The Power of the Media Ultimately Influences National Development

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Keynote address by Simeon Freeman, delivered at the Press Union of Liberia Awards Ceremony on Friday, April 9, 2019. 

(As Delivered)

Salutations:

Mr. President of the Press Union of Liberia
The Leadership of the PUL
Award beneficiaries
Members of the 4th Estate
The Minister of Information
Deputies of the MOF
The leadership and members of the National Legislature
Officials of Government
Political leaders and members of the Opposition
Distinguished Dignitaries of Foreign governments near this capital
Very important guests in attendance at this auspicious occasion
Ladies and Gentlemen

The Media and Economic Development

How the media says what it says influences outcomes during and after elections, no wonder the media is considered the conscience of democratic societies.  The full and complete government control of the media in 19th century Liberia ended in the 21st century when private media ownership was encouraged and promoted. It was hoped that the multiplicity of media institutions would enable good governance and better fiscal policy outcomes; sadly the reverse is true today.  In some countries, how the media – said what it said – exposed nations to prolonged crisis; massive loss of human lives and untold suffering. Prosperous democracies with better performing economies around the world result from a media that is truly the 4th branch of government but a branch that is very sensitive to the plight of the people; lifting issues of

  • Relevance to the social economic wellbeing of the people
  • Enabling alternative voices with clear governance alternatives and
  • Ignoring irrelevant comments and contributions that does not lift the people’s agenda of poverty eradication; job creation, educational advancement and improved health delivery.

After the massive misrule of Madam Sirleaf that left 40% of logging forests depleted, most mineral wealth committed, an estimated $1 billion indebtedness, huge unemployment, an expanded public service with an estimated 15 new public institutions and enlarged public workforce; rising inflation, a devalued Liberian Dollars and a country reliant on imported basic commodities; poor educational institutions, a dying health system and high infant mortality rate. One would have thought such conditional prevalence would greatly mobilized the media during the 2017 elections to elevate voices with clear approaches to better governance; rather, Political parties were deemed relevant, not by the capacity of their standard bearers or the governing vision espoused; but by the size of their national offices, the quantity of vehicles and the amount of cash available to be spent or monies spent. Senior media practitioners swayed public perception with their own misunderstanding of an electioneering period, not as a period of sober examination of candidates and their visions but the focus on intangibles and aspects totally irrelevant to an election. So bad was the situation that an unknown and probably unregistered group – deepening democracy – outrageously selected 7 out of 20 candidates, as the preferred and most significant candidates, an unheard of practice in any democracy. Eventually, some of those left out obtained more votes to those preferred by the group.

After these very critical elections, the methodologies used enabled the outcomes currently enjoyed.

During elections, when a candidate’s relevance is not vision, understanding of current national economic challenges, profession of workable solutions and personal capacity to lead but size of party office, number of cars and amount of spendable resources then like George Orwell said

“A people who elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims but accomplices”.

Liberia has become a vicious circle. A poor election yardstick enables the wrong state actors. The misgoverning of the wrong state actors makes talkers relevant. Their popularity is driven purely by their ability to criticize the misdeeds of the wrong state actors. Such popularity leads to the election of another cabal of poorly equip state actors that drive us deeper into poverty and hopelessness.

There are other groups of journalists who erroneously believe not taking the right position during elections validates their neutrality. When we pretend to be neutral during critical national dialogue or about issues that determine our national wellbeing then Plato was right when he said

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.

Today, media institutions are walking dead. Newspapers that once sold 800 to 2500 copies are selling 250 to 1200 copies. Radio and television stations are barely surviving. So it is apparent that a bad economy hits journalists and their families too; journalists whose voices and pens are used to set poor election criteria that enable poor leadership. This realization must awaken a new dynamism in the Liberian media landscape. A time for national elections is not just a time to sell airtime but a time for concrete analysis for the national good.

My brothers and sisters in arms – the power of your voices and pens can influence electoral outcomes; outcomes that can ultimately influence national development.

The Governors and the governed

Those who muster the courage and strength to criticize or challenge approaches to national development are not enemies of the state. They endorse and support national development but disagree with the approaches to national development. A strong opposition is an asset to national development. They enable a priceless view for the leader. Their advocacy lifts issues of relevance for public policy makers. It is said by a Liberian singer “power makes one heavy” and such heaviness attract sycophants, who deploy vices to enjoy the prolonged confidence of the President. They say, leadership is lonely but that is only true when we choose to entertain sycophants and create no room for alternative views; when we distance alternative voices because they disagree with our approaches; spoke to or about us in ways we or our lieutenants deemed inappropriate, when the views we permit are the ones we like to hear; or we isolate people because they wear a different perception. However, when the leader encourages groups – for and against – approaches to national development to debate their positions in his presence, he mobilizes the tools needed for sound decision making and eliminates the loneliness that comes with decision making. It would be a good thing should the President’s cabinet develop a plan and invite relevant stakeholders – opposition or otherwise – to present an alternative paper at a meeting of his cabinet. Such exchanges bridge the gaps in public policy weaknesses that enable prolonged poverty and deprivation.

The current trends, borrowed from the past, are unsustainable. The rewards for mustering the courage to speak truth to power are insults, brutalization, stoned and jeered by hoodlums and or exile of oneself or one’s family. Insult begets insult and violence begets violence. A society burdened by poverty and hopelessness will self-destruct when violence begets violence or insult begets insult.

To all the advocates, politicians, agitators and voices of the voiceless, I salute you for your courage to risk your personal wellbeing, access to opportunities and special privileges for the good of Liberia. As a strong political advocate myself, I share your pains and know your struggles. My fellow comrades, I have a bone to pick with you. Insulting a sitting public officials and encouraging our followers to do the same is not healthy for our democracy. Our children are listening to the radio and TV. They are on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. We must take responsibility for what we say. Profanity in public places must be discouraged. We have a responsibility to sanitize the airwaves; though sometimes, speaking from experience, reaction to our well intentioned action is so bad that we feel pressured to lose our cool. Let our criticisms be alternative ideas to national developmental approaches. When insulted, we must focus on the alternative ideas and not the insults. We must restrain our anger least we create, nurture and brew a society that thrives on insulting public officials. We may just be erroneously creating a demon.

Liberia’s Development Agenda

The challenges of our country are real. The nagging question of — how do we equitably distribute wealth with an enhanced governance structure remains unanswered. The 1980 coup only changed the leadership but not the system of governance. Few natives assume a governance system, imbued with large government, 90% of collected revenue spent on the bureaucracy and payment of lip service to development goals.

We have long surpassed the annual 2012 estimated 50,000 jobs to have been created and this is further compounded by technology; which is enabling and creating mass urban migration faster than the rate of public policy movement. Despite the chronic infrastructural challenges, Liberians are more technologically interconnected than they were years ago. This connectedness enables easy visualization of locations and visualization aids mass urban migration. As the workforce migrates to cities, it depletes much needed rural workforce and erodes urban infrastructure faster than their projected lifespan.

The Weah government inherited a very troubling scorecard containing large government, rising inflation, disorderly economic fundamentals, huge trade deficit, largely depleted forests; hugely committed mining resources with high infant mortality, bad health and educational systems; however, the reason for the change of government was not to dwell on the past but to forge a new path forward.

Today, the scorecard is worse off than was inherited. Access to foreign exchange is an unaffordable luxury; small businesses are folding up in droves. The economy is in free fall, battling rising double digit inflation and taking with it, the available domestic purchasing power. The fundamentals of our economy are totally out of order. Our educational system is screaming for assistance while our Health facilities are dead. Health workers tell me, they are available to work but nothing to work with.

We have two choices.

  • Criticize the current state of affairs or
  • Engage the current administration to change the current state of affairs

I prefer the latter. Criticism may attack their egos and compelled the hardening of their position that will ultimately maintain depravation for all.

The past administration had two national development agendas:

  • The Poverty Reduction Strategy
  • Vision 2030

Though the both plans lack substance and relevance but we have not seen this government’s development plan. It may exist but not widely available locally. Howbeit, we have seen the construction of urban community roads; market buildings, increment in the wage bill and workforce. If these are the critical priority areas for the government, then we urge the government, not away from their plans, but to consider the addition of key priority areas that constitute the core challenges confronting the nation. The huge number of public institutions, wage bill, government’s asset policy; special/general allowances and our overall approach to development require urgent radical attention to identify much needed developmental resources.

Large Public Institutions

A manual count of public institutions exceeds 88 for about 5 million people. This requires the urgent attention of policy makers. The concept of a very large government has never worked and will never work. The actual work at a public institution with about 300 to 600 employees is done by about 15 to 30 persons or less. For example, the total allotment to the Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs and Tourism under the 2018/19 budget was USD$1.756 million dollars while USD$2.08 million has been allocated for 2019/2020. Should the MOI be merged with the office of the Press Secretary to the President to form a new office to be called – Liberia Information Services – and situated under the office of the President with not more than 15 employees, we would have saved USD$1.461 million annually. The basic salary for the current MOI workforce is USD$618,327. We can pay all MOI employees their basic salary and invest the USD$1.461 million annually in critically needed manufacturing sector. By reviewing the size of our bureaucracy, savings of more than USD$200 million dollars annually is possible.  We could go on celebrating the Gender Ministries of our time and several other bureaucratic institutions that add only dead weight to us. If we are serious about national development and equitable wealth distribution, an urgent review of the size of our bureaucracy is required.

Approaches

Over the years, large sums of monies are paid to private institutions, be it health or educational, as government subsidy. What are the goals behind such subsidies? What outcomes have been realized from the subsidies awarded to private institutions?

In the 2018/19 budget, we allocated for the Phebe Hospital in Bong County, privately owned but one of the largest referral hospitals in Central Liberia, USD$1.79 million with a 2019/20 allocation of USD$1.592 million dollars. What is the money used for? I am not standing against national allocations but to enable and enhance development, such money must target specific outcomes thereby enabling a measurable achievement year on year.

The National Social Security and Welfare Corporation should invest in low cost housing for workers. However, in recent years, it has invested in luxury properties, leaving the true beneficiaries of collected pensions victims of the housing crisis in an overpopulated city. Urgent attention must be lent by policy makers to how the Social Security invests its resources. In other countries, legislations have been passed to invest Social Security resources in low cost housing through locally owned banks. Should we drive similar policy efforts, the housing deficit and poor zoning overtaking Liberia could be greatly alleviated. Liberia’s working class and government employees could populate newly built low cost houses; while new premiums used as installment payments to defray the outstanding cost of ownership.

If we are serious about poverty eradication, the opportunity presents itself so clearly. The sectors we must target are openly available. How much money does the National Port Authority or Liberia Petroleum Refinery Corporation contribute to the national treasury annually? Is it time to privatize them and let them pay taxes to the people of Liberia? My fellow stakeholders in the media, I encourage you to talk about these issues to get policy makers to critically consider the drastic changes required to drive our country forward.

Education

By 1961; the total national budget was USD$8,730,200; of this amount, USD$2,250,000 was allocated to the educational sector or about 26%. Similarly, 21% or USD$1.8 million was spent on health and related services. Today, out of the total anticipated budget of USD$532,907 million dollars, only about 15.6% or USD$83 million spent on Education. Similarly, 14.2% or USD75 million spent on the health sector. Were our forefathers more serious about social services than we are today?  My brothers and sisters in the Media, we have work to do and there is much to talk about to enable policy makers appreciate our challenges. We must avoid the lurking temptation of promoting irrelevance in the public place and grant relevance to things that matter.

The Economy

We spend about USD$260 million annually on rice importation. This has been a perennial problem for Liberia and yet throughout the years, we dwell more on attracting investments in the extractive industry, that are awarded huge tax breaks, and less on isolating pressing domestic commodity challenges that greatly impact our long term stability. Confronted with similar challenges, the government of Nigeria reduced her annual USD$20 billion rice bill to about USD$5 billion and it is still being lowered today through sustained public investment in the private sector

While we seek not to question government’s priority public sector investments, we are constrained to warn that investments in market buildings and feeder community roads are non-bankable projects by all standards; economically or politically.

The growth and job creation structures we need and want will not just appear. We do not live in a magical world where things are dreamt into reality. We must embrace critical decisions and swallow the hard pills. We must let go of certain comforts and cuddle some inconvenience. The media must resolve to promote relevance over irrelevance.

The Demand of Personnel Replacement

We have heard that one of the demands of our compatriots in the opposition was the replacement of certain government officials – Samuel Tweah and Nathaniel McGill. We have also sensed the refusal of President Weah to submit to the demand. While the science of personnel replacement works and is relevant, the goal behind the request is not just about the persons, but the perception that the persons are obstacles to national development and their exit would enhance development. This means, the prime objective is national development and not the persons. What my compatriots are saying is – We want a better Liberia full of hope and prosperity. My compatriots in the struggle have nothing against Misters McGill and Tweh. They are fellow Liberians who have the right to participate in the national renewal of Liberia. We believe, no Liberian must be excluded from the process of national development.

However, we believe, George Manneh Weah can keep his trusted lieutenants in government and still develop our country. That he trusts them means they are easily amendable to his instructions and demands. Therefore, President Weah must unclench his fist to embrace fresh ideas on national development. He must be ready to ignore the current path in favour of new ones to enable a truly pro poor agenda; one in which opportunities abound and prosperity is plentiful. I am afraid to report, the current path has brought us unanticipated pain and deep sorrow and this I believe is the unintended outcome of his great vision for our country; one in which he so eloquently coined during the elections when he said – change for hope. Meaning, change this system to hope again. Change this system to live again. Change this system of things to dream again. Change this system of things to prosper again but sadly, our people are dying though they were – existing. We believe with your willingness and readiness, Liberia can prosper.

My fellow Liberians and my compatriots of the media, I thank you for preferring me for this occasion.

May God enable the vision we need to prosper our nation. We thank you.

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