Independent Media: Liberia's Key to Peace and Reconciliation

By Ambassador Robert C. Perry

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted May 28, 2002

Editor's Note: Ambassador Robert C. Perry, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, was one of the speakers at the conference held by the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) on Friday, May 24, 2002. The conference was held at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC. Full text of his remark is published below:

I am honored by the invitation from Gabriel Williams to be the keynote speaker at this prestigious conference of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas. In my January 19 remarks to the annual convention of the Movement for Democratic Change in Liberia (MDCL), I noted that "Liberia deserves a fresh start," and today I would like to build on that theme. Given the current state of events in the Mano River region, we certainly have our work cut out for us!

There have been important recent developments in Liberia, which offer a window of opportunity for Liberia, its citizens, and the international community to promote genuine peace and reconciliation in that ravaged nation. You, as representatives of the media, can and must play a critical role in bringing good governance to Liberia and peace to the region. The United States is prepared to help.

One of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, said: "The whole of government consists in the art of being honest." Candid exposure by the media of the inner workings of government often proves embarrassing, controversial, and politically explosive even to the best of governments. However, we recognize that transparency is vital to ensuring that a government is responsible and accountable to its citizens. Admittedly, securing accountability is easier said than done, particularly in current day Liberia.

To its credit, the Government of Liberia has taken some positive steps. It has allowed Radio Veritas to resume short-wave radio transmissions. We note the Government's recent authorization for the operation of an independent printing press, open to all newspapers at cost, which should reduce the cost of the newspapers and increase distribution. You need to take advantage of these positive circumstances.

Because the United States remains a true friend of Liberia, we cannot, in good conscience, look the other way when we see serious injustices. As a result, we strongly condemned the government of Liberia's April 29 banning of political activities, and we will continue to make our voice heard on developments within Liberia. In that spirit, we have appreciated similar protests from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch, and others. In a May 6 letter to President Taylor, CPJ sent a clear and direct message: " We urge you to ensure that independent media outlets are not harassed, and to allow Liberian journalists to practice their profession without fear of reprisal." I don't think we need to add to that request.

Peaceful gatherings are the very lifeblood of democratic political expression. To ban such gatherings is to play into the hands of those who wish to confront the government through violence. For when you cannot gather peacefully, there are few other options to demonstrate your strengths and commitment. The government of Liberia needs to understand - for its own sake, and for the sake of all Liberians - that those who speak out against injustices are, in reality, the government's best friends and allies in its effort to facilitate peace, prosperity, and reconciliation. We urge the Liberian authorities to listen to these voices of reason.

Liberian authorities should also listen to the voices of their neighbors - the leaders of the ECOWAS states - who have called for a cease-fire and a cessation of hostilities. The ECOWAS leaders have also offered to send a facilitator and a military team to assess the situation, and promote dialogue and reconciliation. Liberian authorities should think twice about rejecting the aid of their ECOWAS neighbors, when their house is on fire.

Recent actions by the government of Liberia, including its jailing and beating of human rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe and a closure of an independent newspaper, "The Analyst," contradict its stated interest in national reconciliation and in laying the groundwork for free and fair elections next year. Thee actions are entirely inconsistent with the government's professed desires and with its international commitments to protect human rights and freedom of peaceful expression. Although it has release Gongloe, New Deal Chairman Nigba Wiaplah, and others who protested their arrests, we still expect the government to formally drop charges against these individuals and to re-open the Weekly Analyst newspaper. We also urge the government of Liberia to lift its State of Emergency, which does not serve a credible or practical purpose in brining about the peace and reconciliation Liberia needs.

Free and fair elections in October, 2003, conducted on a level playing field, remains key to rejuvenating civil society, promoting regional peace and stability, and building internal pressure to open domestic political space in Liberia. You cannot afford to engage in negative, self-fulfilling prophecies about the prospects of holding free and fair elections in Liberia. Liberia's independent media must lead the way in paving a route to credible elections and true democratic governance.

Earlier this year, a number of respected U.S. non-government organizations surveyed the requirements for credible elections in Liberia. Based on their recommendations the USG will provide $800,000 in FY-02 to support a number of specific independent media projects in Liberia. These projects will include training and equipment for West African Democracy Radio, Radio Veritas, community-based radio, traveling theater, print journalists, and the dissemination of thousands of wind-up radios.

Limited access to independent media is a serious issue in Liberia. Given the country's high rate of illiteracy, radio is one of the most effective methods for political aspirants to communicate with the voters. Communication of messages outside of Monrovia is critical to free and fair elections. Independent stations need access to short wave and community-based radio to enhance their FM broadcasts. Journalists need more and better training to be more effective in communicating messages on civic education, health, and agriculture, as well as provide news and diverse politically commentary and perceptions.

The USG will provide $550,000 in addition FY-02 Election Support Funds to promote political party development. This will cover recruiting members and candidates, fielding electoral slates, and reaching mass audiences. This training would include financing an election, campaigning in accord with Electoral Commission regulations, preparing election monitors and observers, and a consensus "Code of Conduct" to be observed by all parties. We will provide another $100,000 to establish a modest political party resource center that would be available to all parties and provide access to computers, printers, phones, copying, and other resources that the parities could not afford on an individual basis under present circumstances in Liberia.

A number of potential political candidates have expressed concern for their safety in Liberia, notwithstanding assurances by Liberian Government officials. This is a legitimate concern that the United States would like to see addressed. The South African deployment to Burundi, or the United Nations' peace-building operations in Mozambique and Central African Republic, could be a model for Liberia. Perhaps ECOWAS could address this security concern of political candidates.

As I close, let me reiterate my call in January for Liberians in America to do their part right now without further hesitation. You have given a lot of thought to Liberia's problems and options for a better future. Now is the time to act. Don't be daunted by the size of the task and waste this opportunity. You can rise to the current challenge and facilitate the healing of Liberia's wounds and create the circumstances under which Liberia can return to its roots as Africa's first constitutional republic.

Enduring intimidation and sometimes worse, a number of patriots have demonstrated their commitment to a Liberia free from terror without showing any disloyalty to their government. As Liberians, you cannot afford merely to cheer, from across the ocean, their continued sacrifices for your common values.

As journalists you have a fundamental duty to promote the truth and to shed light everywhere. The founding fathers of both the Unites States and Liberia rightly realized that a strong, independent media would be key to ensuring honest and responsible. We have seen the pivotal role played by the media in bringing peaceful, democratic change recently throughout Eastern Europe, the former Yugoslavia, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d' Ivoire, and Sierra Leone. Let's prove that adage once again in Liberia!

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