17 May 2013

Africa: WAJA Writes Ellen

Photo: IRIN
Liberians scan a newspaper (file photo).

The West African Journalist Association or WAJA has written President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, expressing concern over the reported row between the Press Union of Liberia and the Presidency, which led to a media blackout against the government.

WAJA and its media partners and freedom of expression groups said they were concern over recent threats against media freedom in Liberia by senior state officials, which they strongly condemned.

It said information received the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) indicates that in one of the most recent manifestations of this intolerant attitude, on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) 2013, Othello Warrick, Director of the Executive Protection Service (EPS), described journalists as "terrorists" and threatened to go after them. "if you incriminate the character or integrity of Liberians, like myself, we will come after you."

A three-page letter signed by WAJA President Mohammed Garba and 19 media organizations noted that Warrick's statement leads them to believe that an armed agency of the Liberian Government intends to use harsh tactics to prevent journalists from doing their work.

"These statements further signal a worrying state orchestrated interference with the free flow of information, willingness to illegally interfere with the processing of news and ideas without recourse to or respect for any form of legal procedure," read the letter.

WAJA believes the President's position on the media blackout would suggest that her Government is not living up to its obligations under international law to protect and defend the rights of media practitioners and ensure that they are not subjected to any form of disability in the performance of their professional duties.

"It would accordingly imply that your Government does not intend to promote the free flow of ideas and divergent views. As a public figure and head of state and government, under international law, you are expected to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny and criticism from the press than other ordinary citizens and that you are in fact expected to tolerate such higher level of scrutiny and criticism," the letter noted.

It said President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf seems not to be aware that the Press Union of Liberia is to host the WAJA Congress scheduled to take place in Monrovia in July, saying "As the sub-regional association of journalists and parent body of the Press Union of Liberia, we chose Monrovia based on your Government's many positive strides, including the passing into law of a Freedom of Information Bill in September 2010, your personal endorsement of the Declaration of Table Mountain in July 2012, and your Government's accession to the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) Declaration in September 2011."

WAJA also said by the adoption of the Freedom of Information Act, the Government of Liberia has implicitly identified the free flow of information and ideas as being among its main priorities for national development, reminding that "The Liberia Constitution of 1986 also commits to the fundamental principles of free expression."

The regional organization said it considers Warrick's statement repressive and inimical to the exercise of independent journalism, free expression and freedom of opinion, coupled with the President's stances on the matter extremely unhelpful.

"We also wish to bring to your attention our unflinching support to the Press Union of Liberia, independent journalists and all media partners in Liberia. WAJA stands by each and every position that the PUL has so far taken in protest and looks forward to the resolution of this crisis," the letter further read.

However, in a statement broadcast on the state-owned Liberia Broadcasting System here, Director Othello Warrick apologized to members of the Liberian press for his comments in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County.

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