28 January 2013

Liberia: Power of Truth Not Brute Force -Gongloe Admonishes Public Officials, Agents

By all accounts, the Sirleaf Administration is well on the way to perfecting its legacy tolerating free speech and free press. It has enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) and solidified it with the signing of the International Table Mountain Declaration. The FoI and the declaration affirm Article 15 of the Constitution of Liberia. At every opportunity, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has not shied from citing these exploits as marks of her administration's amenity to democracy – to departing from Liberia's draconian past of oppression. But former solicitor general and labor minister, Tiawon Gongloe, believes that in order to perfect its legacy, the administration has major hurdles to surmount. The Analyst, reports.

Former Labor Minister and rights advocate, Tiawon Gongloe, says despite enacting major pro-press and speech legislations, the Sirleaf Administration is unlikely to leave a legacy of press freedom unless it tempered these legislations with the "power of truth", not with "brute force".

The former solicitor general made this observation last Saturday, when he addressed the award dinner hosted by The New Dawn newspaper in Monrovia.

He spoke on the topic, "Media Tolerance in Liberia's Emerging Democracy", which he said must remain a strategic guidepost in the Liberian people's quest to build a democratic society that guarantees free speech.

The former solicitor general said, because the media is the conduit for free expression and therefore the guarantor of press freedom, public officials and agents of governments must tolerate and protect its role at all times.

He said this must become true at all times and on all occasions if Liberia must reflect the true meaning of its name, which is derived from the Latin libertas – liberally translated "land of freedom".

In swearing to uphold freedom back in 1847, according to him, Liberia's founding fathers subscribe to absolute freedom, vowing that "freedom would be for all on an equal basis, limited by respect for the rights of others and respect for the law".

"Can we say that we have built the Liberia that was dreamed of in 1847? Certainly, we have not, although, we have made modest efforts," the rights advocate told his audience and The New Dawn honorees, whom he described as "role models" that must work harder to remain on the pedestals.

The former labor minister said Liberians have been unable to build the Liberia they dreamed of in the founding days because their leaders lack tolerance, describing such lack of tolerance as major "impediment" to democracy.

Successive Liberian government administrations, including the Sirleaf Administrations, he said, had not been able to tolerate and protect the role of the media as conduit for the free expression of the views of the people.

According to him, the media's sworn role has therefore come to be antagonistic and challenge to the will of the government to impose its own views and agenda upon the population.

"Although, there have been times when media institutions were shutdown and media practitioners  arrested, detained, humiliated and subjected to different forms of intimidation, government has found it difficult to have a monopoly in the media, over the last two decades. Liberians have been resilient over the past two decades to keep multiple media houses in Liberia," he said.

That resilience, he said, has borne much fruits as the media in Liberia is faring better than it has been in the past. "However, this period has not been free of the display of intolerance by the government and its functionaries," he noted.

The former solicitor general referenced media reports of arrests and intimidation of journalists, even during this regime, which he conceded is not comparable to the past. He however insisted that even that is unacceptable to Liberia's new democratic culture.

"We must make maximum effort to make Liberia a country free of the intimidation of journalists," he said. "Liberia must be a country where a negative view about the government and its functionaries can be overcome by the integrity and intellectual power of those who govern Liberia and not by the use of brute force by government."

More than that, he said, Liberia must be a country in which government and its functionaries correct media reports, which they dismiss as "untrue story", by the power of the truth told intelligently, and not by the "the use of police power".

Even that, he said, was insufficient to guarantee freedom of the press. Therefore, he said, the government needed to go beyond mere tolerance and truth telling. "The tolerance of media based on the goodwill of those who govern is not a sustainable way to promote tolerance for the media," the legal advocate said.

What more, he said, was for the government to promote greater freedom and tolerance of the media in Liberia by enacting laws that could be abused or misapplied by officials and agents of government to hinder press freedom.

"Therefore, I am once more appealing to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to submit a bill to the 53rd legislature for the repeal of the three anti-press laws that have been used in the past to intimidate the press," the legal practitioner said.

The laws that he wants repealed, he said, are the sedition, criminal libel against the president, and criminal malevolence laws.

"Positive change in governance comes not [by] the goodwill of the President in power, but by courage of the President in power to change laws that create room for bad governance," he said.

He then "publicly advise President Sirleaf to leave a strong legacy in promoting media tolerance in Liberia by taking all steps to repeal these anti-press laws".

It can be recalled that on July 21, 2012, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf signed the Table Mountain Declaration Against the Prosecution of Journalists.

By appending her signature to the document, the president obligates Liberia to a global movement dedicated to replacing statutes under which journalists and media practitioners may be prosecuted as criminal defendants for criminal defamation. The Liberian leader became the second sitting president/head of state in Africa to do so. The first being the President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou.

The president however noted that the media in Liberia was under equal obligation to "act responsibly if the declaration must be more than a piece of paper" by establishing "self-regulating measures, as many other countries have done, to ensure that the media acts responsibly by the granting of these Freedoms".

"Today I will affix my signature, on behalf of the Government and the people of Liberia, unto the Table Mountain Declaration, to fulfill a pledge regarding our Government's acceding to the effort toward repealing criminal defamation laws on our statutes in order to underscore the message, loud and clear, that we are committed to advancing free press and free expression not just in Liberia but to use our leadership role to promote it on the entire continent of Africa," the Liberian leader reportedly said during the signing ceremony.

The president repeated the warning in a recent speech that while her administration would continue to tolerate what she called "the abuse of press freedom" through false and provocateur reporting, her administration would stand up to protect the rights of the Liberian people that such reports trample upon.

She then vowed to prosecute, in the courts of law, those who deliberately publish falsehood in flagrant violation of the rights of fellow Liberians and reward good behaviors.

With very thin line existing between legal prosecution to protect the legitimate rights of citizens and public officials on one hand and media intolerance on the other hand, observers say it is not clear when Liberians will agree that indeed, media freedom has taken foothold in post war Liberia.

Analysts however agree that the scrapping of the sedition, criminal libel against the president, and criminal malevolence laws, and the speed with which the administration accomplishes it, will indicate a good starting.

That leaves wide open the government's request for the media to establish self-regulatory mechanism, the hard question being what form the so-called mechanisms will take without necessarily replacing the anti-free press statutes, the scrapping of which advocates are seeking.

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