Liberia: Press Union of Liberia Position On the President Sirleaf's Double Standard On Press Freedom in Liberia

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Fellow Colleagues, Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the events of the last 18 days have been well documented.

On May 3, 2013, members of the Liberian media assembled in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County to observe World Press Freedom Day, a day declared by the United Nations to remind member states about the need for a free, independent and pluralistic media. But it was also to pay tribute to journalists and media workers who were killed in the performance of their trade.

Ever since this day was adopted, compliant member states of the UN who believe in the principles of the free media have used the day to recommit their governments to press freedom and take actions to ensure the protection of journalists and the unhindered access to information.

Our country has made great efforts at media pluralism, but it remains grossly poor and reluctant in supporting media independence and the safety of journalists. There are ample empirical evidence to show the scale of attacks and threats against journalists committed mostly by people in uniforms (security forces). And all these attacks against the media have sadly passed with impunity. Not one of these attacks has ever been investigated by our government with the view to punishing perpetrators.

We refer you to the attack on October 12, 2012 by Police Director, Chris Massaquoi against reporter George Borteh of the New Republic Newspaper, who was detained and his camera seized for simply taking the Police Director's photo. We refer you to the Christmas night detention of reporter Abraham Morris of the In Profile Daily Newspaper by a junior officer of the police identified as Sonny Wilson. Morris slept in jail for simply asking the police officer to dim his motorcycle light that was pointed in his [Abrharam's] face. We also refer you to the smashing of the television camera of a Clar TV reporter Victor Dorbor by a Monrovia city Police officer on February 26, 2013 and the aggression against several journalists on that same day, when some angry youths attempted to effect what they called "citizens' arrest" of the former Mayor of Monrovia, Mary Broh This is just to name a few. 'Journalists are not whipping boys and girls!'

Fellow Liberians, one of the core objectives of the Press Union of Liberia is to provide protection for journalists in the discharge of their duties. As a consequence therefore of the increasing aggression against journalists without redress from our government, we decided, with the approval and support of UNESCO, to invite key security institutions of government, to celebrate World Press Freedom Day with us in Buchanan. The objectives were to reinforce awareness on the need for media freedom access to information and safety of journalists, as well as to create a platform where both journalists and security personnel would appreciate each other's roles and responsibilities in consolidating the peace in our country.

We were pleased to have attracted the attention of representatives from the Defense Ministry, the Liberia National Police, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, Executive Protective Service, (EPS), civil society activist, and Project Director of Trust Africa, Ezekiel Pajibo and journalist Frank Sainworla to discuss the topic "Media - Security Relations: An Imperative for Consolidating the Peace in Liberia."

Unfortunately, it was on this day that President Sirleaf's security chief chose to intimidate and threaten the media into submission - a growing pattern of a rule of fear.

We did not want to jump at any conclusions that President Sirleaf sent her EPS Director, Othello Warrick to spew those threats of restricting freedoms, about going after journalists who will dare question the integrity of Liberians, including himself and his characterization of some journalists as terrorist.

For nearly a week, our government refused to condemn this onslaught on the media. Hence, the collective decision to institute several actions to send a message to Mr. Warrick and his principal.

Fellow colleagues, we are still confused about the clear thinking of our friends at the Ministry of Information - the people paid to do image building or more appropriately propaganda for our government. These people are noted for rapidly condemning any citizen or foreign organization that criticizes our government, but they have not mustered the smallest courage to openly criticize this man who openly hurts our country's already "partially free" press freedom record.

In separate layers, the Ministry has written a letter signed by Deputy Minister Isaac Jackson to express regrets, but then the same Deputy Minister, writes a press statement to suggest that we were in violation of Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution by our blackout action. Then the same Minister writes an email to our international partners to say the "PUL is simply seeking for international fame and sympathy at the expense of the Government." When an official of government contradicts himself on what is thought to be the position of the government on a serious matter like this, isn't he telling us not to take him serious? The President's media team refuses to speak to the substantive issue and degenerates into personality attacks. We will not follow them!

Fellow colleagues, the biggest contradiction yet in all this confusion was the silence of our President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf---the leader who is celebrated as the "Friend of the Media." It is the position of the PUL that President Sirleaf should not remain silent for one day if her security chief walks into a program marking world press freedom day and threatens journalists - hence our boycott action.

For ten days, the President did not make any public statement to condemn nor disassociate herself from the threats. But when she finally broke silence, she made an equally offensive remark that affirms her EPS Director's threats. What a contradiction!

In effect, the President comments that "she wished we can carry on the blackout for as long as we can," removed any doubts we had that the pronouncements by Mr. Warrick represented the thinking within the government hierarchy, notwithstanding the letter written by Minister Jackson to raise the FOI-Table Mountain chorus.

My friends the FOI is of no significance if "journalists will be arrested without warrant by the EPS and that they will go after journalists who will question their integrity." No madam President, The Table Mountain Declaration is of no effect if journalists are violated with impunity.

So we come today to disappoint our President that it has never been our intention to have an open ended protest action. We reluctantly reached the decision to take the actions we took and will not continue for the length she wants us go.

The Press Union has got no history of starting any conflict in our country. We have rather been in the frontline, fighting for social justice, peace and democracy in our country. Madam President and some of her officials are beneficiaries of our advocacy, and we will not waiver on that mandate. We therefore like to declare an official end to all of our protest actions today.

We encourage journalists to carry out their role in the most professional manner and form, though it is no secret that the victims of media repression have by no means been the undisciplined ones.

We are aware that the most attacks on the media are upon those in the simple pursuit of the truth, which we are under every obligation to encourage journalists to follow.

As fearful as the circumstances have been projected, we nonetheless take it as a challenge to remain fearless, and continue the struggle towards ensuring good governance, democracy and a free press in Liberia.

We must hold together in the face of threats and call on our government to end impunity against the media.

No manner of threats by Warrick and his EPS will cause us to waver in our resolve to uphold the public interest and remain the voice of the voiceless.

We should end this statement by extending thanks to all our friends at home and abroad who stood with us in our fight to check the conduct of our public officials, and to demand guarantees for free expression and democracy in Liberia. We also say thanks to all champions in the democratic movement who condemned this naked abuse of power.

MAY GOD BLESS!

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