That said, the current developments that seem to sustain Liberia’s Partly-Free status are a resurgence of attacks on journalists and a barrage of media litigations and detentions. “Assault stood out as the most common form of attack meted against journalists,” said the local media development group, the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP) in its 2015 report, “Assessing journalists Safety in Liberia, From The Prism of UNESCO Indicators”. CEMESP recorded 73 cases of assault, the highest in its table of “Forms of Attacks and Causes.” Out of one hundred journalists spoken to, 92 said they have no idea of persons or people punished for attacking journalists.
Court cases and detentions follow, with 65 cases. Here, the international media rights groups posit that legal environment constitutes the biggest reform challenge for Liberia. Generally, the constitution of Liberia strongly supports unhindered freedom of the press and expression, but statue laws depart. And they have given currency to the wave of litigations. According to CEMESP, over a dozen journalists have faced various court litigations in the course of reporting.
However, Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs, Isaac W. Jackson, Jr. said “there exists a free press in Liberia today compared to other regimes before.” Minister Jackson is right. Liberia recorded the worst press freedom records under the military-styled regime of President Samuel Doe. Media institutions were burnt and arbitrarily closed. One journalist was killed. The current Ministry of Information under his leadership immortalized Charles Gbenyon by naming its conference hall in his honor. He was arrested by soldiers and killed under unusual circumstances during the 1985 aborted coup.
Under Charles Taylor, journalists were beaten and became bed-ridden. Media institutions were arbitrarily shut down. One journalist was kidnapped and kept in solitary confinement by state security forces.
Liberia has made tremendous progress Jackson said the government has made strong moves to improve the environment for media practice. Aside the passage of the Freedom of Information law, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed the Table Mountain Declaration meant to uproot the 1914 criminal code and its characteristic suppressive spirit and intent, including criminalization of speech.
James D. Wolfensohn, World Bank`s ninth President, said ‘a free press is not a luxury… it is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring change.’
But we know more remains to be done. Two other pieces of draft legislation the Broadcast Regulatory Commission and the law to transform the Liberia Broadcasting System into a public broadcaster remain in committee room at the legislature. And even the bill to decriminalize all speech laws is yet to be passed.
More than that, we know that press freedom is not just about the number of newspapers and radio stations. Press freedom is tied to the diversity of news content and how much it is influenced by the structure of the news industry. Press freedom is also about the legal and administrative decisions, the degree of political influence or control, the economic influences exerted by the government or private entrepreneurs and easily visible incidents like censorship, harassment, and physical threats to journalists.
Perhaps, the most prominent of the steps taken so far by the Sirleaf Administration is the signing of the Freedom of Information law on September 16, 2010. Former Press Union of Liberia President, Peter Quaqua, called it the biggest signing of all the concession agreements in a country with more than 50 percent unemployment and badly needed capital for rebuilding. And Mr. Quaqua is right. Without a strong accountability and anti-corruption mechanism led by the people as provided by the Freedom of Information law, these agreements potentially go to benefit a few privileged ones.
A Freedom of Information law allows civil society and any person to request public documents from their government. Information obtained under the FOI is necessary to inform the public about what the government is or is not doing with regard to matters of public concern. Government records often contain facts that can be helpful to organizations, businesses, and individual citizens. Regulatory agencies, for instance, have a large amount of data such as inspection reports, tests on goods and services, and data on other wide range of subjects.
Freedom of Information will change the culture from one marked by information secrecy to one of openness. But we must now rally all stakeholders to determine how Liberian public institutions can best satisfy the basic requirements of openness and transparency. The mass media’s role can be seen as evolving from information gatekeepers back to investigative journalism and public engagement. In June 2010, nine Canadian associations of journalists signed an open letter asking editors to devote the time and money to dig beyond the stage-managed press conferences to get to the real story. They called on “journalists to stand together and push back by refusing to accept vague email responses to substantive questions.” The intent is clearly to engage the public against what has been described as a threat to the public’s right to know. “Every time a minister refuses to comment, a critical piece of information is withheld or an access request is delayed,” they wrote. The truth is that not much has been done with the Freedom of Information law.
River Gee County Superintendent Philip T. Jah said leadership example was key in contributing to the effective utilization of the FOI law. Three other requests for information made by the New Democrat Newspaper to the Liberia Telecommunication Authority, Liberia Maritime Authority and the Monrovia City Corporation, regarding mainly their finances, remain unanswered. News Newspaper reporter, Sam Zota, who also made a request to the office of the President for a copy of the Executive Mansion renovation contract, did not receive any response. Without the network to make use of the law, communicate these requests and keep them on the front-burner, we will have a law existing only on the books.