The imperial undercurrent of African leadership culture has often put Africa’s democratic governance on collision course with the media. On this course, the suppression of the media through intimidation and imprisonment of journalists and the enactment of draconian laws to circumvent freedom of speech have become the norm rather than the exception. It has been so since the emergence of independent Africa in the 1960s. Now with international relations favoring good governance, the picture is changing: moderate governments are eliminating restraining laws as they enact media friendly laws. Liberia is at the head of that moderate pack, making President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf the trailblazer, according to the African Editors’ Forum (EAF), which met last week in Bamako, Mali. The Analyst, reports.
The continental elite media group, African Editors’ Forum (EAF), has awarded President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf the 2010 “Friend of the Media Africa Award”, making her the first ever sitting president on the African Continent to win the prestigious award.
The group declared President Sirleaf winner of the award during its fourth award gathering last Wednesday in Bamako, Mali.
President Sirleaf, the group said, deserved the award amongst several other contenders, for “Her work and leadership in Liberia, for rebuilding it from its shattered past of war and in particular for doing so while expanding media freedom through the passing of the Freedom of Information Act”.
AEF awards the honor every two years to political leaders who it confirmed have contributed to media-friendly environments in their countries during the monitor period.
This year’s event was organized on the theme, topic: “Media and the Challenge of Peace in Africa”.
Presenting the award to Vice President Joseph Boakai, who represented the President at the ceremony due to her pressing national engagements, AEF Chairperson Mustapha Tsedu praised President Sirleaf for setting the pace for sound government-media relations in Africa.
According to him, recent trends have indicated that the relationship between the media and governments were improving, but that for the a sitting president to personally champion the cause of the media, like President Sirleaf did, was a cutting edge achievement, which put her at the head of reform-minded leaders across the African Continent.
Observers say not only has President Sirleaf endeared herself to the media, but also that under her administration no journalist has been summarily detained for their personal views, which is commonplace in most African countries including those in the subregion.
VP Boakai: bearing the award, paying tributes to fallen journalists
“This honor that you bestow on our President will inspire a new generation of Africans to work hard in the service of their nation and people,” he said VP Joseph Boakai upon receipt of the award on behalf of President Sirleaf.
“Ellen’s leadership in Liberia is a challenge to womanhood and an honor to leadership on the continent of Africa,” he noted further.
He paid tribute to the organizers of the event, specifically thanking AEF Chairperson Mustapha Tsedu and all the members of the Forum for the work that the organization has done to organize the biannual event.
He said that even though the President did not attend the ceremonies due to pressing national engagements, her administration held her nomination for the AEF award in the highest of esteems for a number of reasons, including high regards for the media as the Fourth Estate and as a peace and development partner.
“Her Administration attaches great importance to the positive impacts the media has made on Liberia and continues to make in helping our country to move from war to peace; from destruction of infrastructure to redevelopment and progress; from reform of our institutions to the growth of our democracy,” VP Boakai said.
This is why, he said, the government under her leadership has created space for the free exchange of information amongst the media, the civil society, and the government.
VP Boakai, who served as one of the panelists during the ceremonies, then took a moment to bid the gathering rise to the memories of journalists who died in their lines of duty during the Liberian civil war.
The fallen journalist were three Nigerians, whom he did not name, and three Liberians including Charles Gbayon, Klon Hinneh, and John Vambo; who, he said, lost their lives in the struggle to fulfill their altruistic responsibilities.
“Their life story is etched in the peace we celebrate in Liberia and their passing should reinforce the resolve of all heads of governments and decision makers to never give comfort to such episodic events again in our borders,” said the presidential proxy.
He said the need to ensure that the mistakes of war, in which fighters treated non-combatants as enemies, were not repeated the Liberian government has made human rights training a critical competency requirement for Liberia’s postwar army, police, and paramilitary forces in keeping with the Geneva Convention.
“We have also established regular monitoring and evaluation of these trainings to ensure that what is taught during training is what is practiced in the line of duty by our Armed Forces of Liberia, the Liberian National Police Force, and all Para-security forces charged with interfacing with the public in the discharge of their duties,” he said.
He said the efforts were directed at achieving the security concerns of journalists and the peoples within the Liberian border, noting that the tragedy of Liberia is not just that terrible things happened, but that so little was done to avert them in a timely manner.
The Liberian second in command said it was because so little were done to correct the Liberian tragedy that the Liberian media showed its worth as a partner in progress rather than as an adversary.
“They fill in the gaps and created an understanding of the horror that was unfolding in Liberia. It was the persistent media reporting of the carnage in Liberia that informed the ECOWAS Peace Plan, the first international intervention into the Liberian conflict. The ECOWAS Peace Plan led to the creation and deployment of ECOMOG to keep the peace and restore order,” he said in efforts to explain why the Sirleaf Administration considered the media a viable partner.
He said the role the media played in ending the Liberian war was instructive in the emphasis President placed on access to information in Liberia as embodied by the signing of the Freedom of Information Act into law on September 16, 2010.
“This Act effectively nullifies closed government and creates an open society in which, citizens and residents alike can now have unfettered access to public and private institutions information,” he said, noting that the new law also supported free and open government.
He then quoted President Sirleaf as noting that the new law required all public officials to uphold public trust in whatever they engaged because the need to hide the weaknesses of public officials would no longer be any alibi to deny public information to journalists or people who simply wanted to informed.
“Her Excellency further cautioned that it would be a mistake to put aside access to public information for the promise of short-term stability in any of our respective states,” he said, noting however, that neither would the state compromise its security interest at the expense of freedom.
Given the importance of both, he said, the government would rather endeavor to cast the necessary balance in order to maintain the peace and security of the state and the peace and happiness of the citizens and residents.
“It is our firm belief that Governments in Africa should work with all media institutions, including civil society to achieve these goals,” VP Boakai said, indicating that Liberia was unable to overcome the legacy of internal conflicts throughout its 163 years of existence because successive administrations failed to cast the necessary balance.
Weak institutions, corruption, intimidation in the government, and widespread public distrust permeated the Liberian society as the result and created spaces for gross exaggeration and the spread of misinformation with impunity.
But he said it was all over, now that the government has pledged an era of information revolution in Liberia as indicated by the enactment of the information law.
“As Liberia looks for common solutions we are casting a wide net to work with many partners, including the media, which is a central organization in the web of international organizations, with key roles to play in helping governments achieve security success in Africa,” VP Boakai said.
He said not only was the government ensuring that press freedom was practical in Liberia, but that it was also taking notes of the progress it has made in the areas transparency, good governance, and the right of the Liberian people to be informed in keeping with law.
Vice President Boakai then presented a copy of Liberia’s Freedom of Information Act, which was recently signed into law by President Sirleaf, to the Chairperson of the African Editor’s Forum (AEF), Mustapha Tsedu.
Also honored at the event were the former president of Ghana, John Kufuor; Malian minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga; and former presidents of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.