Professor Lamini Waritay has been speaking forthrightly on the media situation in the country.
He makes three salient points: first, he laments the administration’s closure of Henry Costa’s highly controversial Voice FM, extraordinarily popular for its often vitriolic (acerbic, caustic) talk shows.
Second, Waritay voiced serious reservations about a media regulatory body. While it may be a good idea, he warned that best intentions do not necessarily translate into best practices or a desired end. “The road to Hell,” he cautioned, “may be [paved] with best intentions.”
On this, we have always said that the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), the body covering all the Liberian media, has itself to blame, due to its perennial inaction on media excesses. PUL has traditionally sat on the fence and allowed newspapers, radio and television stations and journalists to do all sorts of things that are clearly in violation of the PUL’s own Code of Conduct, and done nothing about it. It only sits and waits for people to complain bitterly—or for government to use its lethal power against the media when it feels the line of constitutional and ethical responsibility has been crossed.
However inept or wrong such action may be, the government feels it has power and, in a fit of anger, uses it, which is indeed unfortunate.
However, where was the PUL when the press was abusing people, including the President of Liberia? The constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press does not permit media to cross the line of civility and become abusive. All the media need to do is to state the facts and express opinions about them, without being abusive or unethical. That is the honorable way to exercise our constitutional right and privilege of freedom of speech and of the press.
On the other hand, the GOL itself has a constitutional responsibility when faced with perceived media excesses. It is called due process. Two wrongs do not make one right. You do not close down a media institution before allowing the constitutional process to take place. Only a timid judiciary—a Judiciary that is afraid of the Executive—would allow such action.
Remember the erudite and courageous Justice in Chambers, His Honor Emmanuel Koroma, who in 1984 heard the case Republic of Liberia versus the Daily Observer. The government of the people’s Redemption Council (PRC), led by the military dictator, Samuel K. Doe, summarily closed down the newspaper for the fourth time, then went to court and in a quo warranto suit, pleading to have its Articles of Incorporation revoked.
The brave and upright Justice Koroma stood constitutionally firm against the PRC government, represented by the Justice Ministry’s Counselor Laveli Supuwood. Mr. Justice Koroma told the State, “When you come to equity, you must come with clean hands. But after having taken the law into your own hands and first closed down the newspaper, then you come to the court for redress?” Your hands are not clean, and cannot be upheld by the Constitution. The case is, therefore, dismissed, Justice Koroma told the State.
Many older folks who are still around today know the rest of the story. The PRC government still had no case when they shamelessly took it to the full bench of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice, Emmanuel Gbalazeh and fellow Associate Justices laughed as Supuwood floundered in his presentation. But on the day of judgment in June, 1984, however, Chief Justice Gbalazeh played the consummate coward: he failed to place the Observer’s case on the docket.
When our lead counsel, Cllr. S. Raymond Horace, asked why, Mr. Gbalazeh responded, “You think I am stupid? You want me to lose my job?”
In utter shock and disappointment, the counselor took his bag and excused himself. The happy ending of the case came a month later, on Independence Day, July 26, 1984: Head of State Doe lifted the ban on the newspaper. The timid Judiciary and its leader had surrendered their constitutional responsibility to the Executive.
We pray that that constitutional faux pas will never again occur in this republic.
It is against this background that we once again appeal to President Ellen Johnson to reopen Voice FM. We further call on the PUL to seize the solemn initiative to watch closely our younger media practitioners and encourage them always to engage in civil and ethical behavior.
That is what the PUL should have been doing all along, but has consistently failed to do. That is why many, including the government, are now calling for a media regulatory body. And this is Professor Waritay’s second major concern.
A courageous, efficient and forthright PUL would make a regulatory body unnecessary. The PUL should be that body. But it must, however, be a PUL with integrity and guts to call a spade a spade and deal forthrightly with us in the media who behave recklessly, unethically and unconstitutionally.
Professor Waritay’s third concern is about an independent public broadcast system for Liberia. We happily recall what Waritay said, that a good proposal, written by Cllr. Oswald Tweh, was presented 15 years ago laying the basis for an independent broadcast facility that would remove the Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS) from under the control of the government.
But oh, the shelf!—that rat, roach, rot and dust-infested graveyard of good and great ideas! Thank God President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not place on the shelf Albert Einstein’s letter written to him in 1939. Had he, the history of the world would have been ghastly different. Just think of nuclear weapons in the hands of Adolf Hitler!
Those wishing to know about Einstein’s letter and its historic consequences, read our Editorial published on Monday, July 18, 2016.