Liberia Government (Monrovia)

8 November 2013

Africa: Message from H. E. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the 6th African Media Leaders Forum

Addis Ababa — Dear Friends, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen of the Media:

I thank you for this invitation. The African Media Leaders Forum and the African Governance Week have become highlight events on the Calendar of African events. I regret deeply that I am unable to be present. Notwithstanding, on behalf of the progress made across our continent, I wish your important deliberations success.

Covering a wide range of subjects that are of critical importance to all of us in Africa today, I am informed of the many insightful discussions that have taken place during the last two days of the Forum. You have discussed the ability of the media to contribute to transforming and building a strong and resilient continent. From health and food self-sufficiency to education and institution building, you have examined the significant role of the African media as a content provider and how it can inform and educate citizens on the important challenges that our continent and individual countries confront. The media, in all its forms, remains the most powerful instrument of social transformation available to any community or group of nations. How that instrument is deployed could determine the manner and pace at which our societies evolve.

You have invited my colleagues and me to share our thoughts on creating an environment that can enable the emergence of a world class media in Africa – one that can contribute to setting the agenda, accompany the development process, hold public officials accountable, and keep the private sector engine humming. You ask us to emphasize such issues as funding, ethics, technological innovation and press freedom. Drawing from my own country's experience, I will focus on the last point. However, before I do that, allow me to briefly address some of the other issues.

Media performance and, ultimately, its credibility is generally predicated upon its ability to do the following: generate adequate financing to cover its operations, attract professionals with the right credentials, ensure respect for the ethics of the profession, and stay at the cutting edge of technology. Inadequate funding generally leaves media professionals vulnerable and subject to one of the most destructive forces known to the profession: what you all infamously call "brown envelope journalism". The consequences of this are well known to you all, and include everything from betrayal of the public trust and loss of public esteem to sensational reporting and poverty of content.

The same is true for a lack of respect for the ethics of the profession. This is possibly one of the greatest threats to the emergence of a credible and responsible press in Africa. I am happy to learn that this is one of the pillars of action by the African Media Initiative and a subject that has been regularly discussed by you all in earlier meetings. I am aware that along with having a code of ethics, journalists and other media professionals need to be trained, provided the tools with which to carry out their duties, and remunerated adequately. It is important that we work together, governments, media organizations, the private sector and development partners to address these issues that remain critical not only to the development of media but to progress in all nations.

On the subject of press freedom, I must turn my attention to the situation in my own country. Liberia's continued progress in preserving free speech is second to none. Since 2006, the media landscape of Liberia has exploded with more than 30 newspapers and online services, 19 radio stations and 45 community radio stations which operate across the rural areas. All of these are independently owned and operated. We have established the office of an Independent Freedom of Information Commissioner and laid the basis for engagement with civil society on issues of transparency and accountability within the framework of the Open Governance Partnership. Together with the implementation of the freedom of information law, Liberia continues to take steps to uphold and preserve access to information and free speech.

Additionally, being only the second country on the continent to accede to the Table Mountain
Declaration, and having sought inputs from stakeholders including the Press Union of Liberia, we are in the advanced stages of legislating the decriminalization of media related offenses from our statutes, a process we hope to conclude by the next sitting of the Legislature which begins in January 2014. All of these – and we are prepared to do more – has improved the environment and expanded the space for voices, at home and abroad which were previously silenced, to be heard on national challenges and public policy issues.

Yet, we must also admit that this media explosion is growing in dire need of technical support and assistance in training for journalists, fashioning a strong self-regulatory framework, and committing to best practice, professional care and ethical standards – the same issues with which you have been engaged in the last couple of days. Careful to avoid impugning on the important values of independence of the media, the government has tried to reach out in a limited way, and would warmly appreciate your assistance and support, for the continued development of the Liberian press.

At the same time, we have tried to enable the spread of freedoms and the protection of rights by attending to matters of the rule of law with devotion and care, and have consciously suppressed appetites and refused invitations to draw the Liberian Presidency into influencing outcomes as they may affect individual citizens or institutions, journalists or media organizations.

Of course we have some ways to go to become the society we aspire to be. But thanks to the resilience of the Liberian people, and the continuous friendly engagements of organizations like the African Media Initiative, the transformation of our society is being diligently pursued. This is also possible because as leaders, we have been bold in tackling the issues which combined to plunge our country into war. These issues have profoundly included corruption, transparency and accountability, the rule of law, preservation of freedoms and protection of rights.

Having just celebrated 10 years of living together in peace, we believe the steady progress of our country to be self-evident, and that the foundations for a functionally thriving democratic society are being solidly planted. It may please you to also know that each day, the confidence of Liberians is improving in line with our desire to govern transparently and accountably, to deepen the rule of law, to protect freedoms and rights, and by such dedicated actions, to add value and new meaning to Liberian citizenship. I am also happy that this is the growing impression across our continent. In all of this, however, the role of a responsible, informed, adequately funded, professional and creative media is paramount. This is why, on behalf of our continent, I wish you well.

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