Press Union Of Liberia on the Reopening of Natl Chronicle, and other issues affecting the Liberian Media Landscape

Last Friday, August 7, 2015, the Supreme Court of Liberia passed a ruling in the Writ of Prohibition issued by the Press Union of Liberia against the Government of Liberia unlawful closure of the National Chronicle Newspaper since August 14, 2014. The decision denied the writ of prohibition, but ordered the reopening of the National Chronicle.

The decision by the Supreme Court of Liberia to reopen the National Chronicle Newspaper closes a sad chapter in the failure of the government to abide by due process of law and a reflection of their high degree of intolerance.

The unfortunate and unlawful closure of the National Chronicle had been a difficult note in the history of press freedom and democracy in Liberia. It simply placed Liberia further down the line on adherence to free speech.

While we disagree with the reasoning of the court in denying the prohibition, we all the same believe that the objective of our petition to ensure due process has been met, whether by the reopening of the National Chronicle or by the respective concurring or dissenting opinions on due process by separate Justices of the Supreme Court.

The long wait for the Supreme Court to reach a decision heralded the point that justice delayed is justice denied. We however note that the long term reach by which the paper is reopened, even outside of due process is a point that needs to be emphasized.

The abrupt, unlawful and prolonged closure of the Chronicle was a stark reminder of a difficult time in Liberian history, wherein political and military tyranny limited the people’s right to free speech and freedom of the press.

The Press Union of Liberia sees these actions as a further expression of intolerance, an unwarranted attack on the free press and a failure by the government to utilize due process. We seriously believe this action strengthens the distrust between the government and the media, undermines the rule of law and lays to waste the fruitful collaboration that has existed between the media and the government.

We should however hasten to note that the media will remain engaged as the foremost partner in the maintenance of peace and the development of a vibrant democracy.

However the limitation of the government in providing opportunities to further democracy, we are not oblivious of challenges in media practices in Liberia. Some of us fall well below the minimum Press Union of Liberia Code of Conduct for journalists. We fail to meticulously source and verify our works; we breach elementary standards which insult our intelligence and expose journalism in Liberia to the ridicule of public figures who generalize their response to a single newspaper story to the entire journalism fraternity.  Unfortunately, some of these practices are fueled by government actors, politicians and unscrupulous businesspeople. This is so bad, and warrants full and heavy sanctions.

In the last several weeks, the Press Union of Liberia had the unpleasant duty of instituting fines and suspensions on some of it members, and will not hesitate to add others to this list when they operate in unsavory ways.

Despite the challenges, the PUL remains supportive of efforts, including the passage of laws and the provision of facilities that strengthen opportunities for journalists to have access to information from various sources within the country and across the world. We are still determined to have the government of Liberia abide by its declared commitments to decriminalize media offenses.

But in spite of these efforts by the media to institute regulations within its ranks, the media continues to be subjected to unjustified attacks from several sources.

A few days ago, US Ambassador Deborah Malac, while responding to an unfortunate story in one/two of the papers, which she rightly described as "shoddy reporting," effectively blamed the entire media landscape for that one mishap. Ambassador Malac said: “Not a single journalist contacted U.S. Embassy Monrovia to check the veracity of this story or to ask for comment.”

Good point, in fact excellent! The professional newsroom verifies a subject before taking it up as an item for follow up. We like to agree that institutions publishing the articles did not crosscheck, but Madam Ambassador the absence of other reporters from your door clearly means that they have first researched the developing item and it fell way below their standards for news. So, coming to you would've well meant a waste of news gathering time. Remember, news must be based on real happenings.

So, Madame Ambassador, attributing the wrong doing of one or two newspapers to the entire media of more than 80 institutions  who would go at great length to practice high level of professionalism – is quite unfair to the rest of the media.

 Worse, and increasingly in our society is the multi-million lawsuits being filed against journalists and media. Recently, it has been the four million United States dollars lawsuit against Journalist Octavin Williams for allegedly injuring the reputation of business man Tony Lawal. In line with the civil lawsuit, Williams is obliged to produce a US$400,000 bond to secure his release from further pretrial detention. This is punishment before judgment since it would arguably be difficult for even the President of Liberia to meet the accumulative value of Journalist Octavin Williams’ bond fee.

 What is even more frightening is that the lawsuit is built in a fashion to jail the journalist. Indeed, he spent at least 192 hours/ 8 days in the stench of the Monrovia Central Prison.  Williams is not alone in this situation, and this leaves us with the conclusion that the heavy money law suits granted by the courts in total disregard of the incomes of Liberians amounts to Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – SLAPP. These kinds of suit are actually not intended to seek justice, but to rather silence the journalist/media into submission. We are not preventing people from taking recourse to the law, but we also do not  believe that court actions should be unreasonable, making it impossible for people to have confidence in the court as a forum to gain justice. We must all agree that if people do not confide in the courts of law, they might be considering other options to secure justice.

Thank you for coming.

K. Abdullah Kamara
Press Union of Liberia

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