The Fate of Liberia’s Fourth Estate
As the Lab has written about previously, Liberia under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made considerable progress in terms of development and governance- from dismissing tainted civil servants, to enforcing transparency, to pushing through new strategies and legislation to address graft. Against a variety of measures- including the World Bank’s Governance Indicators, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and the Open Budget Index- Liberia has exhibited steady progress in the past decade.
On paper, the same could be said for efforts to bolster Liberia’s media. In 2011, Freedom House reevaluated the media environment in Liberia, adjusting its status from Not Free to Partly Free. Reporter’s Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2013 scored Liberia at #97 with an improvement of +13 from its previous position at 110 in 2011. In a region wracked with instability it is seen to be a country with ‘promising gains’ in freedom of the press.
In practice, however, these media indices do not adequately reflect the realities on the ground. I recently spoke to a number of journalists who relayed to me how the government uses intimidation tactics against independent media in an attempt to discourage stories that paint the government in a negative light. Other journalists mentioned cases of “mistaken identity” when they were taken into custody and later released after writing stories that may have been critical of the government.
Moreover, the government of Liberia is the largest purchaser of advertising space in newspapers- to the point that many cannot survive without this support- which further curtails the ability of these publications to criticize the administration. Journalists also complain about the lack of resources available for them to carry out investigations and fulfill their role as society’s watchdogs. They have also cited the ease with which some journalists and newspapers are bribed to print stories.
Earlier this year the media community gathered to celebrate World Press Freedom Day in Grand Bassa County and the Director of the Executive Protective Service took to the stage and offered what appeared to be a speech filled with threats and ultimatums. At one point he warned the journalists to be careful because ‘you have your pens and we have our guns.’ More recently, Front Page Africa a newspaper that frequently publishes news that could be seen as anti-government- has been deemed to have violated libel laws and has been levied a huge fine which will likely shut down the newspaper. It is clear that the realities for the press in Liberia are harsh. While it is true that there is now more discussion of important issues in Liberia than ever before, journalists indicate that there are certainly red lines which cannot be crossed without repercussions.
Although West Africa is plagued with similar challenges for the media, Ghana, given a status of Free by Freedom House, stands out as a positive model for media development. The creation of the independent National Media Commission (NMC) and the 2001 repeal of the Criminal Libel Law marked a new chapter for the freedom of press in Ghana.
In Liberia, platforms do exist for dialogue on freedom of expression issues. CEMESP has been releasing annual reports titled “Strengthening Freedom to Further Democracy in Liberia – Attacks on Freedom of Expression,” recording the abuses faced by the members of media. The Liberia medi@center in conjunction with IREX has created a Liberian Media Sustainability Index (MSI) to assess different factors contributing the state of the media environment. And the Accountability Lab is now talking to a number of media representatives, film-makers and citizen journalists about the best way to engage Liberians in the media for accountability purposes. It is approaches like these that are essential if Liberia is to truly embrace the fourth estate as an essential part of a functional, effective and accountable democracy.