Liberia: Journalism As a Public Good and the Role of the Media in Liberia

27 May 2021; Monrovia, Liberia:Earlier in May, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, a seminal document issued by African journalists meeting in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991. The Declaration, as relevant today as it was then, outlines principles protecting the press from interference by governmental, political, or economic interests. It brought home to the global community that progress depends on having a free, pluralistic, and independent press. The UN followed their lead and accepted the call to declare 3 May as World Press Freedom Day.

The Declaration emphasised that information is a public good to which everyone is entitled, and this was the theme for this year's celebration of World Press Freedom Day. Information is both a means and an end to the fulfilment of collective human aspirations, including those enshrined in Chapter 3 Article 15A of the Liberian Constitution, in the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development, in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and in the African Union's Agenda 2063.

A fair and credible media is the lifeblood of a free and transparent society. As stated in the Windhoek Declaration "Enhanced transparency makes for public accountability." Journalism, and especially high-quality investigative journalism, has the power to hold a government accountable to its electorate, to uncover the truth behind the operations of public and private institutions, and to provide citizens with oversight over the activities of the State. Citizens with access to credible and timely information on the decisions that impact their daily lives can make their voices heard and their needs known. Access to information is fundamental for democracy to function.

Speaking truth to power, however, can come at a cost. Too often, and in too many countries, journalists work in an environment that imperils both their lives and their livelihoods. Here in Liberia, the 2019 Abdulai Kamara Press Freedom Act effectively decriminalised "libel", "sedition," and "criminal malevolence" - and this was a major step towards expanding democratic rights - but still there is an atmosphere of self-censorship based on actual violence as well as threats of violence against journalists.

Attacks on and threats against journalists and media outlets have been on the increase since 2018, reaching a crescendo in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. Last year, there were 28 reported incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists, according to a report from the Press Union of Liberia and the Committee to Protect Journalists. While some acts were perpetrated by private citizens, far too many involved instruments of State power. In this same period, Liberia slipped three spots, to 95 of 180 countries surveyed, in the 2021 Reporters Without Borders' annual World Press Freedom Index. These are worrying signs and should be of concern for both the Government of Liberia and its partners.

An environment in which the media can operate freely and independently results not only from the work and the political will of Government, but also from the demands of the people. At the same time, equipping both citizens and journalists with the skills needed to distinguish between fact and falsehood, between journalism and opinion, makes them a bulwark against disinformation.

Shining a bright light into the darkest corners is what the best journalism can accomplish. To quote the great investigative journalist Bob Woodward, "Democracy dies in darkness."

Through our programmes, both the Government of Sweden and UNDP are committed to fostering freedom of expression and access to information, both online and offline, in line with international guarantees of these rights. We support a free, independent, and pluralistic media, while reinforcing the need to protect the safety of journalists, with a specific focus on women journalists. We will continue to nurture media development and information literacy throughout our work, and we will strive to help improve people's access to relevant, diverse, and reliable information.

In everything we do in Liberia, we work with the Government to help expand peoples' options and opportunities. Development, ultimately, is about whether people are able to live long, healthy, and meaningful lives, to make choices, and to have a say in things that matter to their own development. Access to information plays a critical role in ensuring that people are well informed in making choices and decisions, and about what is happening in their communities, their country and the world at large.

Development relies on an informed citizenry, and this, in turn, can only be assured through the work of free, independent, and professional journalists. H.E. Ingrid Wetterqvist is Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Liberia. Mr. Stephen Rodriques is the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme in Liberia.

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