Zooming the Media Landscape on WPFD -Commissioner Paivey Delivers Biting Assessment of Media Development

MONROVIA – The keynote speaker for this year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) has outlined a litany of means through which freedom of expression and the public’s rights to know are undermined, taking into account lapses from the media and the government.

Addressing the media on World Press Freedom Day at the Monrovia City Hall, Commissioner Patmillia Paivey of the Independent National Commission on Human Rights said there are many ways in which freedom of expression and public right to know are undermined.

“When journalists are paid below the minimum wage it is a violation of rights? When a young cub reporter is told by a managing editor that here we do not pay salaries it’s only a place where you can start off -without proper criteria for entry into the profession. That is a violation of rights. When in a post conflict era where government entities with money in their budgets decide not to purchase or subscribe to newspapers, nor pay for ads in the local dailies but decide to use their social media platforms to publish vacancies and other forms of communication activities.

“Unaffordable annual registration fees and tariffs, unpaid debts to media entities on the basis of tax clearance, not to mention intermittent halt towards free and unfettered access to the internet or digital platforms during critical moments of advocacy- you are assisting in suffocating the vitality and sustainability of a free and vibrant press. This reduces the media ability to advocate, expand its market, grow and produce quality. Despite the increase in media outlets, sustainability is still threatened and the potential for quality lags. The quality of media improves when there are adequate resources to keep it operational and ethical,” Commissioner Paivey stated emphatically.

Speaking on the theme: “Shaping a future of Rights: Freedom of expression, a driver for universal rights”, Commissioner Paivey recalled a recent incident involving a potential voter who had sold his voting right for monetary gains, a mere US$20 at that rate.

“A few days ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a young man. I tried to inquire whether or not he had completed his vote registration. He said to me I’m selling my vote for 20 us dollars. I tried to convince him that he was selling not only his vote but his freedom and the rights of others – he was denying others the right to freely choose whom they so desire to represent them. Then I asked him further, wanting to know if he believed that the one who purchased his vote would represent his interest as in having the integrity to foster the good of the people, push for equality and development. He responded that this is the only benefit he will get. Perhaps his decision to sell a vote is justified because of anger, desperation, frustration and hopelessness. How do we shape his thoughts and perceptions? How many more feel the same way and whose responsibility it is to educate them so that they make informed decisions and informed choices? As journalists and advocates, have we failed in educating the people we serve? In the context of this young man’s story let’s take a deep reflection of what we’ve done to assist the public achieve and maintain a culture of rights.

“The theme of this year’s celebration: ‘Shaping a future of Rights: Freedom of expression a driver for universal rights’ reminds us of our obligation to champion universal rights and equality through free expression.

“Thanks to our media development partners we can boast of one hundred plus media outlets. The proliferation of these outlets can foster free expression and present better chances to citizens for amplifying their voices if the products are ethical and of quality. However, unregulated it can be a source of chaos and conflict. Freedom of expression as you are aware is fundamental to political dissent, diversity of cultural expression, religion, creativity and innovation and it is absolute because of its universality.

“Notwithstanding, there are and should be genuine limitations to free expression based on clearly defined laws and penalties as in the case of defamation, decency, incitement, obscenity, pornography, hate speech, trade secret and many more. In terms of how the law deters abuse of this fundamental right is where a delicate balance is drawn as to the proportionality of the penalty to the violation committed to prevent silencing critical voices. We must be held accountable and take responsibility for what we express.

“Every person has a right to freedom of expression: the right to hold opinion without interference, to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers. As a fundamental right enshrined in article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Freedom of expression embodies media freedom- the same as online and offline, journalists and media workers’ rights including bloggers and whistleblowers.

“Sadly, in 2022 an arson attack on a radio station in Lofa County was carried out; and harassment of Journalists involved in political reporting and analysis by some public officials, the U.S. State Department reported. We call on the government of Liberia to ensure greater protection of journalists,” Madam Paivey said.

Despite the lapses, the World Press Freedom Day Speaker took time to commend the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and other media development organizations, including the Liberia Media Center, Female Journalist Association (FeJAL), Center for Media Studies and Peace building (CEMESP), for many years of work towards freedom of expression and equality.

“For supporting a successful decriminalization of defamation, ensuring we have a FOI law that encourages proactive disclosure, compels disclosure of public information; and a semblance of self-regulation through the National Media Council. There’s a lot to be done to match up self-regulation to the increased number of outlets, journalists and non-journalists. In some instances, the number of radio programs meant to educate is outweighed by substantial and unconfirmed facts. Thanks to fact-checking initiatives by the Stage Media, Local Voices and others not mentioned. It’s worth a commendation!

“To the front liners in mainstream media, Front Page Africa, Daily Observer, others, thank you for your unwavering service to the public.

“I use this opportunity to call on all sides to the PUL elections to unite, adhere to, and respect the Supreme Court ruling which is within a few days. We are at a critical stage in our democracy and should not allow your personal difference to overstep your obligation and duty for continuously informing and educating the public. Disagreements can be prolonged but are not infinite. You must continue to work together for the good of the public. Already, the atmosphere is politically charged, so much so that I wonder if there’s anyone in this hall who does not feel tense and anxious about the pending elections, especially when we listen to radio or watch the social media space. It’s also almost seemingly unregulated, on the part of the audiences and journalists. Nowadays, both are seeking to change the way people understand an issue or situation for the purpose of changing action and expectations so that the outcomes are desirable to interest groups. This is also a violation of freedom of expression and the public right to know.

“As I conclude, I must emphasize that freedom of expression comes with a greater responsibility. I join my voice in calling on the government of Liberia to ensure greater protection for journalists and assist in passing a bill creating an Independent Media Commission to strengthen self-regulation and encourage greater accountability towards the growth and standards of journalism in Liberia.

“Congratulations to all of you journalists amidst the arduous circumstances including the lack of better incentives and equipment under which you performed your duties. I urge you to continuously perform those duties in pursuit of truth, with greater accountability, greeter self-regulation and greater service to the public good. Thank you,” Madam Paivey concluded.

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