As Liberian journalists and friends of the media converged in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County to commemorate World Press Freedom Day under the theme: “Media-Security Relations: An Imperative for Consolidating Peace in Liberia”, they were eager to be edified in media and security issues and in this vein anticipated thought-provoking remarks that could highlight the stiff challenges and horrendous defacement.Read more...
I no doubt feel privileged to have been chosen as one of four panelists to speak on the topic: “Media-Security Relations: An imperative for Consolidating Peace in Liberia.” These are not just ordinary panelists but personalities of high stature and I hope I’ll do justice to the topic at bar on this historic May 3rd 2013 World Press Freedom Day commemoration in this historic port city of Buchanan, Grand Bassa County.
I’m particularly marveled by the global theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day chosen by UNESCO- “Safe to Speak: Searching Freedom of Expression in All Media.” As a panelist who has made professional journalism my vocation, what I especially like about World Press Freedom Day is that it’s set aside not only “to create awareness about press freedom but to also pay tribute to the bravery of Journalists and media workers who died around the world practicing their profession.”
I or you would have been one of those professionals (not on this earth today) to have paid the ultimate price with our lives. But thank God that our lives have been spared to be in Buchanan yea Liberia today, where it’s now relatively safe to speak. And I very much hope we’ll keep it this way. I hope we’ll keep it this way, when the last boot of the UN peacekeeping force, UNMIL leaves these grounds.
Consolidating the peace in Liberia remains an uphill task. It will even be much greater when security control throughout the length and breadth of our country is totally reverted to the government by UNMIL.
Indeed, the media and the security forces including the police, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), etc. right to life, liberty and security are fundamental rights guaranteed in Article 11 of this country’s constitution and Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The history of this country is replete with incidents of strain, sometimes horrific encounters between Liberian state security forces and journalists not only during the war years but also at various stages during peace time, just to cite the arrests, maltreatment and jailing of journalists during the Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor regimes. The late Liberian broadcast Journalist Charles Gbenyon lost his life in the November 12, 1985 abortive coup that followed the late General Thomas Quinwonkpa’s invasion from neighboring Sierra Leone. Before that, we saw periods where there were dangerously acrimonious relations between media practitioners (including the late Albert Porte and Tuan Wreh) during the Tubman and Tolbert regimes.
With the formal end to the Liberian civil war in 2003 and the subsequent holding of elections in October 2005 and the coming into office of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in January 2006, a colleague of mine remarked:“Yes, we have entered a new era of peace and democracy.” Indeed, a new era dawned since then, where the bullets have been silent and Liberians have enjoyed a great level of peace and stability in which there is a high level of press freedom and free speech. Now, it’s been over seven years since the post war elected government took office and nearly 10 years since the end of the 14 years brutal civil war.
Where are we now? The situation today is no doubt a far cry from what it was during those turbulent years in so far as threat to physical security of journalists/media personnel are concerned from the hands of security forces. The Sirleaf government is noted for boasting that no Journalist is in jail. This is true but the existing scenario now may likely change, when state security totally takes control of national security. The reason is simple. The presence in the country of this multinational UN peacekeeping mission has gone a long way in teeming the local forces’ actions and at the same time should provide a perfect opportunity for them to put their house in order by forging intra-security coordination. This is something that is seriously wanting even seven years after post-war democratic elections. The media too need this period of UNMIL’s presence to put their own house in order by adhering to the principles of good journalism and behaving in a professional manner, putting the interest of the state (people) above all other considerations.
Security and media’s roles
Like in previous reports to the UN Security Council by the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative to Liberia, the most recent UNMIL report dated February 28, 2013 has carried this familiar line: “The security situation in Liberia remains stable but fragile.” The UNMIL report to the Security Council adds that “Enhancement of oversight and accountability within the security sector remains critical for reform.”
Surely with this fragile peace and the absence of a genuine national reconciliation program, fostering healthy media-security relations is absolutely imperative for protecting and consolidating this peace.
But in order to realize this, there must first be mutual respect, understanding and appreciation of each other’s role and responsibilities within the democratic system. Both the security forces and the media must understand their respective roles under the law and their respective professional codes of ethics and practice. Lack of understanding and appreciation of these roles in the past couple with the absence of mutual respect had led to turbulent relations between journalists and state security forces.
What’s the security’s role? What role does the constitution, organic law of the land give the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) during peace time? As UNMIL phases out and an all Liberian joint security team takes full control, it’s prudent for us to brace ourselves for a dose of overzealousness, overlapping of functions and other jostling for supremacy, which could lead to excesses, and which could have the propensity to strain local security relations with the media as the mirror of society.
But the good news is that, reflecting on the gloomy past, we now have the opportunity to carve out a new level of constructive engagement. This can happen when journalist and state security forces know their roles, rights and responsibilities, whether in peace-time or time of political crisis/tensions.
Article 85 of the Liberian constitution-under emergency powers-putting the AFL in a state of readiness: “The President as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces may order any portion of the Armed Forces into state of combat readiness in defense of the Republic, before or after the declaration of a state of emergency, as may be warranted by the situation. All military power or authority shall at all times, however, be held in subordinate to the civil authority and the constitution”.
I do not intend to dabble into the details, but developments surrounding the recent abortive April 12 demonstration controversy in which the Defense Ministry threatened to deploy troops to crush the would be protest left many wondering whether it was really time for the military to come in.
What is the media’s role? As watchdogs of the society, the media must understand that while Article 15 give us the right to freedom of expression and the press, we must be responsible for the abuse thereof. The police and other security forces have the authority to enforce the law, and so we must not be hindrance to the obstruction of this right by being thorough, accurate and fair in our investigation of issues involving security by getting their side of the story at all times.
Another thing that has serious negative implications for reasonably cordial media-security relations is when there is a clear semblance of lack of coordination among the various state apparatus.
Take as a classic example the recent claims and counter claims by two of the top institutions in Liberia’s joint security—the Defense and Justice Ministry over alleged importation of weapons and potential mercenaries by the iron ore giant, Mittal Steel, which operates in the northeastern Nimba county.
“Govt. Rubbishes Defense's Gun Importation Claim - Says No Armed Men Onboard Arcelormittal Vessels,” was the headline in one of our leading local dailies.
FrontPageAfricas quoted Defense Minister Brownie Samukai as saying: "ArcelorMittal has hired foreigners from a private company of ex-military or ex-security personnel wanting to bring them in the country to protect when they are doing their offloading."
The Minister didn't give details of the operation and its location but named the company as ISS which he said authorities of his ministry already have some information about. “Documents available to us has now confirmed that the name of the company is not ISS but rather CSL Atlas.” said Defense Minister Brownie Samukai.
“That company is definitely in violation of the United Nations Security Council’s resolution on Liberia which forbids any non-state actor from possessing or importing weapons, arms or warlike materials into Liberia with the exception of the government or the UN,” the Liberian Defense Minister added on quote.
But the Justice Minister in the same government later dismissed the claim and said no armed men were imported by Arcelor Mittal as speculated by Defense Minister Brownie Samukai.
Addressing the Ministry of Information weekly press briefing, Justice Minister, Christiana Tah said the findings from the joint security team that was set up by the government to investigate the alleged importation of armed security guards, show that no armed men have been brought into the country as was reported by the Defense Ministry.
Then to add insult to injury, Police Director Chris Massaquoi made a statement supporting the Justice Minister’s account by saying, the joint security team, which visited the two ArcelorMittal vessels that were then in Liberia's territorial waters, could not find any armed men.
The police chief said their investigation team only found 39 crew workers on-board the two vessels, but did not see gun on any security guard as was reported, according to media reports.
The 14 years of brutal civil war ruptured the very fabric of all institutions in this country, including the media and security forces. Nearly ten years after the war officially ended in August 2013, we have indeed made some progress towards reforming these two sectors that are crucial in transforming this fragile peace into solid peace and consolidating it. However, some vestiges of unprofessionalism and unpatriotism are still rearing their ugly heads, something which will threaten relations between the two sectors when the multinational force are out of here and to put it in our local Liberian parlance “so-so of us here.”
Forging healthy media-security relations will not come it a vacuum. There must be deliberate efforts by all sides to make it a reality. Our hard won peace, which had to be at the expense of an estimated 250,000 precious lives, cannot be consolidated if the media and security forces are constantly at each other’s throat. Therefore, we must be prepared to take bold measures in deeds and not words to: Professionalize and de-politicize state security forces—by allowing merit to prevail over loyalty to individuals rather than the state by living up to professional code of practice; Professionalize the Journalism field by ensuring that media practitioners scrupulously adhere to the code of conduct and ethics, putting them above; partisan interest, where practicing journalists will be practicing journalists and practicing spin doctors will be practicing spin doctors; Hold symposium as soon as possible to be jointly organized by the Press Union of Liberia, the Liberian National Law Enforcement Association, LINEA and other media development groups for journalists and security on knowing their professional and constitutional limits, rights and responsibilities; Harmonize the various agencies of the national state security apparatus so as to avoid overlapping of functions; With this we are sure that generations yet to come, Liberia will continue to be safe to speak, where mutual respect will thrive in the relationship between Liberian Journalists state security forces.
I THANK YOU.
A paper presented to mark World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2013 in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, Liberia
By: Frank Sainworla, Jr.
Liberian Journalist, Ex-Secretary General, PUL, former Head of English Desk, West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR), Dakar, Senegal
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