By Ralph Geeplay
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is being applauded for signing the Table Mountain Declaration, which aims to boost press freedom, and stop the criminal prosecution of journalists in Liberia.
Sirleaf deserves commendation. However, it is important to note that the signing comes from the Executive Mansion, at a time when assaults and libels against the press has been on the rise. All the Fourth Estate has done these past years, even when dictatorships ruled Liberia has been an effort to report the news to the greater public.
According to reports, President Sirleaf is the second African leader after Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou to sign the document, which aims to stop insults and criminal charges against the media.
“But laws are just what they are unless they are implemented and brought to bear in places like Liberia; where often signing a law sometimes is seen as window dressing and a headline-grabbing feat. Let’s not hope so” said a professor of Mass Communication at the University of Liberia.
The major issues facing Liberian journalists as they strive for independence in this new era, according to analysts, is that critical component of advertising revenues which they lack. “When it comes to advertising revenue, other West African countries are far ahead of Liberia,” says a news editor in Monrovia.
For the press to assert its autonomy, the Unity Party-led government must move two steps forward by making sure, through policy or otherwise that the press has access to revenues independent of outside influence. “If she did that, she would have in totality completed the Table Mountain,” and would have paid tribute to the likes of Charles Gbeyon and Albert Porte, says Chris Johnson, a Liberian.
The media lack that critical advertising revenue necessary to hire and train competent personnel to carry out its duties to the public. Without advertising revenue it is hard to say where some of the most powerful media institutions in the world would be. Already, the average Liberian lack purchasing power to buy newspapers on a daily basis, because they can hardly afford to buy one.
That’s why President Sirleaf must see the signing of the Table Mountain Declaration as the beginning in what is certainly a long road to empowering journalists in Liberia.
Liberia cannot be competitive when all the newspapers are located in Monrovia. Schools must encourage students to write weekly letters to the editor, about the issues on which they agree or disagree. This would sustain a culture for lively debates in the public square. It’s a shame there are no newspapers to read in other parts of Liberia. Would you find that scenario in places like Nigeria or Ghana?
Reporting and writing the news is not an easy venture. Many times journalists in Liberia risks their lives to get their stories published. And when they do, some are often referred to as “check book journalist,” never mind the fact that they often work under undue pressure and with little resources.
If Liberian journalists are to be the guardians of democracy in the country; and the watchdogs that society demands, then President Sirleaf and her administration must go beyond the Table Mountain Declaration.
Ralph Geeplay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org