Fostering partnerships to promote press freedom during elections

By James Monibah Pillar Head for Governance and Lenka Homolkova Chief Technical Advisor for elections-UNDP Liberia

Monrovia, Liberia; 09 May 2023: World Press Freedom Day marks its 30th anniversary this year. Its overreaching theme “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights” is important in Liberia, as its people go to the polls to select their representatives and the Head of State for the next six years. This year also marks 20 years of peace in Liberia; holding creditable and transparent elections will be a critical milestone for consolidating the country’s peace and stability. In this regard, the media has a critical role to play in ensuring inclusive, transparent, and credible elections, and in fulfilling one’s right to vote, and be elected. The media is also catalytic in the realization of democracy and human rights, notably freedom of expression, and civic and political rights.

Protecting and promoting human rights and freedoms are at the heart of UNDP’s work. The right to vote, right to information, and freedom of expression, amongst others, shape our electoral support to the government and people of Liberia.  We recognize that freedom of expression and press freedom are enshrined in Liberia’s Constitution and the country has come a long way to protect them, by enacting various laws including the 2018 press law which eliminated the crimes of sedition and defamation of the president. In many parts of the world, press freedom is often restricted for various reasons by State actors. Journalists themselves are often victims of violence just for doing their work. In undertaking their duties, journalists are often perceived as overstepping their boundaries and intruding into the space of politicians, law enforcement agents, electoral workers, and citizens. This creates tension, quarrels, and sometimes even violence.

The protection of journalists is the responsibility of the State and its institutions. This however is a mammoth task that requires many stakeholders to work together. Reinforcing freedom of the press during elections, UNDP has been exploring strategies to bring together security forces and journalists, whose roles are inextricably linked, but whose relationship is not always the easiest.

Security forces play a pivotal role in elections and press freedom. They should be at every polling station, and at every campaign event to mitigate against tensions. These same locations and events attract journalistic interest. Security forces are obligated to protect journalists and ensure they can freely access and disseminate information to the people of Liberia.

As elections are everybody’s business, full, effective participation hinges on unhindered access to public information presented professionally and sensitively. As the pen is said to be mightier than the sword, the media have a duty to report electoral events truthfully, and objectively, carefully choosing words that calm tensions and diffuse violence; words that will build, and not destroy, Mama Liberia.

Law enforcement agencies, while maintaining public order, and acting in the interest of public safety, may in certain circumstances deny journalists access to events and persons that could provide the information they seek. This is where the Freedom of Information Act is critical in determining the delicate threshold, which must be respected by both the media and security forces.

Aware of these intricacies, and the need to foster freedom of the press and expression, especially during elections, UNDP together with national and international partners, particularly the National Elections Commission, the Peacebuilding Office, and Internews have convened meetings with both media and law enforcement agencies to strengthen a mutually beneficial working relationship ahead of the October elections. It was not an easy task but both parties agreed to rules of working together to protect the integrity of the electoral process, and media freedom.

This commitment is affirmed in joint media and law enforcement Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) signed last November by the joint security forces of Liberia, the Press Union of Liberia, and the Female Journalists Association of Liberia. The SOPs outline the roles and responsibilities of both media and law enforcement agencies during elections and are a critical milestone toward peaceful 2023 elections.

Building bridges between media and law enforcement agencies protects journalists and improves access to information on one hand while, on the other hand, it protects the integrity of the security forces and helps save them from misinformation. The SOPs protect media freedom and incorporate gender equality principles in recognition of the significant role women played in ending the Liberian civil war and continue to play in Liberian society. There is also a separate chapter dedicated to the protection of female journalists.

We are hopeful that the SOPs will enable media and security forces to discharge their election-related and other responsibilities in an effective, peaceful, and non-confrontational manner, mutually supporting each other’s work for the good of the people of Liberia and the country. The aim is, in part, to minimize unprofessional media conduct and abuse of authority by the security forces that could lead to violence.

It is critical that the media always present accurate, verified information as disinformation and hate speech could also provoke violence. UNDP has partnered with a local NGO, Local Voices of Liberia to strengthen their fact-checking iVerify platform to combat mis/disinformation and hate speech. Everyone is encouraged to fact-check any doubtful information by visiting the Local Voices Liberia website

As we celebrate the press freedom gains in Liberia, we cannot over-emphasize the need for the media to adhere to their professional code of ethics to diffuse tensions and nurture Liberia’s hard-won peace. We must also remind ourselves that my freedom of expression ends where your freedom of expression begins. Together, let us make every day count for credible elections in October.

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