|K. Abdullai Kamara|
Press Union of Liberia
It has been 60 days since we assumed leadership of our beloved Press Union of Liberia. This is truly a new beginning, and we have to chart a new course that does not alter the acceptable ways of doing things, but one that enhances partnership, solidarity and fraternity, in the run up to ensuring a free, professional and responsible media. While all of the wonderful expectations of members of the PUL cannot be accomplished in 2 months, we have all the same set our sights on the key challenges and we are driving there – surely.
Within 60 days, we have succeeded in accomplishing a number of activities and instituting related ideas. Principal among these are:
- The main draft of a 3-year Strategic Plan has been developed and costed. The document is being shared with relevant partners for review, in preparation for a multistakeholder validation session anytime in March 2014;
- Activities of the union have been tasked, with each elected officer responsible for one of the various themes and stakeholders the PUL is engaged with;
- The 5 standing committees have been set up, resourcefully chaired by 3 women and 2 men. Already, the chairpersons of these committees are playing very useful roles on the executive committee of the PUL. There have also been set up a number of ad-hoc, but all the same very relevant, committees to assist in the running of the union;
- We have held engagements with relevant partners in the community – the highest level of executive, legislative and judicial leadership; key players in the international community present in Liberia; crucial donor partners and of course, relevant civil society and democracy building institutions. These consultations have laid the groundwork for the PUL to sustain the process of making media a relevant part of Liberian society, and a key contributor to peace, democracy and development in the country.
Over the last 60 days, we have had to engage various government agencies for physical attacks on journalists. We have maintained that this is altogether unacceptable, but we have used various means of resolving them. We insist that there should be no reason for physical attack on anyone, let alone journalists, who are simply doing their work. We again insist that no such attack should go unattended.
We however recognize that the process of getting down to the final decision can be long and painstaking, and we easily agree to reach an understanding, where the offending party acknowledges, apologizes and is in a position to restitute all losses and damages.
Our preoccupation in this regard has been with working towards the review of the caseload of difficult media laws, including the perennial threats of contempt. This conversation has made the round in many of our engagements, and will be formalized as part of the strategic plans, when it is unveiled in the coming weeks.
Threats and obstruction of journalists’ work remain a case to reference. Particularly disturbing are the unlawful seizure of the affairs of various publicly owned community radio stations by county administration and political actors. This does not speak to the collaborative leadership that was put into place by the organizing donors, and limits public ownership of these facilities.
In the coming weeks, we will be following up cases with both the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Information for their involvement in ensuring that local government actors do not interfere with the free operations of these vital institutions.
Observations and complaints of ethical breaches by journalists across the country have remained. The Grievance and Ethics Committee is already reviewing a number of cases for adjudication. The leadership however notes that some cases are of such grievous natures that we have had to make direct contacts to have them addressed. There have regrettably been instances of journalists raising tribal, religious and other sentimental flags. We have also had to draw attention to newspapers coming out without any trace of editor, publisher, etc. This is just so shameful and ridiculous. We are making efforts to contact those believed to be connected with such ludicrous work, and would make our findings public in due course.
In addition, the leadership and the Ethics Committee are determined not to await complaints before acting. While seeking resources to support full time monitoring of media content for ethical breaches, the PUL will be privately reviewing and challenging open breaches – even publicly, and gearing up to provide ethical comments at any public function or PUL activity. We hope this will not only raise the bar for professional journalism, but will also keep the public aware of actions that constitute bad journalism.
The PUL is bracing for a membership drive that is poised to make the PUL a professional, mass-based organization. This will reasonably be launched outside Monrovia. Various incentives are being organized to encourage a stronger membership. This will emphasize journalists from rural based outlets, as well as an increased number of women. We like to assure our members that while we encourage the idea of the more the merrier, we also note that the greater the recognition, the higher the need for responsibility.
We do not pretend that there is public misapprehension about the PUL, in regards to the $100,000 gift of several years ago. We are addressing this. A special committee has been set up to review the case. Already, consultations have been held with the lawyer, guided by comments from past leaders to chart a way forward. Members of those committees are upbeat about gaining success at an early date.
World Press Freedom Day 2014 will be held under the theme “Reaching New Goals: Free media fortifies the post-2015 Development Agenda,” with a focus on media’s importance in development; safety of journalists and the rule of law; and the sustainability and integrity of journalism. This activity will be localized in Liberia under the theme: Free Press Exposes Poverty to Bring Development, and will be observed through a two-day reporting exercise and consultative seminar in Gbarpolu County.
As part of this activity, journalists will crisscross Gbarpolu (and other parts of the country) on May 2, reporting the outstanding and successful issues in the MDGs, share their experiences at a roundtable in Bopolu (and elsewhere) on May 3 and report the stories in the national media in the subsequent week.
As usual, the WPFD will be climaxed with the annual awards night. Already, a committee of judges is being considered to collect and review entries for the awards, and to assist in planning an appropriate event, while partners are being sought to provide sponsorship for the various awards. By all means, the PUL is keen on recognizing the excellence put forth by journalists in Liberia, and this activity remains the only determinant of best practice.
Overwhelmed by Community Invites
The Liberian community continues to see the PUL as a source of advice and morality on national issues. We intend to keep this course. As a result, we have been engaged with various civil society and government related activities, least to speak about preparations for the Senatorial Elections; the constitution Review Process; and various legislations, including the Code of Conduct and review of government accounts by the PAC of the Legislature. So far, the PUL has provided a platform for the discussion of the Community Impact Development Bill, and is poised to make this platform available more often to discuss contentious national issues
In preparation for the senatorial elections later this year, the PUL is planning to organize debates in each county for citizens to engage their would-be leaders, on their expectations.
In all of these, we recognize the need to have a space for plural and diverse participation in our national affairs. Actions and decisions that seek to exclude any segment of our population on the basis of our dissenting position do not serve the greater objective of encouraging collaboration. Instead, it strengthens the case of division.
All of these activities require resources. To acquire these, we rely upon the goodwill and commitment of the members of the PUL. But we also remain engaged with various donors, partners and corporate agents to ensure adequate resources to undertake these activities.
All of these issues can only be accomplished with the fullest cooperation of the members of the Press Union of Liberia. To date, very limited due payment has resumed. Members of the PUL need to obligate themselves to the task of paying professional dues. That is irrespective of the high percentage against their meager salaries.
Salaries remain low for journalists. Conversations on the Collective Bargaining Agreement have not begun in earnest, more due to the fact that the Welfare Committee is trying to itself understand the agreement, before charting a road map.
The PUL is short of resources. That includes emoluments for officers and staff, and facilities to run the institution. Program ideas have been limited, and have only resumed lately. Optimism is the name of the game, and commitment is the charge.
Worse of the challenges is the inability to visit with most of the media houses. We are not ignoring you. We are simply trying to make your union a lot more functional. We however, now invite you to join us in making this union exemplary. Stop by the office anytime, and share with us your perspectives. Once we set things on course, you can be assured we will be visiting more often.
We are listening out to your comments, questions and concerns.
In the name of free speech and a responsible media, we remain.
K. Abdullai Kamara
Press Union of Liberia