Toward Responsible, Well Funded Media

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Media houses around the country were no doubt pleased with President Sirleaf's recent speech to the sixth African Media Leaders Forum in

Addis Ababa. Undoubtedly, the media in Liberia can boast of a level of press freedom few other African nations can rival. However, we need to
take the fight to the finish.

“The role of responsible, informed, adequately funded, professional and creative media is paramount,” President Sirleaf told the forum.

We recognize the need to be responsible; and indeed, examples have been made of those who have violated the laws governing the ethics of
the profession.

The need to be an informed media, however, is also unfinished business. This administration has a habit of remaining tightlipped on issues it does not want to answer. The government plays the waiting game, reasoning that the story will eventually die. The media, on the other hand, in the absence of answers from the government, is left to make assumptions that are potentially damaging to the administration.   Or else, the public is left with the impression that, having failed to adequately answer an issue (if at all), the government does not care.  Weekly press briefings do not cut it. The country needs a robust public relations engine that rapidly responds to the concerns of the public; that keeps the public proactively and adequately informed of the actions government is taking to alleviate their suffering. We need a hands-on government.

Here is a more immediate problem: the President did not “inform” the Liberian media that she was going to deliver a speech on them (Liberian media) in Addis Ababa!  Not even Press Union president Peter Quaqua knew anything about the President’s mission in Addis.  The media received word of the mission afterwards, only in an Executive Mansion press release.  Her Press Secretary, when contacted yesterday, clarified that her speech was delivered by the Liberian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Vivien Wreh.

The President also called for an adequately funded media. Another problem! The President is well aware that news publications survive on advertising.  Her administration, however, consistently refuses to pay its debts to the media. Government ministries run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising. When media houses send their invoices, however, WITH proof of publication, government business offices, notoriously the Ministry of Finance, which also happens to issue the final clearance for invoices, claim not to have received them. Resubmitting invoices and proof of publication, as is often required, depletes publishers’ archives.

Once resubmitted, the Ministry of Finance then ‘offers’ publishers a ‘deal’. Ten thousand dollars each — take it or leave it — for a US$30,000 bill. The government of Liberia currently owes the Liberian Observer Corporation US$88,000!  Some invoices in this connection date back to 2011!

How are newspapers supposed to be adequately funded when the government, our biggest advertiser, will not pay its debts to us? Is this how the Government of Liberia treats the Lebanese and Indians, who dominate our economy? Of course not.

The other tactic is to ask for tax clearance. The issue does not arise when GOL functionaries rush into our offices, sometimes at night – way past press time – and plead with us to carry the ads as an emergency.  It would seem that the Government of Liberia intentionally pulls the purse strings on news publications either to stifle or to take advantage of them.

If the President recognizes the need for “adequately-funded” media, then her government ought to pay one hundred percent of its bills to the media — not ten percent, not fifty percent.
The point here is that the “responsible, informed, adequately funded, professional and creative media” of which the President speaks costs money. Cameras (digital and video), web sites, bond paper, newsprint, inks, presses, salaries, rent, generators, fuel, gasoline, water and better training for reporters all cost money. Hundreds of journalists, technical and administrative staff, newspaper vendors and their families depend on our industry for their livelihood in a country where unemployment is extremely high. 

Of course, the government does not realize that dealing fairly with media houses, especially those of repute, is in fact to the government’s advantage.  When government ‘scandals’ break, it is reputable media houses that bother to balance the story, set the record straight, criticize constructively and give credit where it is due.  Without reputable media, the government would constantly suffer bad press. If the government mistreats us, it cuts off its nose to spite its face.

So we urge President Sirleaf to mandate her Ministry of Finance to pay the media what we are owed. Otherwise, we are left to believe that her speech in Addis was just a disingenuous sound-byte.

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