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Full Speech: Koijee Addresses Key Issues At World Press Freedom Day In FishTown

KEYNOTE ADDRESS DELIVERED BY HONORABLE JEFFERSON T. KOIJEE, MAYOR, CITY GOVERNMENT OF MONROVIA HELD AT THE CELEBRATION OF 2022 WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY, ORGANIZED BY THE PRESS UNION OF LIBERIA (PUL) HELD IN FISH TOWN, RIVERGEE COUNTY, REPUBLIC OF LIBERIA MAY 3, 2022

THEME: “JOURNALISM UNDER DIGITAL SIEGE”

Mr. Charles B. Coffey, Jr., President of PUL and other members of the Executive Leadership of PUL;
Council Members of the Press Union of Liberia
The Chair and Members of the Organizing Committee the 2022 World Press Freedom Day Celebration;
Former Presidents and other Former Leaders of the PUL; Publishers, Editors and Media Practitioners;
Officials of Government here present;
Mr. County Superintendent;
Lord Mayor of the City of Fishtown;
Local Leaders of Rivergee County;
Heads and Members of Civic Society Institutions; Heads and Members of Private Sector Institutions; The Head of UNESCO and other UN Organizations;

Heads and Members of Multilateral and Multisectroal Cultural Organizations;
International Development Partners;
Men and Women of the Noble Profession of Journalism in Liberia; Fellow Compatriots,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

When I received the letter inviting me to speak at this event, I began to recollect my days as a national youth and student activist, from high school as the President of the National High School Student Union (NIHISSUL) in 2004 working with the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) to bring government and public school students together in a peaceful dialogue ending student-against-student riot, the Secretary General of the National Student Intellectual Council (NASICOL, the Montserrado County Coordinator of the Federation of Liberia Youth (FLY) and eventually the Chairman of the youth wing of the Mighty Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC).

I remembered how in August 2009 alongside other student leaders, I was arrested, jailed and physically abused for advocating for the full implementation of the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Report; how in 2011 the late Comrade Vallai Dorley, others and I were arrested and jailed for peacefully calling for the release of journalist Rodney Sieh of the Frontpage Africa Newspaper. The court had convicted Mr. Sieh and Mr. Fallah and ordered them to pay a total of US$1.5 million in damages and US$90,000 in court cost. This was a deliberate ploy to shut down the Newspaper.
As I reflected, on these experiences and many others, I became ever more humbled and grateful to God for life and that PUL would choose me to serve as your Guest Speaker on the occasion marking the 2022 Celebration of World Press Freedom Day in the City of Fish Town, River Gee County. Coming to Fish Town is a genuine extension of your outreach initiatives to the nukes and crannies of our only country, Liberia.

The background of the theme for this year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day, ‘’Journalism Under Digital Siege’’ pivots on the fundamental principles of press freedom and rekindles the memories of fallen journalists who have lost their lives in the execution of their ethical and reportorial duties, and from other causes.

At this juncture, I would like for you all to please rise up with me in tribute to fallen Liberian journalists Albert Porte, Charles Gbehyon, Professor Alhaji G. V. Kromah, Bill Frank Enoanyi, Professor Joe Mulbah, Tom Kamara, Victoria Christopher, Tommy Raynes, T. Lawrence Randall, Kamara Abdullah Kamara, Yede Allison, Janet Johnson and the legions of other journalists whose physical absence our country continues to mourn. May their souls and the souls of all those departed continue to rest in peace and may light perpetual shine on them.

Mr. President of the Press Union of Liberia and distinguished members of the media, River Gee and the south-east have also been a strong partner in the promotion of free speech and the perfection of journalism in this country. Many sons and daughters of this region have contributed to the development of journalism and have also served this Organization with utmost honor and respect and have added to the dignity this Organization holds today.
Today we must remember the great services of sons and daughters of this region in the promotion of free speech and of the press. Media history will be kind to individuals like: Charles Gbayon, Rodney D. Sieh, Philip Wesseh, Alphonsus Zeon, Augustus Bortue, Bobby Allison, Legerhood Rennie, Martin Browne, James Butty, Tetee Fuka Gebro, Timothy Seaklor, Charles Coffey, Romeo Togba and many more who are practicing now and who practiced before you.

Your decision to bring the celebration in the heart of the southeast means you have handed huge dignity and respect to people of this region and sons and daughters of this region who are contributing to the development of this Noble profession. I am sure whether dead or alive, they are happy and feeling humane today
Hon. Superintendent, President Coffey and members of the Press Union of Liberia,

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

I appreciate your kind attention as I deliver this keynote address which is structured as follows:
First, I will give an historical perspective of how we have come to celebrate World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd and discus three main topics interpreting this year’s theme.
Second, I will attempt to highlight some past and current scenarios that will remind the Government of Liberia of our comprehensive commitment to press freedom and the need to improve where there are gaps and shortfalls.
Third, I will make a declaration of my commitment to press freedom and five recommendations to support independence and accountability of the Liberian media.

Historical perspective and discussion of the three main outlined topics for this year’s theme
Today, exactly 31 years ago, journalists from across our world gathered in Windhoek, Namibia to declare what would go on to be celebrated in search of freedom for an important component of our nascent democratic as well as democracies and economies the world over – World Press Freedom Day. In an African context, it is worth celebrating the most because this noble cause was pioneered by Africans. It is exciting to state that Africans are good at bearing visions, but we would later backpedal and allow the western world dictate the outcome of our innovation. This is an argument, however, is for another day. For now, we are here to celebrate a noble profession.

In 1991, the United National General Assembly acted upon a recommendation from the UNESCO General Conference which led to the proclamation that the 3rd day of May of every year be celebrated as World Press Freedom Day. Today, almost three decades every democratic corner of the world, in every society where the power is with the people themselves, this unique day is observed and celebrated.

Mr. President, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:
According to UNESCO, this year’s edition will focus on how digital surveillance will impact journalism, freedom of expression and privacy.
The following topics will be covered at the global celebration:

Digital siege
Transparency as a public good
Media viability and public trust
In full support of global and regional efforts, please consider me as I offer my perspectives in advance on the topics to be covered at the event, which also represents and reflects my view on the theme, “ Journalism Under Digital Siege,’’ with specific focus on Liberia.

1. Digital Siege: Digital siege can become a serious threat to journalism and the democratic setting. The increase of use of digital landscape since the Corona global pandemic also demands governments’ responsibility to ensure that access to available information will be not censured or hampered. Researchers and digital rights groups say around the world, digital siege has become an increasingly popular tactic of repressive and authoritarian regimes and some undemocratic settings. Regimes often cut online access in response to uprising or civil unrest, particularly around elections, as they try to keep their grip on power by restricting the flow of
information.

Against this backdrop, I am pleased to inform you no such condition exists in Liberia, under the free and open administration of His Excellency Dr. George Manneh Weah,
President of the Republic of Liberia. Access to online services are not monitored and this has contributed to the flourishing of media freedom in our digital environment.

Digitalization is a prevailing phenomenon in almost every field of study in today’s world. Its impacts are inescapable. But, it is getting increasingly important to capture
its positive and negative aspects to build a digital culture that benefits, rather than
hurts and divides institutions and people.

2. Transparency as a public good: An open government and an open society are key ingredients to build accountability and trust, which are every essential for the
effective functioning of democracy.

We as a country need to invest more in e-Government, internet- based technologies
and application in order to help bolster the free flow of information, freedom of expression and the protection of civil liberties, which will ensure that public sector information is made widely available with no hindrance, bureaucracy or bottlenecks.

While the government has the constitutional responsibility to ensure unbiased and unlimited implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, citizens, too, are under obligation to hold the government and key decision-makers to account, promote good governance and improve public policy and efficiency among others. We must also invest the needed resources required for a more extensive outreach on the Citizens Guide to the Freedom of Information Act in order to provide a broader sense of belonging to the citizens to know how much right of access they have to information and what appropriate thing(s) citizens can do if they are prevented and denied such access.

Thanks to our international development partners such as USAID, the Carter Center and IREX for their support to the Citizens’ Guide to the Act.

The leadership of President George Manneh Weah has demonstrated unbridled political will to ensure that journalists and media practitioners are free to speak their minds at all times, on digital platforms, print and electronic media. The passage of the Kamara Abdullai Kamara Act to decriminalize free speech is a classic example of this commitment – a feat that governments before now could not achieve. To date, there is not record of digital rampaging by Government on the basis of their critical reportage.

3. Media viability and public trust: In clear terms, media viability is not an easy-to- grasp concept. It consists of too many intricacies which vary in terms of tangibility. Its prime focus has to do with the independence of the Media. This squarely means that the Media should be empowered by way of addressing the economic factors such as the income level of the audience, an environment that stimulates start-ups in the sector and the political stability in a region, country or area. In Liberia, we may
not be able to address the macroeconomic conditions at the moment, but we can safely and proudly boast of the political stability in our country that we can leverage for media viability. While it is true that it is extremely difficult for one to predict political stability in the absence of addressing the economic conditions, we believe that our country and people can work together to adopt policy actions to mitigate our constraints and put us on the trajectory of finding innovative solutions to the issues affecting media viability. By and large, these actions are not only influenced by central government policies, but also by factors outside of the central government’s control. And that is why I am proposing the formulation of a Media
Advocacy Resource Plan that encapsulates the market economy of the media including business models, training and manpower development, technology, specific issues journalists and media welfare, and other key pillars of media viability.

Past and current scenarios of the Liberia media landscape, gaps and shortfalls and room for improvement

Hon. Superintendent, President Coffey, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

Today, we celebrate this World Press Freedom at a time when democracy continues to grow and be sustained when so many journalists braved the storm to speak truth to power at the risk of their lives. George Orwell was never wrong when he said,” A free press can be good or bad, but most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything, but bad”. This now drives me to highlight some instances of tortures, brutalities, intimidations that the media has been faced with over the years.

On March 7, 1981, Tom Kamara formerly of the New Liberian Newspaper was arrested for a story he supposedly published against the police. In 1984, Willis Knuckles of the Daily Observer and BBC was detained at the infamous Bellah Yallah Prison and reportedly tortured.
On the 17th of January 1985, former Justice Minister Jenkins Scott announced that the Daily Observer would not be permitted to print after it published a series of stories and alleged bellicose articles against the Doe’s regime. Also in November 1985, journalist Charles Gbeyon was kidnapped and killed by the same regime.
The late Klon Hinneh of the News newspaper was detained on the orders of Emmanuel Gbalazeh, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia on March 20, 1990.

In 1994, Charles Taylor’s of the NPFL had Gbarnga as his stronghold but fell to another opposing group where a local journalist was captured and all of his fingers were cut off and subsequently forced to commit suicide. Under the Taylor regime, the media were attacked on several occasions while some journalists were taken to a graveside to be killed.

The intimidation and brutal attacks against several journalists cannot be forgotten as the Hassan Bility, erstwhile editor-In-Chief of the Independent Analyst was held for six months in communicado and persistently tortured for his alleged alignment with LURD. Also in December of 2002, Throble Suah of the Inquirer Newspaper was viciously attacked by agents of Taylor’s notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit. The brutality against the media landscape cannot be ended by not referencing that in 1994 several members of the editorial staffers of the Inquirer Newspaper including Wantu Major, Bana Sackie and D. Emmanuel Nah were arrested from the paper’s Gurley Street Office to Star Base where ECOMOG headquarters was for publication of a story.

Today, the Liberia independent media is faced with another kind of threat. It is coming from the ever-increasing political ownership of the media in Monrovia and across Liberia. With the rise of the digital age, the Press Union of Liberia or independent Liberian journalism is at a crossroad. Solid independent journalism is under threat.

The government and the media have a symbiotic relationship, like the teeth and tongue, and must coexist for the betterment of our common patrimony and democracy. There is a need for mutual respect and collaboration to promote national development and unity.

I must also speak to the agencies of government to desist from lip service, but take concrete action to redress cases of brutality by state security forces. Well over a year ago, the President H.E. Dr. George Manneh Weah set up a presidential investigation committee headed by Presidential Advisor, Dr. Lawrence Bropleh. But after over a year now, there is no outcome of the probe, no findings have been made public.
We need to work together to continue to encourage and build public trust in the
local media.

Declaration of commitment to press freedom and recommendations to support accountability of the Liberian media

Hon. Superintendent, President Coffey, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

I wish to make a firm commitment to support the PUL to work against Digital Siege in Liberia. This commitment goes beyond me being the Mayor of Monrovia, an official of government or outside of government. This is my declaration:

That I would be a Champion of Countering Journalism Under Digital Siege in any form, shape or manner in my country irrespective of my status, creed, position or location in my country or under the globe.

By this declaration, I am citing the collective commitment of the government to press freedom. In support of promoting transparency and independence of the Liberian media, I wish to propose the following measures:

1. That the accreditation process on the establishment of media institutions within the country should not be solely left with the government; the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) conducts a pre-vetting of all requests for accreditation of media institutions, print or electronic and submit the outcomes afterwards to the responsible government institution(s) for consideration;

2. That an independent body, preferably a board or committee, comprising citizens with the moral rectitude and integrity, technical expertise, and experience to serve as a watchdog over the media since the media serves as the watchdog of society;

3. That the PUL strengthens its measures on journalists and media practitioners who use their platform purely for political motives in gross disregard for their ethical responsibilities thus compromising their independence.

4. That the PUL set up a PUL Media Council on Waste Management to work with city governments in all of the 15 counties and sensitize their population on the need to take responsibility for waste which could become a national health and security threat.

5. That the President of Liberia should appoint a Special TRC Report Board led by the PUL and civil society representation for the full implementation of the TRC Report so that a War Crimes Court and an Economic Crimes court will be eventually be set up to ensure that impunity in the land will be addressed and discouraged forever.

Mr. President, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

Transparency and accountability of the digital media is very important. This refers not just to excellent and independent reporting, but also self-examination. As much as the Government has a duty to ensure free press, the Media to have a duty to responsible reporting. To utilizing the media landscape for any less then promoting high standards of journalism, would set the stage for unprofessional and bias coverage or reporting. And this could lead to maligning of innocent people’s character to national hate and tension. The Media must never allowed itself to be used.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I cite myself as an example of someone that the Media has allowed itself to be used to be victimized by negative, false, and unhealthy stories. There are a plethora of false allegations against me, ranging from calling me former a child soldier, to being a death squad commander, to committing rape and other violent acts against innocent people. Usually, it is the Media that allows itself to be the instrument of the spewing of falsehood and lies.

For me, this is now become my reality. But I am not deterred. This is the life I chose. You are all here and you know me. Many of you saw me grow from a student activist to national youth and student leader to becoming the Mayor of Monrovia. But I am usually shocked, that nobody, not one even one of the veteran and legendary journalists, would say just one word to younger journalists when these falsehoods are being fabricated and spread through media outlets.

Veteran Liberian journalists such as Kenneth Y. Best, Philip P. N. Wesseh, Weadeh Kobbah- Wureh, Massa Washington, Aaron Kollie, Frank Sainwola, Kwame Clement, Abraham Massalay, and Peter Quaqua among others whose roles and contributions to free press, media pluralism and democracy in Liberia remain a mark of distinction, greatness and an example that is worth emulating.

Finally, as we celebrate the World Press Freedom Day, it is the responsibility of you as journalists to remain more ethical, independent and balanced in reporting stories to the public. The media as a double-edge can be a frightful weapon of violence when it disseminates messages of falsehood that cunningly sway public sentiments. The Rwandan genocide is an example. It was a hate message by the media that fueled war between the two groups Hutus and Tutsis that degenerated into armed uprising in which the majority Hutus killed hundreds of thousands of the minority Tutsis.

The media can be an instrument of conflict resolution and peace. This is the kind of media that enables a society to make well-informed choices which is a forerunner of democratic governance and values.

Overall, the media and the government should work together to promote the common values which are of interest for peace, democracy and development.

HAPPY WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY; THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

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