Peter Quaqua, President of the Press Union of Liberia

A head of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2010, the Liberian based Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP) has expressed disappointment in what it calls of media freedom in Liberia.

“Media freedom”, the advocacy NGO said, “remains unchanged, more than four years in a new democracy.”

“CEMESP is particularly concerned because press freedom is the cornerstone to good governance and a functional democracy, and notes further that the range of information available to ordinary citizens enables them to participate more fully in public life, help determine priorities for public spending, receive equal access to justice and hold their public officials accountable. This, CEMESP notes, cannot obtain when the media, the source of information, is cramped,” the NGO’s boss Malcolm W. Joseph, a non-practicing Liberian journalist, said in a statement released in Monrovia on April 28, 2010.

CEMESP said “Liberia’s media is still bruised by physical force, restricted by moribund legal and administrative instruments and suffers political and economic influences or control, by the government or private entrepreneurs.”

“It is troubling that Liberia’s post war political leadership is deafening its ears to the sound of the enormous pounding,” the statement claimed, adding, “If there cannot be change under this administration, presided over by most of the country’s acclaimed social justice advocates, Liberian journalists should perhaps brace themselves for the worse.”

Aside from the fact that ordinary security officers physically attack journalists and the operating environment remains limited, there have been instances where high ranking officials directly assaulted and threatened journalists.

In CEMESP’s 2009 report titled “Intimidation: The renewal of censorship in Liberia”, it claimed 18 cases of physical threats, deterrent lawsuits and administrative actions were meted out against journalists were used to prevent the media from carrying out its work.

Releasing the report, CEMESP challenged the government “to endeavor to allow people to listen to and understand the truth which must set the Liberian person free.”

“However,” the statement went on, “this appeal, and even in the wake of this report, there have been worse circumstances and recurring themes, involving officials as high as the Acting City Mayor of Monrovia Mary Broh, and again security forces.”

Since the report, CEMESP has issued at least five alerts, including two involving security personnel, arbitrary arrests and outright harassments, the statement claimed.

But beyond raising claims about attacks on the media, CEMESP has introduced dialogue among media practitioners and security forces to understand the role of each other, and to as well work together in complementing the roles of each other.

Ahead of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, CEMESP said there remains on the dockets of the Liberian Legislation of three bills intended to reform the Liberian media.

“These laws were deliberately submitted on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2008 and have been there with little action. We therefore use this occasion to renew our appeals for the passage of these laws,” the statement indicated.

CEMESP called on the National Legislature, and the government as a whole, to be reminded like  former World Bank President  James D. Wolfensohn that  ‘If you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring change.’

“In furtherance of our campaign, we like to recall the words of James Madison, Former United States President that ‘A popular government without popular information, or means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.’

In the end of it all, there is one consensus: Liberia still lags behind in fully guaranteeing freedom of the press. Unless the attacks cease, moribund laws erase from the books and Liberia’s development may continue to suffer proportionate damage and the road to recovery rocky.