liberia.

However, to substantiate our belief that the Weah-led administration is tolerant of freedom of speech and of the press, let the president follow our advice, submitted in an earlier Editorial, that he invite Jonathan Paye-Layleh for a conversation, to reassure him that the Liberian leader holds no rancor (bitterness) against him. Moreover, this government can take a bold step to decriminalize the libel law and other laws against free speech, which would be in line with the Table Mountain Declaration.

Thoroughly investigating and prosecuting the culprit in the murder of journalist Tyron Brown would be another confidence-building step that the government can take. Trust comes when a person to be trusted builds it.

For the media to trust you, Mr. President, you and your government must build that trust. And now.

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