A bill to transform state radio - the Liberia Broadcasting System into a Public Service Broadcaster, has been tabled before the House of Representatives for the second time in nine years.
The new establishment to be known as the Liberia National Broadcasting Corporation (LNBC) was introduced by Bong County Representative, George Mulbah on Tuesday, September 5, 2017 on behalf of the working group.
It was first submitted to the 51st Legislature together with a bill to establish an Independent Broadcast Regulator and the Freedom of Information Act in 2008 by the Press Union of Liberia and partners. But only the FOI got passed in 2010.
The three media legal reform instruments were recommended after an assessment mission to Liberia by a group of experts under the egis of the 'Partnership for Media and Conflict Prevention in West Africa', just as the Liberian civil war was ending in 2003.
The partnership brought together national, regional and international media development and free expression organizations as part of global efforts to restore lasting peace, stability and democracy to the war-ravaged country. The group included: Article 19, Free Voice, International Federation of Journalists, UNESCO, UNDP, UNMIL, International Media Support, Canadian Journalist for Free Expression, Media Rights Agenda (Nigeria) and Media Foundation for West Africa among others.
Overall, the mission sough "to assess the media environment in Liberia, with the intention of prioritizing and renewing the media support activities of the partnership together with the local media community within the broader perspectives of post-conflict reconciliation and democratic development."
The current bill is a modified version of the original draft, revised with technical support from the USAID funded Liberia Media Development Program (LMD), implemented by InterNews and its sub-contractor, Albany Associates.
There is no question the issues that obtained long before that assessment mission was undertaken in 2003, is ever present. The Partnership observed then that, "The Government needs to demonstrate its appreciation that the LBS is a national resource which should serve the interests of all Liberian citizens, regardless of ... ... political affiliation, religion or other backgrounds."
This call was somewhat a harsh reminder to successive governments beyond the transitional period, to uphold one of the tenets of democratic governance - freedom of expression. Sadly, Article 15 (d) of the Liberian Constitution has not even been strong enough to guarantee unrestricted access to the State radio.
The provision warns that "Access to state owned media shall not be denied because of any disagreement with or dislike of the ideas expressed. Denial of such access may be challenged in a court of competent jurisdiction."
I cannot remember any instance where the Station has been taken to court for denying anyone access to the Radio - thanks to the diversity of radio stations today. Even at that, the State Radio should not be the exclusive reserve of a segment of the society regardless of their power. That's the message the Partnership was sending in 2003.
Yes, the timing of that call was appropriate - the country was in transition from a violent conflict [partly blamed on the marginalization] that left thousands of Liberians and foreign residents including peace keepers dead. Its people had been subdued and humbled into silence. But the problem of LBS being dominated by the ruling government or more appropriately, the Executive Branch, to the exclusion of other citizens, is still present. Hence the need to transform the station.
The Psychological Siege and Undue Influence
In the 2011 elections, the Director General of LBS, Ambrose Nmah was suspended days after the station granted a live broadcast to an opposition figure.
In 2014 senatorial elections, the same Director General was dismissed only after a live broadcast by Ruling Party officials who were opposed to the President's son bid to contest the Montserrado County seat. As recent as September 8, 2017, the Standard Bearer of the All Liberian Party was surprised to be on the State Radio.
When asked by Director General, Ledgerhood Rennie who was hosting him on the 'Supper Morning Show' as to why he was surprised, Mr. Benoni Urey said because the station has always been used as a political tool for some people. Ledgerhood tried his best to disabuse the notion, but it really did not worth his time and effort because it was like trying to 'prove or disprove the negative.'
There is countless number of instances in which members of the opposition and other citizens have complained of either been denied or censored on LBS. So the question is why lawmakers have not acted on this bill with urgency when it could answer the cry of many Liberians including themselves? Irony!
Former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Anna was on point when he said these words about the power of the media "... By giving voice and visibility to all people - including and especially the poor, the marginalized and members of minorities - the media can help remedy the inequalities, the corruption, the ethnic tension and the human rights abuses that form the root causes of so many conflict."
Without questioning the professionalism of the Management team at the Station, one should excuse them for the apparent psychological siege and interferences they have had to endure. We are talking here about the State Radio especially in a Country where even if the President wanted to be tolerant in the minimal, sycophantic loyalists who don't see the bigger picture, prevail.
The renewed call therefore to transform LBS into a Public Service Broadcaster is all the more timely. Incidentally, the Country is in transition again, but a different kind from the one we had 2003. Our country is going through a groundbreaking political transition when a sitting president will hand power over to a democratically elected president.
This is simply a defining moment in our democratic development that should make sense to all the political players and the entire citizenry to study how to sustain this democracy. I have no doubts that once created, the Liberia National Broadcasting Corporation (LNBC) is a sustainer of our fledgling democracy - but also an enabler of our development agenda.
The Point of Departure
"The objective of the LNBC shall be to provide independent, nonpartisan, credible, professionally efficient and accountable public broadcasting service that will cater to the needs of the Liberian people and thereby promote a vibrant, open, stable and democratized society. "
In order to guarantee its independence, the Board of Director shall be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The composition of the Board shall be drawn from nine registered Liberian professional organizations and relevant Government bodies."
Four of those institutions including: The Ministry of Post & Telecommunications, the University of Liberia (Mass Comm.), The Press Union of Liberia and the Liberian Bar Association will serve as statutory members, while the National Teachers Association, The Liberia Chamber of Commerce, the Health Workers Association and the National Civil Society Council will serve two renewable two-year terms each.
The Board of Directors, and not the President, shall then recruit the top Management Team of three "including Director-General, Deputy Director-General for Broadcasting and Deputy Director-General for Technical Operations after an open and competitive recruitment process for a renewable term of four years based on performance." Of course they will be hired with a service contract.
The LNBC shall not compete with commercial stations for advertisement. It shall be fully funded by tax payers through the National Budget. The bill proposes half of 1% of the National Budget to be appropriated for the operations of the stations each year.
With these and other safeguards in the bill including its programing structure should make it all too difficult for any government to compromise the independence and objectivity of the broadcaster.
Is this too hard for us to do as a people who are profoundly intent on developing our democracy? Honestly, there are too many stations here for the Government to worry itself holding onto LBS. We are in an era where every uncleaned propaganda is reproved. So it makes little sense for a government to manipulate a station and/or any outlet that is seen as bias.
I should therefore commend Representative George Mulbah for accepting the vision and his courage to sponsor the bill with absolutely no indecision. I believe there are other lawmakers who feel very strong about changing the status of LBS, we urge you to add your voices to this call.
But this call should also claim the attention of all political leaders and Liberians keen on rewriting our democratic story - this too matters.
Peter Quaqua is President of the West African Journalists Association, Former President of the Press Union of Liberia and focal person on the media law reform pillar of the Liberia Media Development program.