Liberia: Punch FM Verdict is a Rude Reminder

opinion

Back in 2003/04, one of the areas the Partnership for Media and Conflict Prevention in West Africa proffered for reform in Liberia was the broadcast sector. The group, which comprised mainly of media rights organizations including UNESCO, the IFJ, Article 19 and Journalists for Human Rights, called for the establishment of an Independent Broadcast Regulator. Their recommendations were made at the end of an assessment mission to Liberia in the aftermath of the civil conflict. As a consequence, the Independent Broadcast Regulator was one of three bills submitted to the Legislature in 2008 for enactment. The other two were the Freedom of Information Act and the bill to transform the state radio into a Public Service Broadcaster. Only the FOI was passed.

The powers to regulate the broadcast sector are currently divided between The Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) and the Ministry of Information, which has proven to be conflicted and manipulative. Under the Telecommunications Act of 2007, the LTA is the agency of government responsible to assign and manage radio and television frequencies, in addition to GSM and ISP providers. Its mandates are concerned mainly with technical issues linked with the use of spectrum. Parameters such as ownership, excessive concentration of licenses, transfer of licenses to third parties, seem to be left to chance.

Essentially, under the dual regulation mechanism, the critical criteria regarding broadcast content are left for the Ministry of Information to handle. With this regime, the heavily-loaded PRC Decree No. 46, creating the Ministry of Information, gives it the discretionary powers to determine who is permitted to get a license from the LTA. Under such arrangements, there are no guarantees that critical voices will ever see day light.

So I submit to us that our country needs an independent broadcast regulator. This is compelling because if we had an independent sector regulator, the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would not have been directly involved in the closure in 2011 of Power FM/TV; Kings FM/Clar TV and Love FM/TV. The Government claimed then that the stations were broadcasting hate messages as the CDC protested the elections result. At least one person shot and killed at the Party's headquarters by state security.

The overnight closure of the media outlets went before the Criminal Court 'A' at the Temple of Justice in Monrovia. Judge James Zota (now deceased), ordered the stations reopened after some kind of hearing and told them to "go and sin no more," without going into the evidence provided by State lawyers. Bad lesson!

I am convinced that if the country had an independent regulator, the government of Sirleaf would not have also been involved in the closure of Voice FM in 2016; Of course if we had an independent regulator, the government of President George Weah would have avoided the temptation of forcefully closing Root FM in 2019 and confiscating the entire studio equipment. You see, if our country had a competent broadcast regulator, Mr. Weah's government again would have easily excused itself from the denial of PUNCH FM operational license. Yes, if we had an independent regulator, the government would not have been in court with PUNCH FM and Roots FM - the regulator would been seized of the matters. I really mean government lawyers would not be in courts defending or prosecuting any radio/TV outlets.

Well, in the absence of a proper regulator, the ruling on January 7, 2020, by Judge Peter Gbeneweleh of Civil Law Court in Monrovia, against government for holding back the operating license of Punch FM is beyond a wakeup call. This is simply a rude reminder that we need to rethink our strategies in countering "unfavorable propaganda and other distortions" as contemplated by Decree 46 that the Ministry of Information derives its powers from.

I must commend the parent company of Punch FM, One Media Incorporated, for choosing to challenge the government's action in court. The Court granted the Petition for Declaratory Judgment and ordered the license be restored despite the resistance by state lawyers. "Don't we normally say small shame is better than big shame?" It might be smart to just let it be instead of going to the Supreme Court. But if authorities are convinced the highest court will overturn the ruling of the court below, then they should go because precedent is being set here.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell would say: "Government can easily exist without laws, but law cannot exist without government." I may not have the exact philosophical interpretation of this quotation but it keeps coming back to me. My small sense is Russell is suggesting to us that we all need to act within the laws - both the governed and the governors.

Meanwhile, how could the Ministry of Information deny the operational license to Punch FM after reportedly paying US$2,900 annual license regulation fees to the Liberia Telecommunications Authority? Government may be acting tough as usual by taking exception to the judge's ruling, but this is shameful to say the least.

In fact, this situation is ample reason why the Government should encourage the reopening of discussions around the bill to establish the Independent Broadcast Regulator. It is very much in the interest of the government to stay clear of these technical and professional decisions. We need a competent authority of technicians who will act in line with internationally accepted standards and not one based on political instinct.

As a media rights campaigner, I am aware of the reckless disregard and abuse of broadcast standards by some of our colleagues. But government is not the right venue to deal with those issues because such decisions will almost, always be tempered with politics. We need a truly independent regulator with clearly defined competences, proper powers and legal framework aimed at regulating the whole sector; one with clear criteria with regards to content regulation, licensing, media concentration, and powers to sanction evenhandedly and timely.

I submit to you that because our country was able to achieve the abolition of criminal defamation laws through the combined efforts of media, CSO, legal, government and international actors, this too is possible for the greater good and image of our country. Closely linked with the establishment of the Independent Broadcaster Regulator is the need for government to also relinquish the state owned Liberia Broadcasting System by turning it into a Public Service Broadcaster. I think the time is right to do these reforms.

To this end, it might also be a politically astute for the government to allow for a comprehensive reform of the powers of the Ministry of information. We need a national conversation on the overall communication policy of the government. To be honest, over the last fifteen years or so, the Ministry of Information has been the source and instigator of some of the tension in the air. I can appreciate that our friends at the Ministry have been trying to aggressively enforce the mandate of the Ministry, but in the age of the internet as well as the explosion media outlets in the country, it is near impossible for government to continue business as usual and win any kind of propaganda against its citizens.

So my friends, isn't the ruling in the Punch FM case sufficient reason to rethink? Do we need any other reminder? Let's stop being prisoners of our past and do some things differently, with due respect.

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Peter Quaqua is the current head of the West African Journalists Association, former president of the Press Union of Liberia, and a media rights campaigner. 

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