Deputy Speaker Dissects Free & Independent Press -Says ‘Our Democracy Is Strong Because of Our Press’

Discussing the question “Where in Liberia are some of the indicators of freedom and independence of press,” the Deputy Speaker of Liberia, Grand Kru County Representative, Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa, said Liberia has a growing media space that embraces the proliferation of media in all terms and forms, stressing that there are very few, if any restrictions or barriers, to enter into journalism or media publication and dissemination profession in this country.

Deputy Speaker Deputy Cllr.  Kofa spoke when he served as keynote speaker at the celebration of the Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2021 in Barclayville City, Grand Kru County where he addressed members of the Press Union of Liberia who organized the program and converged there.

World Press Freedom Day popularly known as World Press Day is one of the calendar events planned, organized and promoted by the United Nations, observed annually on May 3. The day is celebrated to raise awareness regarding the importance of freedom of the press. It is a moment of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.  This year’s celebration was organized under the theme: INFORMATION AS A PUBLIC GOOD.

Addressing the journalists, Cllr. Koffa said there is an indication that the country is on its way to mastermind the Windhoek declaration to ensure an independent press as far as information as public good and protection of journalists and journalism, freedom and independence of the Press are concerned.

The legislator expressed happiness that media laws are decriminalized and that laws that tend to imprison journalists for free speech, free reporting or independence from government or government sources in Liberia have been eliminated. “However, we cannot know the constitutional requirement that people are to be responsible for what they write or what they print. And so information as a public good, has a primary requirement to truth. Journalists must speak the truth. It is a patriotic duty to be truthful,” Cllr. Koffa counseled.

He averred that when a journalist falls below that standard of truth, the legal jurisprudence offers him or her even an equal protection. “What happens to a journalist who prints something about Cllr Fonati Koffa in all honesty that is wrong? He wrote a story that is simply false,” the Liberian lawyer and lawmaker said.

He accentuated, “the law puts an additional burden on me or some of us that practice in the public arena that protects you. The courts have said we will not find you liable for libel or slander unless the politician can prove malice – that is the journalist in disregard of the truth moves to print a story purposely to damage the politician simply because he has anger against the politician,” which he considered  the other side of protection because generally in any society, when politicians and public servants are not involved, libels are actually ruled regardless what the journalist should know or what he or she should have known.

Cllr. Koffa congratulated the Government of Liberia, especially the President who has taken several measures ensuring an independent press. “About a year ago, the President donated to the Female Journalists Association of Liberia (FEJAL) a building for office, vehicle and resources. We know in your profession, I have not known a journalist who has gotten rich being a journalist,” he recalled.

He reasoned that having access to resources and to equipment is paramount,  saying that having access to rent free space or having access to space when you can rent will remove other burdens. “I am glad that the President has taken steps to alleviate some of the burden at least for our female journalists,” he noted

Reasoning further that to withhold invoices for a very long time is to withhold the independence and freedom of the press, Cllr Koffa maintained that the government needs to continue on this path by making sure that debts owed to journalists and media institutions are promptly settled because when it comes to the media as a commercial entity, it is the largest conveyor of those goods and services.

“And so we want to encourage the government to move along that line to ensure that arrears to journalists and media houses are settled,” he pointed out.

Turning to some of the provision in the creed of journalists, he recalled that journalists say their creed “I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one’s own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another’s instructions or another’s dividends”

He provided his understanding of this passage, saying “Yesterday at Mass, Father introduced the discourse for this week a term that is popular to all of us called Yellow Journalism. It comes in two forms: The first one is a journalist for pecuniary gains attempts to write a story that he or she knows is false in order to get someone to react to it by making payment. That should not be practiced by you, it is against your creed.”

Secondly, the Deputy speaker alluded to what journalists called a “source” where he said some of them who are non-journalist tend to move on a wagon when it comes to the media practitioners. “Journalists tend to move on a wagon when it comes to you. Journalists to all fault protect all your sources.” However, he believes that we should move to a day where the journalism profession adopts an amended creed so that if the source lies to you, you no longer have that obligation to protect that source.

By that he meant to say that in the competition of ideas in the political arena, all politicians have aims. “An opponent politician may deliberately bring a story to you as a source which that politician knows or should know to be false. And the purpose for that is to damage the reputation or character of an opponent or to gain favor or undue advantage using you. You should avoid that,” he explained.

He said whenever a media institution is exposed as having printed or reported a story that is false, that media institution should take steps to manage its reputation by exposing the source which it knows lied to them in order to damage the reputation of their opponent.

“You have a great responsibility to bring out the truth and use information as a public good. We have all read the US 2020 Human Rights Report. This report has over the years been used as a hallmark of how various governments around the world are practicing democracy. Most notably in this year’s report, the investigators and compilers quoted a lot of journalists’ stories, according to this journalist, according to that radio, according to this newspaper, and the report quoted all these reports,” Deputy Speaker Koffa observed.

Citing an instance, he said the journalists if your report is to rely on to cast aspersion on the character and reputation of someone and that if the report is not true and it has been adapted by the credible international body is dangerous to the truth and very dangerous to your profession.

He said what is going to eventually happen is if you continue to carry out false reports and those who compile the US reports begin to realize that stories planted with us in the past were later on found to be untrue, you would lose credibility, he averred, saying “That is what you should try to avoid.”

“I am proud that indeed that they are now looking to you and your sources and reporting as the source for the compilation of the human rights reports but then add in to the responsibility of the standard in ensuring professionalism,” Mr. Koffa further advised , saying, “So in summary, when you look at your creed , you see that  journalism all over the world is divided into your personal responsibility and what you do to make money through advertising and other forms of commercially imbued free style of free press.”

He said the  creed of journalists have obligated them to abide in a manner that promotes their institution and profession, that promotes as a credible institution and protects the public so that the information provided the public will be relied upon as good information.

Doing so, he said first increases the ability of public policy makers to make a good policy based on the information the journalists provided and it helps across the board how policy makers are perceived internationally and locally as to what they are doing as a country and people.

“It has been my pleasure to spend some time with you in Grand Kru, Barclayville City and I admire many of you who are friends of mine, most of you I have aspired with not necessarily on negative  issues but on public policy,” Deputy Speaker Koffa maintained, adding, “I am happy to have discussed with you, some our disagreement, some of the things we have agreed upon and I am glad we hold those conversations.”

He then concluded that the Liberian democracy is strong because our press is strong.

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