The umbrella organisation for journalists and media practitioners in Liberia is seeking help in the country’s next budget as it looks to guarantee the sector’s independence.
The President of the Press Union of Liberia, Charles Coffey, told NewsAfrica that allocating funding for the body in future budgets ‘would ensure more independence and help media institutions to grow’.
In the absence of state resources, the Press Union of Liberia has had to depend largely on projects from foreign donors to fund its activities, according to Coffey – something they hope to rectify before the July 2022 budget.
The Press Union of Liberia was created in 1964 after a journalist, Stanley Peabody, was locked up for calling members of the country’s legislature ‘radicals’. All of its staff work on a voluntary basis.
According to Coffey, journalists face a number of problems in Liberia, and these are forcing an increasing number of them to leave the industry for better-paid careers in public relations.
He said a lack of resources has undermined investigative journalism in a country where corruption has become a way of life and economic crimes are not treated with seriousness.
But in spite of the challenges, post-war Liberia has seen a boom in media outlets, with the number of active newspapers in the country increasing from just four in 1989, when the 14-year civil war broke out, to more than 50 today.
The number of radio stations has increased from five to more than 100 in the same period.
Reports of harassment against journalists are common. In March 2020, President George Weah set up a panel headed by former Minister of Information Laurence K Bropleh, after a petition by members of the media outlined a string of alleged harassments and violence against reporters.
Journalists had earlier staged a march in the capital, Monrovia, during which they delivered a statement to various foreign missions to draw attention to a wave of harassment against reporters since George Weah became president in 2018.
‘In recent months, attacks, detention, intimidation and brutality meted against media practitioners have become unprecedented, with seven journalists being attacked in just two weeks, and 10 attacked in three months,’ the petition stated.
In February 2020, media organisations in Liberia had called for an independent autopsy to authenticate the cause of death of a popular independent radio talk-show host, Zenu Miller, a month earlier.
Above: A Liberian radio broadcast in progress.
Miller had allegedly been assaulted by the president’s security team three weeks before his death.
A medical report obtained by Miller’s family said he had died from ‘pressure’. But media organisations, including the New York-based Committee to Protest Journalists, and the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas, demanded a full autopsy to authenticate the cause of death, something that didn’t happen.
Meanwhile, US-based former leaders of the Press Union of Liberia have been swift to question the credibility of the Bropleh committee, set up to probe allegations of press intimidation and harassment in the country.
‘The Reverend Dr Bropleh currently serves as special envoy and advisor to President Weah,’ the journalists argued in a joint statement. ‘Putting a government functionary – especially someone who works in the office of the president – in charge of such a critical investigation clearly undermines the integrity of the process in the eyes of the public.’
Pressed in a radio interview, Bropleh said the committee’s report had been delivered to the president, but details of its findings have yet to be released.
The hold-up is of great concern for Coffey. He said: ‘Government’s delay in releasing the Bropleh committee's report is troubling and creating self-censorship among media outlets. It is also creating fear among reporters, who are frontline journalists, to venture into investigative reporting.’
Besides the physical attacks, Coffey said media outlets are struggling to get financial support from the government, adding: ‘Some critical media complain of not getting advertisements from government agencies.’
He expressed delight, however, at the relaxation of ‘some anti-media laws, including sedition, criminal malevolence and criminal libel’ – all of which have been repealed since 2019. The bill to repeal those and other repressive laws had been introduced by Weah’s predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the legislature was considering them when she stepped down at the end of her second and final term in 2018.
Coffey and fellow media practitioners want their government to go even further, though, and follow the example set in neighbouring Sierra Leone, where journalists successfully lobbied for government support for the sector.
The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists receives government grants of around $25,000, according to its president, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla.
‘What has also changed significantly for the media in Sierra Leone,’ he told NewsAfrica, ‘is the passing of the IMC Act 2020, which, among other things, now requires all media houses to comply with statutory obligations – i.e. paying taxes to the National Revenue Authority and NASSIT [social security] contributions for their employees.’
Before the IMC Act was introduced last year, journalists were routinely paid below the minimum wage.
The change in Sierra Leone’s press laws last year has also seen ‘a drastic decline in arrests and detention of journalists’, according to Nasralla, who said there have only been ‘one or two cases’ in the provinces of journalists being detained for contempt of court.
‘The biggest change in recent years for the media is the historic repeal last year of the criminal and seditious libel law. This was a law that shackled the media for 55-odd years.’
He added that the law had been used by successive governments and politicians ‘to cower the media, and intimidate and incarcerate journalists so that they didn’t have the courage to hold officials to account’.
The country has more than 200 registered newspapers and 160 radio stations. But like in Liberia, critical and anti-government media rarely benefit from government advertisements.
Despite this, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists recently presented the Golden Jubilee Press Freedom Award to President Julius Maada Bio as an expression of the association’s ‘profound thanks and appreciation for the repeal of the criminal libel laws’.
Nasralla explained: ‘We wanted to demonstrate in our own special way our grateful thanks so that you can also join in feeling that sense of freedom, which only those who have been to jail can relate to.
‘For it is when you have been locked up and then released that you can fully appreciate what freedom means and how valuable it is for that fundamental human right to be respected and protected.’
Liberia and Sierra Leone share a lot in common, including border, tribes, languages and cultures.
They both went through two of Africa’s bloodiest armed conflicts in the 1990s, swapping refugees, many of whom have remained since the wars ended.