By Charles B Coffey, Jr., President, Press Union of Liberia
Every year, May 3 is celebrated as the fundamental principles of press freedom to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tributes to journalists who lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
The global theme of this year’s 2020 World Press Freedom day is journalism without fear or favor, particularly in the current Coronavirus situation. Indeed let journalists work without fear or favor. This is a clear manifestation of the critical role journalists and media workers are playing in a democratic environment, mainly during this health crisis.
In recent months, the Liberian media has been helping people everywhere in Liberia to understand the nature and scope of the pandemic.
I congratulate you all for the hard work, you are indeed playing a life-saving role by reporting on the public health issue.
I again thank all of you for providing facts and analysis for holding leaders in every sector-accountable and for speaking truth to power.
In this regard, we are calling on the Liberian government to fully ensure a safe and enabling environment for journalists and media workers so that they can do their work freely and without fear of reprisals.
On behalf of my esteemed leadership, members of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), I wish to use this opportunity as we celebrate the World Press Freedom Day to salute and pay my respect to the brave and committed journalists of the world particularly the Liberian journalists and media workers who are making unlimited sacrifices in the face of matchless challenges caused by COVID-19 pandemic.
To repeat the importance of UNESCO’s chosen theme for this year’s celebrations “Journalism without Fear or Favor” PUL regretfully detests the dangerous threats and assault by some elements in government, particularly the Solicitor General of Liberia and Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs who continue to flex muscles in an attempt to silence critical voices and intimidate the independent media.
As you are aware, dozens of journalists were attacked by some state security personnel over the past months while doing their work. A presidential investigative committee set up to probe the brutality against the journalists in recent times is yet to meet with two resignations thus undermining the credibility of the inquest. while the Solicitor General and Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs are using threats, and other comments capable of intimidating and undermining the right to freedom of expression and of the press.
These government officials must respect and accept the role of the media and not use their powers to control and suffocate press freedom and the right to information.
Journalists must not be forced, wheedled or intimidated to either work in situation of fear or favor in the interest of the government of the day,”
PUL unequivocally condemns the continued media freedom attacks which instill fear in the hearts of journalists who are working under very appalling conditions. Journalists must be allowed to execute their professional duties without any form of intimidation, and state actors must not use power to control and repress press freedom.
The Union maintains its position that as required by joint security and internationally acceptable principles, journalists and media workers should use their identification cards in the discharge of their respective duties. I repeat, all journalists should stay away from the new directive of the deputy information minister for public affairs to print new passes because is intended to deny critical voices in the media. PUL is not part and does not support the issuance of new passes. On the issue of the solicitor general, the union also vowed to challenge any illegal closure of any media institution in a competent court of jurisdiction.
“Journalism matters and it is time to end unfair restrictions and threats of attacks with impunity against journalists”.
In addition to the unnecessary repressions and restrictions, journalists are regularly endangered with almost complete impunity and their safety are relentlessly compromised with little or no protection accorded them which sustains endless safety crisis for poorly remunerated journalists.
The Liberian government is duty bound to guarantee the safety and security of journalists and not for any government official to threaten them in an effort to control the free flow of information or free ventilation of the expression of ideas, particularly in this difficult period when the media is fighting to defeat the deadly disease of COVID-19.”
We called on the Liberian government to take more meaningful steps to protect free flow of information and challenge the climate of impunity which is being perpetuated by the lack of adequate substantive measures to bring to justice the perpetrators of heinous rights abuses against journalists.
The leadership of the Press Union of Liberia is urging all journalists and media workers as the watchdog of the society and the “fourth estate of the land” to encourage freedom of speech as guaranteed by the Liberian Constitution, the fundamental objectives contained in chapter 15 of the Constitution and uphold the responsibility of the government to the public.
While self-regulatory mechanism is another alternative means of enforcing professionalism, the press Union of Liberia as the umbrella professional platform of media practitioners in the country encourages its members and all journalists and media workers on the importance of self-respect, discipline and to always stand by the truth and justice.
In recognition of the urgent need to enhance the working condition of journalists and media workers in the country; considering that there can be no freedom of expression or freedom of the press where journalists work under precarious conditions and are exposed to danger, poverty or fear, the Press Union calls for concerted efforts by all stakeholders to enhance salaries, allowances, pensions and the general condition of service for media professionals.
Specifically, we call on the Liberian government to note that journalists like those in the conflict situation are daily exposed to grave danger as a result of their professional calling. Accordingly, we call for life insurance for journalists who are on the frontline in the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, provision of adequate and effective personal protection equipment and other medical materials to ease the hardships they daily encounter while on their respective assignments.
It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a need for the Liberian government to intervene to save the media industry from collapse.
Media houses continue to be pivotal in the fight against COVID-19 without any support by government at all levels. This may not continue for long as many media institutions have sounded the alarm that very soon they may fold up due to harsh operating environment. We should not allow this to happen.
We call for a special media sustainability fund for print and broadcast media so as to sustain government’s strategy in its fight to eradicate or contain the spread of the coronavirus and ensure that the fight against the pandemic is not put in jeopardy.
It is feared that if the existing condition continues, the country may suffer its worse economic recession, if not depression, which only a bold and well fashioned economic reorganization plan by government would mitigate.
As I conclude, May I urge all of us, to be cognizant of the fact that we are affected by the COVID-19 health crisis, that cruelly has serious consequences on people’s health, with thousands of deaths recorded to date, but also on all sectors of the global economy. Many borders are closed, thousands of companies have shut down, many of our institutional members have drastically reduced staff, as required by health protocols.
As trade Unionists, we have a duty to both our members, journalists and media institutions and advise journalists on the best ways to protect themselves from this pandemic. As you are aware, this health crisis unfortunately has consequences on the media, the working conditions of our colleagues in newsrooms, and the employment of journalists.
And as it is too often the case, it is the vulnerable among us who are already paying the price and who will lose their jobs in the coming days, without any social security cover nor any salary compensation.
As trade unionists, we stand with those in need among us with all our strength.
We must protect journalists and save the media, working with all media institutions within the territorial confines of Liberia.
Certainly, in these difficult and exceptional moments, you can further count on us, elected officials.
At the moment, it is very difficult to know what the future holds, due to this coronavirus. However, rest assured that we will do our utmost best to maintain our operations at a very high level of quality. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones. Let us never forget that together we are stronger.