Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why The Liberian Press Is Still Not Free

By: ralph geeplay

World Press Freedom Day has come and gone with editorials and commentaries lauding the role of the press in Liberia, its critical role in nation building, and the persecution it suffered in the past.

The hounding and prosecution of members of the Liberian press is not a secret. In its bid to inform the masses, the media have paid a costly prize at the hands of the nation’s autocratic leaders as it sought to carry out its traditional watchdog role in a volatile region such as Liberia that lacks civility.

The hostility facing the Liberian press over the years has come largely from the political power that be, fearing the media would bring to light the shady deals and rampant corruption that has defined the current administration and previous ones.

Much still though is desirable about press freedom in 21st century Liberia, when people in high places continue to malign journalists, which according to Abdoulaye W. Dukule is simply erroneous. “Expressions such as “the press is corrupt…” or the “press is full of lies…” are value-loaded judgments… this is what leads to guilt by association," Dukule wrote in The Perspective years ago.

Even though democratic governance is taking root, the forth estate’s independence is still compromised and its pages influenced, says critics. If the critics are right, it is because the media lack an adequate revenue base needed to speak with the independence and authority it deserves as it challenges the powers that be to govern diligently on behalf of the people. How then with such impediment can it employ the men and women it needs to stand as a buffer to jealously protect its terrain as umpires in a society where fraud is rife and rumors flies like rockets?

Principle among the media critic also is the President of Liberia. On August 23, 2006, she hyped the ante when she referred to the forth estate in Liberia as "check book journalists." Her ardor was fueled by sentiments that the press had defaulted on its customary role of news reporting; accepting perks as its pages were prejudiced by unbalanced stories. She alone knows what informed those views. It is not that the Liberian press doesn’t have pitfalls, but an open-ended indictment as such was gruff.

IFEX, an international media monitoring group followed the issue and wrote, "Sirleaf unleashed the attack on journalists when she delivered the commencement address at the United Methodist University...[she] said Liberian journalists have replaced sensitization with sensationalism and, according to her, in some instances outright lies and half-truths are preferred to accuracy and truth"

The release went further: “The president, who called for reform in the Liberian media, stated that good journalism ethics have been substituted for blackmail and lies" which provoked a media outcry in Liberia. This did not stop U. S. Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield from making the same declaration. In an interview with the Monrovia-based New Democrat, Greenfield echoed Sirleaf’s sentiments when she advised Liberian journalists against the habit of “check book” news reporting. The ambassador added that this could thrust the country into another round of fighting, and also pointed out that corruption was not something that was only done by politicians but also done by Liberian journalists.

There is no way the Liberian press can be independent when local and multinational companies operating in the country starve the press and media of that critical advertising revenue. Advertising revenue is an important component of the operational cost that runs media houses the world over, and daily sales of newspapers in Liberia are paltry with all of them concentrated in Monrovia.

Least we forget on the important occasion as journalists are being celebrated the world over that the Liberian press has paid its dues: its members have been beaten, jailed and its press houses burnt to the ground all these years by the autocrats that ran the Liberian state into the ground. To strengthened the rule of law in the country it is incumbent upon the national government to take up the issue of revenue ad with the private sector as a way of encouraging a truly independent media so that its traditional role of balance and credible news reporting is neither compromised nor hijacked by the greedy few who seek to buy the press and therefore ruin its good name.

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