Liberian Journalists Launched Media Watchdog
Liberian journalists on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, made a bold statement in favor of self-regulation, when they launched a media watchdog known as the National Media Council (NMC), along with a Revised Code of Ethics. The last time the Union adopted a Code of Conduct was in May 1997, which was twenty years ago.
The move is regarded as an important step towards addressing the ever-present public demand for ethical and professional journalism in the Liberian media. This development comes at a time when the country is bracing itself for crucial elections that will mark the first time a sitting Liberian leader turns over power to a successor in a democratic environment. The 12-year rule of Africa’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will come to an end after the October 2017 polls.
The Country has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of media outlets since the end of the civil war, but the sector has struggled to contain ethical transgression in the field, partly blamed on the ownership of the media.
There are about 110 radio stations [still growing] across the country, close to forty newspapers concentrated mainly in the capital, Monrovia and up to half a dozen television stations. A substantial portion of these media outlets is either owned or influenced by politicians.
The launch of the multi-stakeholders’ self-regulatory initiative by the Press Union of Liberia is a significant milestone in the life of the Liberia Media Development (LMD) Program, implemented by Internews [an American INGO] and its sub-contractor, Albany Associates, with funding from USAID. Albany is a British communications firm specialising in media law reform. The group has been working on one of the five code objectives of the project: “To strengthen normative-legal enabling environment for freer media.”
Freedom of expression and media are skewed toward state control. This renders the media susceptible to censorship, interference, threats, intimidation and feverous lawsuits with chilling effects. Liberia’s legal system makes it all too easy for public officials to get away with libel claims, with the courts awarding damages ranging from one to five million USD.
Amidst these challenges, occasioned by the apparent erosion of professionalism in the field, the Press Union of Liberia continues to champion the safety of journalists.
The NMC, like its predecessor’s structures, the Grievance and Ethics Committee and the Media Complaints Committee (MCC), is designed to address legitimate concerns over the performance of journalists, but also to reinforce the need for press freedom in a self-regulatory environment.
Two noted Western Ambassadors, who are perhaps the embodiment of media freedom around the world, attended the event at the Monrovia City Hall. The sight of Ambassador Tina Intelmann, Head of the European Union delegation and American Ambassador, Christine Elder on the platform with Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs, Jeddi Armah, elevated the importance of the occasion. But their presence also sent a different kind of message to journalists and the Government alike that “Promoting Media Accountability through Self-Regulation” is the best way in fostering the fledgling democracy.
Ambassador Elder thanked the Press Union for its leadership in undertaking to provide accurate and professional media coverage of the 2017 presidential and legislative elections. Without mentioning the scale of the ethical challenges in the media, the American Ambassador declared, “Liberians deserve professional, credible and responsible coverage of the important issues facing the nation as they make decisions about the future.” She also urged that the integrity of the media is critical to disseminating information and stopping rumors.
While acknowledging the Media Council as a platform to address disputes and complaints related to content, she said, “the Code and Council would mitigate lengthy and costly legal disputes that can have a chilling effect on public discourse.”
The US Diplomat emphasised that over the years, leaders in the media field have identified the need to develop their own code of conduct to elevate the quality of journalism and respect for the media sector in Liberia — “which is a common practice within many sectors to ensure professional standards are maintained.”
Deputy Minister Jeddi Armah spoke of the solid commitments taken by the Press Union of Liberia to advance free speech and free press. He agreed that the formulation of the National Media Council and the adoption Revised Code of Ethics for Liberian Journalists are important milestones and concrete steps in the development of a vibrant and professionalized media. Adding, “Ethical principles are a fundamental precondition in the exercise of professional duties and responsibilities.”
The National Elections Commission, the National Civil Society Council as well as the Reporters, Publishers and Female Journalists Association, all expressed support for the Council in separate remarks.
The Media Council brings together six constituent bodies with a membership of nine. There are three media representatives; two representatives from religious groups, while civil society, academia, women’s groups and the legislature has one representative each.
As per the Operational Framework of the Council, each of the nine will serve voluntarily for two years with the chance of the second and final term. They will work independently of the nominating bodies and the Press Union.
There is ample evidence that self-regulation, not self-censorship, works for the media freedom and the democratic process, but journalists must endeavor to abide by its decisions if they are to dissuade any attempt by government to control them. This is why Union President Coffey, called on all journalists and media institutions to cooperate; observing that “The public will only have confidence in the Liberian media if we are professional.”
In 2015, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded a five-year, “Liberia Media Development (LMD) program” to Internews. The LMD seeks to increase citizens’ access to independent and reliable information and empower them engage in well-informed public discussion.
The Press Union of Liberia is one of the main implementing partners together with the Liberia Media Center, Accountability Lab and other national partners.
The writer of this article, Peter Quaqua, is a former President of the Press Union of Liberia and current President of the West African Journalists Association (WAJA). He currently works on the LMD program as the Senior Media (Law Reform) Advisor.