“A Fight for Liberia’s Soul” -Atty Kofi Woods Describes 2023 Elections -Says media must side with the people

MONROVIA – The role of the media in safeguarding democracy the world over cannot be overemphasized, especially as Liberia moves steadily towards holding of the 2023 general and presidential elections. Building on the premise that a vibrant democracy cannot be sustained without the input of a credible, unfettered and independent media free from state influences, Attorney Samuel Kofi Woods, Legal Consultant to the Liberia Law Society, has enjoined the Liberian media to get quickly involved in rescuing the “sick nation” 2023 by taking the side of the people in 2023.

“My Dear Friends of ALJA, of all your obligations as a journalist, the first is your obligation to the truth. Good decision-making depends on people having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. Sustaining democracy therefore is not an option. It is an unambiguous position you have taken in the fight to promote and protect the ideals of human rights, democracy, and justice.

“The media must therefore take the side of the people. I therefore urge the media to take a side!!! Both the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and the Association of Liberian Journalists in the America (ALJA) must work together and develop a collective strategy. You must both decide whose interest you want to advance. There are some unadulterated truths about our dear country and the media must not shy from these truths. The election of 2023 is a fight for the soul of our country. We must fight to redeem it!

Let the word go forth from this day and place that we will win. Liberia will never be the same again!” Attorney Woods stated.

Making the assertions during the ALJA Annual Convention held October 1, 2022 in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, the long-time human rights advocate and public defender said the 2023 general elections will be one of the most consequential in Liberia since the end of the civil war,  that will determine whether the post war democratic experiment is resilient enough, and whether state institutions including the National Elections Commission and the judiciary have the capacity, especially given unresolved issues of the 2017 elections and the recent spike in tension and electoral violence, to deliver a result that will represent the true will of the People of Liberia.

“The role of the media in these elections is important in ensuring that the processes leading to the elections and the outcome are free, fair and transparent and represent the expressed will of the people,” Atty. Woods asserted.

He furthered that in order for the Liberian media to fully participate in the processes that will lead to free, fair and transparent elections that will represent the will of the people, the media must put the appropriate infrastructure in place to enable an adequate preparation to report on the whole range of the electoral process. This includes training, logistics, organizations, networking with local and foreign institutions to ensure unrestricted media access and coverage, a key element in ensuring the process was free and fair.

The renowned rights lawyer said the media ensure transparency of the electoral process through its “watchdog” role as the fourth estate.

“A media that is self-sufficient and independent will not be reticent in reporting the stories and will not be swayed by the lure of pecuniary benefits to report otherwise.

“The media must serve as the platform upon which all candidates can be heard equally during the campaign and Promote adherence to the code of conduct for public officials. This will offer candidates the possibility of a fair and more competitive environment.

“Besides advertisement, which is paid for, it is the duty of the media to provide voters access to public information; and be the forum for debate where candidates, the public and others can freely discuss.

“The media must complement civil society by being a credible source of information in its role to educate the people about the entire range of the electoral process, promote better inclusion of the marginalized in our society especially the physical challenged and the full participation of women in leadership,” Atty Woods enjoined.

Using as his theme: “Sustaining Liberia’s Democracy now and in the Future: The Media and the 2023 Elections”, Atty Woods provided the historical context to the development and role of the media globally and nationally, explaining why among the three branches of government, the media’s role as the Fourth Estate is considered the most important as it brings about the real checks and balances to governance by highlighting issues that affect the lives of the voters, most of whom are left betrayed following elections of officials in whose care they delegated their authority as citizenry.

According to Atty Woods, for the media to function independently and credibly, it needs support to become an effective watchdog.

“We must collaborate and build constituencies for reforms.  In the 1990s, the PUL and the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission then under my leadership signed an MOU which offered free legal services to Journalists. We need to revisit these pioneering efforts. ALJA and the PUL must develop a more functional working relationship. I propose that the PUL be represented at all these annual conventions and vice versa.

“The media is under-funded and undercapitalized. There must be collective efforts to invest in the independent media either individually or collectively. The media must be seen in some cases as a real business investment. ALJA and its members can lead the process in setting up a media conglomerate at home. Most of you have acquired expertise abroad and may have access to credits to achieve this,” Atty Woods asserted.

An Imperiled, Sick Nation

Providing a general overview of the current state of affairs in the country, the vocal human rights advocate stated that Liberia is sick and in urgent need of resuscitation, to the point where the national discourse is dominated by mediocrity and the leaders treat the citizens with disdain and arrogance of power.

“Earlier this year, when I was invited to serve as keynote speaker at the annual homecoming gathering of my alma mater, the St. Patrick’s High School, I lamented our national decay. I said that our country was grievously ill and that an urgent intervention was needed. I spoke of unchecked industrialized corruption and crime. I spoke of a government that was tone-deaf and not responsive to the cries of its people. And advised the administration to take heed.

“After that speech the government employed the full resources of its apparatus to attack and vilify me, instead of listening and correcting the course. Now the US Government has stepped in with sanctions, saying exactly the same things I said.

“Permit me to use this opportunity to restate my assertions. Our country Liberia is sick, it is seriously ill. A country is sick when people are dying mysteriously in the streets, series of unexplained disappearances and murders have occurred and the government cannot fulfill its basic function of providing security and protection to its population and when asked the President’s solution was to advise citizens to purchase CCTVs.

“The country is sick when there is no basic healthcare, and when the government can’t even pick up trash from the streets raging with filth and there’s academic filth.  The country is sick when we refuse to pay our teachers and tell our nurses and other healthcare workers that we will fire them if they demand their pay. The country is sick when people cannot exercise their fundamental rights of expressing themselves about the ills of society without being subjected to attacks, and when the ruling political party constitutes a militia to attack, beat and eliminate opponents. I am sure as media people you are aware of the attack on University of Liberia students who were protesting against corruption on July 26th, the Day of our Independence.

“The national leadership deficit goes to the core of our governance. We have incompetent leaders who have no compass to lead. The nation is stranded in a quicksand and the leaders are stranded because they are clueless. And have lost the compass to lead.

“The Nation is sick when another sovereign nation must whip our officials and public servants and sanction them for acts inimical to their public service. And our government conceded and affirmed the whipping by suspending its officials and later forcing them to resign.

“How can we brag of sovereignty and independence when we are compelled by another government to fulfill our duty?

“It took a foreign country to discipline and hold our public servants accountable. How can our current bunch of leaders lead when citizens march almost daily to the Embassy of the United States to whip them into submission? The fundamentals of statehood have been compromised and betrayed.

“Worse still our diplomats are alleged to be exporting decadent and debased values while our Chief Diplomat, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is alleged to be undergoing investigation surrounding sexual assault and human trafficking.

Our Nation is sick when the legislature betrays its solemn oath. Our National Legislature has a lot of UNDERABLES not HONORABLES. The Legislature is pretty much a rubber stamp passing budgets and laws and alleged to be confirming nominees as demanded by the executive, in some many cases there have been allegations of bribes changing hands; in addition to giving themselves huge purses rather than intensifying the enactment of good laws and effectively performing their oversight responsibility to address insecurity, education, health care and the People’s Business.

“The Nation is sick when our judiciary remains corrupt and politically subservient.

“Our Nation is sick when ordinary citizens at home and abroad as well as opposition politicians blind themselves to the real issues at hand and ignore their civic responsibility to work together for the greater good of our country.

“Our nation is sick when the tragedies of drug addiction and sexual assault are on the rise in our communities without solutions in sight,” Atty Woods blasted.

Critical Stance on National Issues

As a means of providing practical solutions to what he considers ailments that imperil Liberia, Atty Woods called for the dissolution and dismantling of the Ministry of Information in favor of the establishment of separate Commissions on Tourism and on Culture, because the Ministry of information is a relic of an outdated past and an instrument of intimidation and threats to Press Freedom and Freedom of expression that was used as a tool in the hands of a backward and entrenched decadent political order.

“Two Decrees were adopted in 1980 and 1981 with the aim to regulate and control the media in Liberia. They conferred immense power on the Ministry of Information with vague discretion to authorize, decide and punish content issues. They represent a serious threat to press freedom. As we speak of the media and sustaining democracy, both Decrees # 20 & 46 establishing the Liberia Broadcasting System and the Ministry of Information respectively must be repealed!” Atty Woods stated.

The well-known rights advocate also stated his support for the call by Liberians and Friends of Liberia that the US Government withholds its support to the NEC if those sanctioned Liberian government officials become candidates in the 2023 elections.

“US Monies should not and must not be used to support the vehicle that will promote their participation in the process especially with the action of our own government they appear wanting in character and service to the country,” Mr. Woods stated outrightly.

He furthered that the Press must begin to discuss and debate the issue of diaspora voting; If not in these elections, it should be possible in future elections.

“This is a constitutional right that has been denied our citizens living abroad.  Like one of the forerunners of this idea, Dionysius Sebwe argued “that the Framers of the Constitution were farsighted by adopting absentee ballot to allow a multitude of Liberians scattered across the world to participate in the political process. They reasoned that election be an inclusive process intended to enable every Liberian citizen to partake in choosing the president and other elected officials.” Absentee Ballot is not a cosmetic goal, rather a major component and extension of the voting process as provided for in Article 80 (c) of the constitution. The voices of Liberians in the Diaspora will give new meaning to our democratic attempts in fostering a more stable and peaceful Liberia.

“There is a need to review the biometric voting considering queries raised by political parties, the questionable procurement process, the lack of education and lack of full understanding of the advantages and disadvantages thereof.

“My Dear Friends, I have provoked some issues, however controversial, to encourage a deeper debate which will clarify and spur political debates and opinions by the Media as we deal with 2023 and beyond.

“My comments and position in no way suggest a general state of hopelessness. There are series of initiatives undertaken by ordinary Liberians and friends alike: women, youths, religious leaders, teachers who make sacrifices, nurses and doctors dedicated to patients, healthcare and social workers who are involved drug prevention, awareness and rehabilitation, lawyers who honestly defend their clients, public servants, journalists, workers, market women who offers hope and give us cause to celebrate that Liberia will rise again.

“As an opinion leader, I will be condemned and criticized but some will understand me. Colleagues and Friends, we have made tremendous gains in our struggle for press freedom, freedom of expression and the respect for fundamental rights. Unfortunately, some governments want to take the credit for this. I DISAGREE! Most governments have been reluctant and pretentious about Press Freedom. The real heroes and heroines are many in this room, the unsung heroes whose life was cut short. I will not credit those who surrender in battle because they were left with no choice,” Atty. Woods said.

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