Consolidating a Democratic Political Culture in Liberia Towards 2003 Elections
- Prospects and Challenges of the Liberian Media
By Tiawan S. Gongloe
1. Before I proceed any further, permit me to express gratitude to the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) for inviting me, not only to witness but to also participate in activities marking the 37th Anniversary of the Union. I do not know what were the considerations that led to my selection, amongst, so many more important personalities in this country to make a presentation on this memorable day in the life of the PUL. However, there is something unique about this occasion that I must point out before going any further.
2. In 1996, Honorable Blamo Nelson and I were invited to address a special occasion of the Edward Wilmot Blyden Forum. Today, again, we have been invited to address another special edition of the Edward Wilmot Blyden Forum. Perhaps our presence here today is an indication that our first appearance provided reasons for a second appearance. I hope that, today, we will provide reasons for our third appearance. But let me warn you to be cautious about what to expect from us today. You will recall that in 1996, Honorable Nelson and I were both non-government officials and were virtually singing the same chorus. I hope, irrespective of where we are now, the substance of our presentations here today will be for the good of our country as we did five years ago.
3. I have been asked to make a presentation on the topic: " CONSOLIDATING A DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL CULTURE IN LIBERIA TOWARDS 2003 ELECTIONS - PROPECTS AND CHALLENGES OF THE LIBERIAN MEDIA". In the letter that I received from the Secretary General of the PUL, Mr. Malcolm W. Joseph, I was told that the PUL has no doubt that I would "do justice to the topic".
4. If to do justice to the topic you mean that I should provide for the Liberian Media prescriptions for tackling the problems that lie ahead of the Liberian Media as we move towards the 2003 elections, then I will certainly disappoint you today. What I have chosen to do is to give an introduction to this topic in a way that will stimulate discussions that will lead to the PUL to coming up with its own prescriptions, for in a political environment workable prescriptions are usually self-defined.
A presentation made at Special Session of the Edward Wilmot Blyden Lecture Series of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) on October 1, 2001 as part of program commemorating the 37th Anniversary of the Press Union of Liberia.
The reason is that most often, workable prescriptions in a political environment unfortunately most often contain side effects of pain and bitterness that the beneficiaries may experience. The resolve to endure pain and suffering based on ones own prescription is usually without regrets and tend to be more sustainable and effective than following someone elses prescription. As our people say it is better to "cry your own cry". I will therefore ask some basic questions that will assist the Liberian media in tackling the national task of consolidating a democratic political culture in Liberia, particularly as we move towards another general elections in the
5. The basic questions that the topic obviously suggests are: Is there a democratic political culture in Liberia? What can be done to consolidate this culture in Liberia before the 2003 general elections? Is there a role for the media in the consolidation of a democratic culture in Liberia before the 2003 elections? What is the specific role of the media in the attainment of this goal? Are there problems currently facing the media in attempting to contribute to the building or consolidation of a democratic culture in Liberia? From the current situation in Liberia is there a possibility that the press will face more problems as the 2003 elections draw nearer? What remedies are available to aid the Liberian media in dealing with problems that may come its way? Does the PUL have the capacity to successfully deal with hindrances faced by media institutions and practitioners in ways that do not undermine the integrity and relevance of the journalism profession in Liberia? What should the PUL do or not do in dealing with problems that may face the Liberian media.
6. I submit that these questions are not comprehensive enough for identifying and finding solutions to all the problems that the Liberian Press is facing and may face in its effort at contributing towards the building or consolidating of a democratic political culture in Liberia as the 2003 elections draw nearer. As few as they are these questions are key questions that media practitioners must collectively ponder over and find answers to if their profession must remain relevant in the building of a just, humane, and democratic political culture and social order in Liberia. I suggest that the PUL should hold a special business session of 37th Anniversary celebration or organize a special workshop of only media practitioners to find answers to these questions.
7. If the PUL fails, neglects or refuses to organize a brainstorming session on these major questions it will erode public confidence in the press as an instrument of public information, education and entertainment.
8. People of goodwill in the legal profession, the business community as well as local and international non-governmental organizations may help to provide legal representations and financial contributions for the survival of the Liberian media but key questions affecting the relevance and integrity of the journalism profession in the Liberian society must be dealt with by media practitioners individually and collectively because these are matters that rely on the exercise of will-power. Only the press can exercise its will-power in the defense of its importance to the Liberian society. The exercise of will-power becomes essential when critical moments appear, when there are threatening situations and not when business is proceeding on a normal course. I have observed that for the last ten years, the frequency of critical moments in the life of the press in Liberia has increased since the elections of 1997 and therefore, there have been many opportunities for the Liberian press to exercise its will power in defense of the journalism profession. This increase is reminiscent of the rule of the Peoples Redemption Council (PRC) Government. The question is, has the press exercised its will-power in dealing with these critical moments in such a way as to maintain public confidence in the press as an important stakeholder and instrument in the building and consolidation of a democratic political culture in Liberia? On the closure of media institutions is the press satisfied that it has exerted its best efforts? On the recent issue of the detention of four journalists of the News Newspaper is the press satisfied with the way the matter was handled by the PUL and the detained journalists? These are questions for critical and introspective examination by members of the Liberia press in an only journalists workshop. However, I must state that I have been a little bit disappointed on the way some of
these matters have been resolved.
9. For example, my disappointment in the way the four journalists issue was handled stems from the fact that several questions were left unanswered. One of such questions is whether the journalists were legally wrong in publishing that the Government had used certain amount of money to repair a Government owned helicopter, instead of spending said money in another manner such as paying salaries or repairing JKF Hospital. And if the accused journalists were wrong, did their wrongful act constitute the crime of espionage? Did the journalists go beyond their constitutionally protected right to freedom of the press? In other words was their publication an abuse of the right to freedom of press? The other issue that was left unanswered is, whether one charged with the crime of espionage based upon a newspaper publication may be granted a bail? The press and the four journalists not having the will-power to endure the discomfort of detention wavered at the important moment in a way that undermined the integrity of the journalism profession in Liberia. It was important for these questions to be answered by the court so that journalists and the public can be guarded by said answers.
In the exercise of any professional duty, it is not enough to be well trained and gifted but the public expects professionals to defend their own profession. This is the first provisional commitment that every professional body or person must show.
10. As I speak to you the professional Body I belong to, the Liberian National Bar Association is at the frontline defending its integrity and relevance to the Liberian society as the custodian of legal knowledge. The Bar has questioned the detention of its President by the House of Representatives who was performing a professional duty and has made two publications stating legal reasons why it questions the legality of the detention of its President. In reaction to the Bars two releases, the House has decided that unless the Bar retracts its press releases the House will not release the Bars President. The Houses reaction to the Bar is not based on any stated legal grounds but is based purely on a desire to exercise power in a way that will perhaps show to the Bar that it is a strong and power body. But the strength and power of the House is already defined by the Constitution of Liberia; hence, the Bar is fully aware of the power of the House. The Bar maintains that the power of the Legislature is not being exercised within the scope of the Constitution of Liberia. Therefore, the Bar has resolved and elected to exercise its freedom of choice as guaranteed by the Constitution of Liberia to boycott all courts and every forum where legal representation is required in the Republic of Liberia.
This decision has virtually paralyzed one branch of
the Government of Liberia, the Judicial, unfortunately. The Presidents of the Montserrado Bar and the National Bar have been summoned by the House to appear and show cause why they should not be held in Legislative contempt for the two releases of the Bar signed by them. The Executive Branch of Government according to a Ministry of Information release has described the action of the Bar as irresponsible.
11. The Bar as can be observed from unfolding developments is under attack from the Legislature and the Executive Branches of the Government of Liberia. Yet members of the Bar remain unrelenting in their resolve. The action of the Bar is not out of disrespect for the House or based on arrogance of knowledge but a demonstration of the love of profession and a display genuine nationalism and patriotism. Members of the Bar believe that it is better to resolve this matter not through just any means for convenience but by ways that do not compromise the integrity and relevance of the legal profession in Liberia for what happens today serves as precedent for tomorrow. Hence, members of the Bar are prepared to endure whatever hardship they may encounter as a result of their collective action. Members of the Bar consider it a moral duty to guard their profession. This is one way which the Bar is contributing as a body to the consolidation of a democratic political culture in Liberia. All the Bar is guarding against is the violation of the Constitutional provisions on the due process of law and the immunity of the legal profession.
12. In the same way the PUL must zealously guard its profession and constitutional right to inform the public about the Government and its functionaries, no matter what the consequences may be. The PUL owes it to the journalism profession and the Liberian people to be a strong body. The concerns which any professional body should have at all times are to always answer the question whether a given action is for the good of society, whether it is consistent with its profession and whether such action is within the framework of the law. This is one way of consolidating a democratic political culture as freedom of action is at the core of the building of a democratic political culture.
13. At this juncture, let me dwell a little bit on what is meant by a democratic culture. I believe a democratic culture is a way of life or a prevailing atmosphere promotive and protective of divergent and sometimes diametrically opposed vies and actions; a situation where there is orderly and periodic transfer of power; a practice whereby political, social and economic opportunities are available to all without discrimination; a way of life in which the law is more powerful than any individual or group and where power and authority belongs to all. On the question of power, our Constitutions states "All power is inherent in the people. All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness so require"1. This is the first article of the Liberian Constitution and it clearly states source of power in Liberia. It also clearly identifies the owners of power. According to our Constitution the owners of power are the people. It is for their well-fare and security that power exists and should be exercised.
14. Under the Liberian Constitution, therefore, the people are the sovereign, the master or patron of the land and those who function in government are agents or servants and their duty is to satisfy the interest of the sovereign at all times. This is how the Liberian democracy should function. Any scenario that is inconsistent with the description that I have just given cannot be described as democratic within the framework of the Constitution of Liberia.
15. The role of the Liberian media, therefore in the building and consolidation of the a democratic way of life in Liberia is to monitor and report on a daily basis the activities and actions of the functionaries of Government in the three branches of Government of Liberia so that the people will know the activities of their servants and whether the master servant relationship between the people and the functionaries of government is still the same or has been inverted or twisted. Consequently, the press must at all times in informing the people about their government focus on Article I of the Liberian Constitution.
16. Also the Liberian media should take note of Article IV of the Constitution of Liberia found in chapter II of the Constitution under the heading General Principles of National Policy. Article IV states "The Principles contained in this chapter shall be fundamental in the governance of the Republic and shall serve as guidelines in the formulation of Legislative, Executive and administrative directives policy-making and their execution" 2. In the examining policies, actions and decisions of government, Liberian Journalists should keep in mind Article IV of the Constitution and familiarize themselves with Articles V to VIII under chapter II of the Constitution because these Articles define how the Liberian Government should approach the issue of the welfare of the people.
17. Further, the Liberian media should take serious note of Article XI of the Constitution of Liberia. This Article deals with the question of human rights, an issue that is central to the building of a democratic culture. Human rights is defined by Article (XIa) of the Constitution of Liberia as natural, inherent and inalienable. In order to build and consolidate a democratic culture in Liberia the question of human rights must at all time be emphasized by the Liberian media. Very often, the issue of human rights is viewed on the corridors of power as something foreign to the Liberian culture. The press must educate the Liberian people, particularly those in government circles that human rights under our Constitution are natural, inherent and inalienable; hence, it is recognized by our Constitution as a part of the democratic culture we are building in Liberia3. Also the press should educate the Liberian people that human rights are protected by the Constitution of Liberia.
18. According to Article (XXa) of the Constitution of Liberia rights and privileges cannot be taken away from any individual in Liberia without a hearing judgement consistent with due process of law as laid down in the Constitution of Liberia4. In all actions taken by government affecting rights and privileges in Liberia, the question that should be asked each time by the press is whether an action of government was proceeded by due process of law. Due process of law has been defined by the Supreme Court of Liberia as " a law which hears before it condemns; which proceeds upon inquiry, and renders judgement only after trial"5. The press must persist on finding out in all cases where rights or privileges have been taken away, whether such actions were based on due process.
19. I am emphasizing these points because these are legal parameters within which our democratic culture is being built. The press cannot legally go wrong if it stays within these parameters.
20. The final Article of our Constitution that must always guide the press in its effort at building a democratic culture in Liberia in Article XV of the Constitution of Liberia. Article (XVa) states "Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof (emphasis ours). This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution"6. This constitutional provision raises a very important question regarding the existence of press freedom in Liberia. And that question is whether without the declaration of a state of emergency in Liberia, the Government of Liberia has any legal justification for the closure of newspapers, radio stations and the restriction of the use of frequencies for any type. On the basis of the law of our land, I say no. The frequent curtailments and restrictions on the freedom of press without due process is an indication that the government has imposed a state of emergency without declaring same as required by the Constitution of Liberia. This is a negative development that the press must keep reporting on until the government changes its attitude.
21. The right of the Liberian media to monitor the building of a democratic culture in Liberia is protected by Article (XVc) of the Constitution of Liberia which states "In pursuance of this right, there shall be no limitation on the right of the public to be informed about the government and its functionaries"7. It should be noted that Article (XVc) contains no exception as to the kind of information that should be given to the public. I believe the only thing a journalist should guard against is reporting what is not true. To give false information is an abuse of freedom of the press; hence, journalist should avoid giving false information. Democracy cannot build on false information.
22. However, even if a newspaper or radio station gives false information to the public, that wrongful act does not give the Government of Liberia any legal justification to close a media institution or restrict its activities without a court order. The Constitution is very emphatic on this point, it states at Article (XVe) that freedom of the press "may be limited only by judicial action in proceedings grounded in defamation or invasion of the rights of privacy and publicity or in the commercial aspect of expression in deception, false advertising and copy right infringement"8.
23. These constitutional provisions were placed in the Constitution by the people of Liberia to ensure free flow of information within the Republic of Liberia and to avoid arbitrary actions that would affect the free flow of information in Liberia.
However, our recent history does not reflect that actions of government against the media have being guarded by the clear constitutional provisions. This attitude on the part of the Liberian Government should not discourage the Liberian media in playing its part in the building of a democratic political culture in Liberia. Rather, the attitude of the Liberian Government towards the media in Liberia should challenge and stimulate media practitioners in Liberia to be more creative and resilient in creating more space for press freedom. Yet, instead of being resilient, it appears that self-censorship is gaining ground within the Liberian media environment. This is a negative development for the growth of political culture in Liberia.
24. Finally, ladies and gentlemen, of the press, let me remind you of certain basic realities about our country. The first is that this country was established not only on the principles of democracy, but as an asylum for the enjoyment of democracy. It
was meant by the founding fathers to be a country in which all human rights would be respected and protected, by all, particularly, the Government of Liberia. Liberia is the only nation in the world that can boast of the need to respect and protect the dignity of the human person and all other rights he is entitled to as the objective for its establishment. In this regard Liberia is a unique country amongst the comity of nations. Unfortunately, Liberia is also unique because, although it was founded as a country in which the respect for human rights should be superior to all other considerations, it has ironically won for itself a place amongst nations which have by classified as having little or no regard for human rights. The Liberian Government has failed over the years and continues to make no effort to live up to the dream of the founding fathers.
25. The need of promoting democracy and human rights in Liberia has always been opportunistically emphasized by ill-intentioned politicians to win the support of the people. However, once these politicians get to power their quest for democracy ends and they begin to brand democracy and human rights as foreign concepts that run counter to the African culture; hence, they usually argue that the question of democracy should be subordinated to development and security, without realizing that there cannot be any meaningful and sustainable development without democracy and that the lack of democracy creates insecurity.
26. In a situation where a government such as the Government of Liberia shows no commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights, the burden falls on the media and other democratic institutions such as the Bar to remain dedicated and unwavering in their resolve to building a democratic society. After all the idea of establishing Liberia was conceived and given effect by private individuals acting through a non-governmental organization, the American Colonization Society (ACS). This is why the reasons that motivated the establishment of Liberia were moral than political or economic. Liberia is therefore a product of an NGO initiative. In this regard, all non-governmental organizations such as the Press Union of Liberia, the Liberian National Bar Association must see it as their primary duty to work towards giving meaning and effect to the dreams and aspiration that led to the creation of Liberia as a nation state. Reliance on the Government of Liberia by itself to create a democratic political culture in Liberia will lead this country no where. The Press Union of Liberia, the Bar and other democratic institutions should continue to ensure that the government functions within the scope of the Constitution of Liberia in order to give effect to the Liberian dream.
In these efforts each institution must define its own role and remain focused in pursuing its role. This isa challenge for the PUL.
I THANK YOU.
1. The Constitution of Liberia, Article 1 (1986)
2. id at Article XIV
3. id at Article XIa
4. id at Article XXa
5. Wolo V. Wolo 5LLR 432
6. supra note 1 at Article Xva
7. id at Article XVc
8. id Article XVe