The Press Union of Liberia was established 1964 to advocate for the rights of journalists and protect press freedom in the country. But according to PUL President Charles Coffey, media practitioners and media institutions are making the work of the PUL difficult by allowing political influencers to dictate media content, thereby diffusing the impartial, democratic role of the media in disseminating information to the public without biases.
Speaking on the occasion of the PUL 56th anniversary in September 30, 2020 in Tubmanburg City, Bomi County, Mr. Coffey lamented the uncontrollable and unfavorable media environment wherein political ownership of some media outlets in the country is impeding professional journalism and declining its standing as a major Actor in democracy and governance.
“We first of all commend those politicians who actually are not interfering into the editorial operations of the media and also are creating employment opportunities for journalists and communicators; but there are some of them who are fully determining the content of their media. This situation is rapidly leaving many professional journalists without a profession. Because of the ownership, some people with vested political interest are deciding content of some radios daily to meet their goals at the advent of societal cohesion,” the PUL president stated.
He said prior to the initiation of political ownership of the media in Liberia, the Journalism profession was respectable and enviable; but has not become partisan because some of the Journalists are captives in the political rivalry that is running the media at the service of politicians, noting, “In the absence of politicians’ direct control of some media contents, the credibility of the media will be sustained and slanting of truth to suit political ownership will end.”
Observing that some of the media owned by politicians are also perhaps the most problematic broadcast outlets in rural communities, Mr. Coffey said the PUL will reinforce institutional disciplinary measures through the National Media Council of the PUL, responsible to ensure ethical standards and also continue engagement with relevant stakeholders including ministry of Information Culture Affairs and Tourism (MICAT),the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA), and other partners, to commence full conversations engendering an end to the fast growing or developing scourge in the country.
“We are further urging all power holders in the country to join the Union in soliciting ideas aimed at ending the escalating wave of invectives and profanities characterizing some radio broadcasts throughout the country. It is important for influencers to pressure some of the politicians owning radios to instruct their subjects who are abusing the media platform to end the use of vulgar languages during broadcast,” the PUL president cautioned in his address.
Mr. Coffey said people are losing the news and information they need to make good choices for their families to participate in their communities and hold their governments to account.
“There is a national proliferation of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and hate speech. Trust in media and other institutions is plummeting. We must act now involving every stakeholder to save our country,” he stated.
While acknowledging that not all of the media institutions owned by politicians are ethically transgressing, and that many of the institutions have good products but some are performing below the belt of true journalism, Mr. Coffey said there are some politicians who do not own media outlet, but their comments in the public are not reconciliatory.
“Some of these people are always using hate messages which have the propensity to instigate instability in our country. They must desist now and stop influencing their supporters to perpetrate violence and disrupt the status quo. Though they own no radio or television station, their action is almost the same as if to say they are using media ownership,” Coffey intimated, and further called on all stakeholders including political leaders of various political parties, traditional leaders, religious organizations, the civil society and the media to ensure stability in the country.
Mr. Coffey further observed that the good taste and quality of the media are declining due to the assumed role of some media institutions and individuals as propagandists over a true journalistic role.
“The media our people cherished those days are becoming polarized with some media personnel alluringly engaging in blackmailing. Accordingly, some of the black mailers are using some media outlets or their profession to falsely defame people’s character and go with impunity,” the PUL president said, emphasizing that some of these people calling themselves journalists even lack basic professional knowledge and the fundamentals of journalism.
“We need to embark on policy formulation exercises that will weed them out of the profession either through training, for those who can be trained, and punishment for some of them who intentionally and falsely defame people’s reputation, depending on the gravity of the transgression,” Mr. Coffey stated.
Collective Bargaining Agreement
On the idea of collective bargaining, Mr. Coffey said the current working condition of most journalists in Liberia represents a major impediment to their capacity to perform in line with professional ethics and obligations, noting that poor condition of services for journalists remains a major concern in the country.
“Thus the status and state of the professional organization which often desired the basic capacities and means to design sustainable, progressive programs of action on behalf of their members required immediate and direct Interventions if realistic prospects for meaningful change were to be realized. Many journalists working in the country have no job security. They are deprived from any form of social security, health benefit, while some are owed numerous months of salaries. Closely related to this, is the fact that many Liberian journalists, particularly those in the lower unit who work as reporters, are poorly paid and ill motivated, which partly explains the poor performances of some of these journalists and most importantly, the continuous disregard of the ethics of the profession,” Mr Coffey intimated.
He said, in the light of these critical issues, there has been a clarion call for a collective bargaining standard framework that will to some extent determine what journalists are paid, their conditions of service in relation to the qualifications that they have, and their level of professionalism.
“The scope of the agreement and remunerations and benefits are holding back the signing of the agreement by some media entities. However, the Union is in the forefront of this crucial course and is confident that the desired results will come sooner rather than later. Already there have been great strides in this regard in Liberia. A Standard Collective Agreement has been developed while collective negotiations have been launched at country level,” Mr. Coffey stated, but noted that there still remains enormous task ahead, adding that most media owners and executives have often not been committed to any form of collective bargaining agreement for their workers, while the appalling economic condition has worsened the situation.
Historically, the Press Union of Liberia was founded in Monrovia on September 30, 1964 to advocate for press freedom and the protection of Journalists. The foundation of the Union grew out of a legislative contempt action against journalist Stanton Peabody.
In the succeeding consultations, the Journalists in attendance, E. Reginald Townsend; Henry B. Cole, Chauncey Cooper, Aston King , Tuan Wreh, J. Perey Gumel, Stanton Peabody agreed to organize an association to protect journalists. Before the 60s, the Liberian Media was purely concerned with government releases, or releases from embassies along with news from business houses and learning institutions.
However, with the establishment of the Union, the Liberian Media experienced considerably some level of transformation, but much is desired in the face of technological advancement, coupled with the trending global economic constraints.
What makes the matter worse is that the COVID-19 pandemic has added compound complex problems to the media ability to withstand the economic difficulty.
Despite the unfavorable economic condition the Union sometimes provides small support to journalists who are in distress if and when it has available resources. The Union also developed and has since been working to pursue opportunities for the Liberian Media while defending Press freedom.
Even during the protracted Liberian civil crisis and thereafter, when virtually every strata of the Liberian society was polarized on sectarian and political lines, the Press Union stood as a defiant non-partisan institution that challenged the regimes in spite of the associated risk.
Today, the Union has grown into a vibrant pro-democracy group that has championed not only media matters, but issues affecting the democratic governance of the state, social justice, human rights, thus strengthening international human rights mechanisms.
With a membership scope of more than 1,000 journalists, the PUL has oversight responsibility for addressing problems arising from journalist’s reportage and conduct in the wake of the ever growing demand for quality and good taste.
The Union currently operates through four elected officials comprising: President, Vice President, Secretary General and Assistant Secretary General. Five standing committees are appointed by the elected leadership to form the Executive committee that serves as a supporting arm of the leadership in moving the Union forward.
The Executive Committee is the highest decision making body of the Union next to the general membership (Congress). The Union has also been decentralized with 15 coordinators within the 15 sub-political divisions of the country.
In furtherance of the decentralization structure, the Union also has regional coordinators across the country and actively collaborates, partners and networks with several local and International Organizations including International Federation of Journalists, (IFJ), the Federation of African Journalists,(FAJ), the West African Journalists Association, (WAJA), Committee to Protect Journalists, (CPJ), Global Forum for Media Development, (GFMD), USAID, OSIWA,, UNDP, Internews, IREX Carter Center and others.