Ms. Yasmina Bouziane (UNMIL Spokesperson)
I have the pleasure of being here at this special press conference for the World Press Freedom day with a number of colleagues; first and foremost the President of the Press Union of Liberia, Mr. Peter Quaqua along with colleagues from UNESCO, Ms. Lusia Piette. And we have colleagues from the IREX, Mr. Bill Burke who will speak to us and Ms. Tilly Gardner.
I would to thank our colleagues from the press who are here today and our UNMIL Radio listeners. World Press Freedom day is very important not only to us as media practitioners but also to entire world and community. We have seen in very recent days how much the press has been essential in getting the word out to local populations and people who have not been able to have access to media; social media, print, radio and television. And we have also seen how media practitioners have been able to benefit from communities contributions to give us information through new social media to send you tube videos and other reports.
World Press Freedom Day is also very important for a number of reasons and there is a special statement that we have out here for our colleagues to pick up; both from the Secretary-General and the Director of UNESCO on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. I will just quote two portions of if; “Freedom of expression is one of our most precious rights. It underpins every other freedom and provides a foundation for human dignity. Free, pluralistic and independent media is essential for its exercise”.
We will be here together with our colleagues, President of the PUL, IREX and UNESCO to talk about how this is applicable to Liberia where we are doing for this and what activities are planned around this special day in Liberia.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon also said media freedom faces severe pressure across the world. We have seen this throughout this year and last year. What is really essential is that world press freedom is an opportunity to raise the flag in the fight to advance media freedom. The Secretary-General will call on May 3 for all states professional and non professional media practitioners and Non-governmental organizations everywhere in the world to join forces with the United Nations, UNESCO and all of its agencies to promote online and offline freedom of the expression. This is in accordance with the international accepted principles. This is the pillar of individual rights; a foundation for healthy society and for social transformation.
Thank you, media practitioner who are here, who are listening to be part of this and we look forward to go in the track here in Liberia. There are a number of activities and conferences; and we will here very shortly from guest.
For our UNMIL Radio listeners, we just want to remind you that World Press Freedom day was established in 1993 on May 3 and it is a day to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, assess the state of press freedom throughout the world, prevent the media from attack on their independence and pay tributes to those journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. And that is something that is very essential.
Mr. Peter Quaqua, President (Press Union of Liberia (PUL))
Thank you. My colleagues and our partners; the fact that we are here at the Headquarters of UNMIL speaks to the very serious partnership that we have. This year celebration is particularly exciting because this is the first that we have very serious host of partners celebrating world press freedom day with us.
We will give you an overview of what is going to happen in Liberia for one week and then we will allow our partners give a synopsis of what they are going to be involved with. We are pleased for the sponsorship of UNESCO, IREX and UNMIL to celebrate this event with us. As you are aware, probably by now the celebration this year is under the theme “New Voices, Media Freedom Helping to transform Societies”.
Beginning Monday, the 2nd of May, we will start celebrating World Press Freedom Day in Liberia with a Conference. This is going to be a mini Mano River Union (MRU) conference and we will allow the UNESCO representative to speak more on that. We have been able to bring two countries from the MRU to Liberia this week to celebrate along with us; Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire. Following the conference on 2 May, we will celebrate officially on 3 May. On the 3rd, traditionally we parade the streets of Monrovia to showcase the media and to remind society, the Government and ourselves the importance of Press freedom and free expression. And therefore we will be parading through the streets of Monrovia and end up at the campus of the University of Liberia where we hope to have the debate. Again we try to depart from some of the traditions of the past. We have always had politicians and sometimes public figures speak on these occasions. This year we are going to have student debate on the very important aspect of freedom of the media and that is the FOI (Freedom of Information) law. As you are aware, our country passed this; it is the first in West Africa. But we have had some difficulties in implementing this law and therefore the students will be debating. The Topic is “should the denial of FOI request be allowed in countries at a certain stage of development”? That will be the topic for discussion between the University of Liberia and the Stella Marie Polytechnic.
Following the May 3 event, normally on world press freedom day, journalists are recognized especially those who died in the performance of their duties. In Liberia, we have never had death in recent past but we like to recognize the effort of journalists who do well on the job. Therefore we will be having our annual award ceremony the next day. These are some of the activities that we have lined up and I like for our colleagues from UNESCO to speak more about the conference on 2 May and also IREX.
Ms. Luisa Piette UNESCO - Liberia Consultant and ICFJ Knight Fellow)
This is an event that is celebrated worldwide. It has been going on since the 90s and this year the official event which is sponsored by UNESCO will take place in Tunisia. Here in Monrovia, what we are doing is that, UNESCO decided to sponsor this event as it does for almost every year, but this time it is a little bit more substantial in terms of funding and involvement. We are bringing in Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Media professionals. Some of them are journalists and some that worked with the media.
The actual conference will take place 2 May 2012. This is part of a very large commitment by UNESCO. We chose to include media sustainability project and IREX is partnering in that. We are working to make sure that the media has the business know how to sustain their outlet. That is part of what UNESCO is doing.
Ms. Tilly Gardner (UNESCO- Ivory Coast)
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen and members of the press.
IREX on the global scheme is also partnering with UNESCO in the World Press Freedom activities in Tunis. We believe firmly that without free press there cannot be a civil society. The two are very closely linked. Freedom of Information and of the Press, these are essential for both personal freedom and for countries to move ahead in their development.
I applaud Liberia for being the first country in Africa for having the Freedom of Information law. This year we are sending three Liberians to participate in the event in Tunisia and we are very happy about that.
From the local scale, we have been in partnership with Mr. Peter Quaqua and UNESCO on various different projects like the media sustainability programs which fits in nicely what IREX is overall. So, we are looking forward to the celebrations this week and encourage Liberians to keep at it and worked hard to ensure that the freedom you have worked so hard for are given to you.
Mr. Bill Burke (IREX Senior Communications Specialist)
Since the arrival of IREX in Liberia, we have been supporting Liberian journalists to have representation at the World Press Freedom Day Conference. I believe last year was the first time we partner with UNESCO to host the international conference which was held in Washington DC. We had two representatives from Liberia, Malcolm Joseph from the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building and Estella Nelson from the Liberian Women Media Action Committee. This year we again we are supporting three Liberians to be part of the celebration in Tunis; Lawrence Randall, from the Liberia Media Center, Fatumata Fofana, one of the editors at the Daily Observer Newspaper and Patmella Doe our media programme officer will be in Tunis joining journalists from around the world to celebrate world press freedom day.
This year, since we collaborate with UNECSO on the international level, and we were approached by our partner, Luisa, to collaborate because we had similar goals and objectives in terms working on media sustainability and we sign a memorandum of understanding. So together with the PUL and UNMIL we are working to ensure that this year celebration will be very successful.
In addition to supporting world press freedom day, IREX has been building the capacity of local journalists. Primarily our aim is to improve the professional output of the Liberian media and what other way can we work to improve the output of the Liberian media and then to try to support freedom of expression here in Liberia.
It is important that given the level of press freedom we enjoy in this country, it is important that we recognize some of those who came before us, some of those who die in the line of duty fighting for press freedom in this country and some of those who fought for freedom, who are no longer here with us; and I can think of a few of them like Rufus Dapoe, Charles Gbeyon who was killed in 1985, John Vambo who died in the 90s and so many other. It is an honor for us to be part of this celebration, to celebrate the fruit of their labor.
Question and Answer
Q: Nathan Charles ( ELBC)
My question to Mr. Quaqua is the media independent under this regime. And for IREX, I want to commend you for the level of training you have provided to media practitioners in the country. I want to know what criteria you used in selecting journalists to participate in this world conference.
A: Peter Quaqua (PUL President)
Good question. I am sure if we were to ask how many of you around the table are independent many of you would put your hands up. I however would define independence as the content of what you put out. I thought you would have asked whether the media was free but if we are asking about the independence of the media, I think there are very many things that speak to what independence is. Personally, I believe there are some issues including financial independence that are still affecting the independence of the media here. Many of us are incapacitated and the media is operating vitally under condition of service. Those are things that are affecting the media if I may. However, if it is the independence for the media to do its work… I think we have some amount of independence at that level but economically I think we are still wanting.
Tilly Gardner (IREX)
We are inviting most journalists for May 2nd and the parade on May 3rd. We hope you can all participate in the parade which is the actual day. As far as the Sierra Leoneans and Ivoirians are concerned … we obtained a list of those journalists that are more active in terms of reporting on press freedom. That was some of the criteria put forth and we were sent a list by the Journalists Association of Sierra Leone and Cote D’Ivoire and that’s how we came up with a list of seven journalists each that are coming from those countries.
I think you were interested in how we selected Liberian journalists to go the World Press Freedom Day international conference. This year for example, we are aware of the role of the Liberian Media Center during the elections. The Liberian media took the lead in providing alternative technology to advance election reporting and the theme of this year is “New Voices, Media Freedom helping to Transform Societies”. So we got a recommendation from the IREX committee in Washington that was working to select a number of fellows for world press freedom and they ask whether it was a good idea to invite the Director of the Liberia Media Center (LMC) and we agreed and give them the role the LMC played during the election. The second thing is that we always try to promote women in the media. So we sat and figured out who else could we advance and based on this we recommended Fatoumata Fofana who we know is one of the few female editors we have in Liberia and an excellent writer on advancing access to information for women. Patmilia Doe who is our Media Programme Officer is the lead on our Community Radio initiative and she is very involved in promoting access to information for people in the counties that we work so based on that we thought to select these three people. We looked at the history of their involvement in promoting access to information and freedom of the press in the country.
Q: Eugene Myers (Heritage Newspaper)
To the Press Union of Liberia President and maybe you will like to share with our colleagues from the IREX who is also working to improve the output of the Liberian media. What is the state the Liberian media in terms of freedom from intimidation from the Government and other high profile public officials? During the year under review we saw a lot of media houses closed by the police and colleagues were drag to the Supreme Court and force to apologize coupled with a number of lawsuits against the media.
Q: J.B. Hilton (New Vision Newspaper)
My question goes to the President of the Press Union of Liberia. What mechanisms is the Union putting in place to curtail the intimidation and abuse of journalists as in the case of FrontPage Africa reporter Mai Azango and Francis Nah just to name a few.
A: Peter Quaqua (PUL President)
Your question and that of J.B. Hamilton’s are two serious questions that arevery similar. The true of the matter is that we’ve had some very serious awareness in the public about freedom of the media and over the last five or perhaps ten years we have increased that kind of awareness in the public and among public officials about the need to allow the media to operate freely. I should like to think that we have seen some low shift but unfortunately we have had intermittent disruption where public officials have over step some of their authority to infringe on the rights of journalists and every time they show up we try to remind the Government that it is not in the interest of our country that we continue to see these things happen because they are documented and every time people will flag them. So yes, the question of intimidation is still here but we are hoping that they can go away but I bet it is going to be here for a long time to come. What we have asked out Government to do is to take action when these things occur. There is an argument about impunity in the media… it is Government that has the onus to correct it. At the same time while we frown on intimidating journalists, we have also been keen of late on how the media performs and we have to match those two together. As much as we want freedom we must be responsible for the errors that we commit. Whenever a journalist is violated we will not mince our words in condemning it and letting the public and the Government know that it cannot continue but at the same time we have to be ready to correct some of those problems we have that might be provoking some of these attack. I should like to emphasize that there is no reason why someone should be attacked …any justification absolutely. Even if a journalist is unprofessional or not, the place to correct it is probably the court or to launch a complaint with the Union.
We have been trying to make the Media Complaints Committee more functional. We graduated from the Ethics Committee and we have been trying to strengthen the Media Complaints Committee that is the place we have emphasized the need to self regulate ourselves. If the media cannot do self regulation you can bet that you will be controlled and these kinds of argument of intimidation and harassment of the media will be prevalent. Let me be clear however that we condemn any action from anybody or official of Government who will try to intimidate or scare the media from doing its work. It is against the spirit of press freedom.
Q: Jutomo Gono (In Profile Newspaper)
You will be hosting an important media conference tomorrow, what are some expected outcomes of that conference that will be beneficial to the media. Secondly, IREX and other partners have been instrumental in providing training for the media in terms of building their capacity…However, we find out that after these trainings due to low wages they leave the media for greener pastures and other professions that are more lucrative. What is the union doing to ensure that there is a benchmark for journalists’ salaries that will help to empower them financially.
A: Luisa Piette (UNESCO-Liberia Consultant and ICFJ Knight Fellow)
The benefits to the media… I think just holding these events those we make a statement but we are engaging majority of the media practitioners operating in the country including community radios. We are bringing journalists from most of the counties represented in this conference that is happening on May 2nd.We are hoping that this will be a follow-up to the conference that we had back in September and some of you participate in the media ethics conference we had which was dedicated to issues around conflict sensitive reporting. Pre-elections reporting because we were approaching the election season in Liberia. So the benefits we see is that we have a forum where journalists much like this press confere4nce can ask questions and get information about what other organizations are doing and this one we will have two countries that have similar history of violence. Cote D’Ivoire so very violent post election season about a year and a half of two years ago and Sierra Leone is gearing up to have their elections and we can only hope that the experiences of Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire will help Sierra Leone have a better outcome and have peaceful elections. We are hoping that by bringing some colleagues from the region that the shared experiences will help all of you to be better and stronger. As Bill, Tilly, Yasmina and Peter have said we are working to build capacity but we also want responsibility from the media, w want the media to abide by universality accepted media ethics and those are the reasons we are here. If we go by the first conference we had, we had the participants sign a pledge that they will abide by media ethics and we know that there are many instances the media in Liberia …some journalists will lessen their prestige in terms of the way they collect news and receive bribes to write stories or ask for bribes to write or kill stories so to speak. We don’t want any of that and that is why we holding this conference and I also wanted to add that this year theme” New Voices and How the Media can Transform Society “and the new voices are focusing on the new media. Liberia is going to get high speed internet very soon and the whole situation will change. You will have access to high speed internet and when we build your capacity you are able to have your computer and have access to the internet and you will be using the new media more and more. As you witness in the past year or so the Arab Spring has been a source of inspiration for many. The new media was mentioned time and again as the tool that was used to by many citizens journalists those that were reporting on what was happening in their neighborhood and it allowed them to win support for their causes that they have change history in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and we now see the uprising has been going on in Syria sadly… the situation there is not very good but what we are hoping is that by bringing all of the regions together we will have people responsible for the outcome of reports that they will be responsible, accurate and abide by media ethics.
Bill Burke (IREX)
If I may come in, Liberia is still grappling with media law and policy reform in as much as we have made advances pointing specifically to the Freedom of Information law…there are still some other issues to be addressed. For example the issues of the Broadcast Regulatory Commission, Community Radio Policy and perhaps law all these things need to be addressed and we can learn from a country like Sierra Leone and perhaps Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast can learn from our experience with Freedom of Information Law. We think bringing journalists together rom this country, I think Liberian journalists can learn from some of these of these countries the best practices as far as media law and policy reform are concerned. We can share experiences and that is one reason why IREX through the funding it received from USAID is supporting this conference.
Peter Quaqua (PUL President)
The question of salaries is very important. That is very key and it seems to be one of our greatest challenges that we have in the media today. You remember I spoke about the economic situation of the media and we cannot talk about that without talking about the condition of service of journalists. I remember in 2009 we had a conference with support from the IFJ to begin finding solution to some of these. These kinds of events are driven by resources and therefore since that time what we have succeeded in doing is to be able to draft some documents around this. The IFJ has committed itself to come back hopefully by next month. We will begin learning probably to negotiate and that take a different skill. Since 2009 we were certificated by the Labour Ministry and we began discussing social dialogue with media owners and journalists and that would be the next stage where we will begin to finalize that document/ I would like to admit that it has taken long to do this and it is because of the complication around it so we like to get additional expertise to guide the process. It is not an easy thing to talk about salary because people will always need more money. So what kind of benchmark can we set… so that people are not grossly underrating the performance or underpaying journalists? I do know the economy is bad but in as much as we want to professionalize the media we who are owners of the media must make some earnest effort s in trying to better the condition of service of journalists. Unfortunately, we have had to see our colleagues helplessly leave for greener pastures and it will be like that for a long time until we are able to attract more resources in the media to be able to pay journalists to stay,
Tilly Gardner (IREX)
Our program the Civic Society and Media Leadership program we are also working not only with journalists but with media outlets to help them better develop their businesses and have a marketing focus for their advertising which in time will lead to better, consistent and stable salaries for the journalists. I think free press and independent media depend on the journalists earning a living wage, So IREX with funding from USAID is also working in that direction to try and get the media outlets functioning at a profit and in such a way that they are able to pay journalists living wages.