Report on the Celebration of the International Day to End Impunity Crimes against Journalists in Liberia

Program jointly organized by the Press Union of Liberia & Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding with funding from UNESCO

Introduction

On Monday November 3rd at the YMCA Conference hall in Monrovia, Liberian media stakeholders met in a jointly organized program by courtesy of the Press Union of Liberia and Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding with support from UNESCO to celebrate the first ever International Day to End Impunity Crimes against Journalist. The event is a product of a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. November 2nd was actually the designated date for the celebration but because it fell on Sunday, a non working day, the celebration was differed to Monday November 3rd.

Based on the theme: Breaking the Culture of Impunity: creating safety environment for Liberian journalist, a symposium formed the highpoint of the celebration.

It had in attendance as panelist the Inspector General of Police Chris Massaquoi, Newspaper Publisher Philip Wesseh, Chairperson of the Independent Human Rights Commission Justice Gladys Johnson.

Veteran Radio Broadcaster and former Secretary General of the PUL Frank Sainworla served as moderator. He set the ground rule that allotted ten minutes each to the speakers.

Statements of goodwill were made by UNMIL Rule of Law Advisor Kedar Poudyal, UNESCO Officer in charge Stevenson Siedi, Assistant Minister of Information Culture and Tourism Albert Jarjar and President of the Press Union of Liberia K.Abudullai Kamara.

As a prelude to the start of the event the Master of Ceremony PUL Secretary General Kainheineh Sengbeh led the recital of the journalism creed.

Tennen Dalieh of CEMESP read the message of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on the occasion marking the First International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.

Other statements in support of the day were delivered by the Lawmaker Richmond Anderson and Human Rights lawyer Taiwon Gongloe.

The audience made up of journalists and other media development actors had the opportunity to pose questions and make comments on the deliberations.

This event was based on frank discussion and sharing of experience in line with the theme. It has resulted to the design of a communiqué recommitting all relevant actors to work towards improving the environment of media practice.

Participants acknowledged that the media landscape has relatively improved albeit with challenges that have to be surmounted in protecting the fragile democratic space.

 

Short statements

Stevenson Siedi UNESCOS OFFICER IN CHARGE: started by welcoming all to the event and brought goodwill message from the Director General of UNESCO Ms. Irina Bokova, “who has called upon all governments to ensure a swift and thorough investigation every time a journalist is killed and to all parties for stronger cooperation to enhance the safety of journalists…”

He said celebrating the day annually is important as it raises awareness on safety of journalists and enlist the support of a wide range of actors including security agencies, the judiciary and other institutions to stop impunity against journalists.

He added:  “the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists was declared by the UN General Assembly during its 68th session in December last year,” noting that the resolution urged  member states to implement definite measures in countering the present culture of impunity. He said Nov. 2nd was chosen in commemoration of the assassination of two French journalists in Mali last year.

According to Siedi, the background to the resolution brings to mind the killing of over 700 journalists around the world. These journalists were killed for bringing information to the public. He disclosed that in 2012 alone, the UNESCO Director General condemned the killing of 123 journalists, media workers and social media producers. He added that there was a slight decrease in 2013 when the figure dropped to 91, even as it still represented the second deadliest year for journalists.

He said the figures do not include the many cases of journalists who on a daily basis suffer from non fatal attacks, including torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, intimidation and harassment in both conflict and non conflict situations.

He alluded to the case of female journalists who face abuses and violations including sexual attacks.

“Worryingly, only one in ten cases committed against media workers over the past decade has led to a conviction. This impunity emboldens the perpetrators of the crimes and at the same time has chilling effect on society including journalist themselves. Impunity breeds impunity and feeds into a vicious circle,” the UNESCO Officer in Charge re-echoed.

He said when attacks on journalist go unpunished; this sends a very negative message that reporting the embarrassment truth or ‘unwanted opinions’ will get ordinary people in trouble.

He maintained that the population consequently loses confidence in its judiciary system that is meant to protect everyone from attacks on their rights.

He impressed on the audience that without freedom of expression and particularly freedom of the press, having an informed, active and engaged citizenry is impossible. He stressed the point that were journalists are safe, citizens find it easier to access quality information and many objectives tied to democratic governance, poverty reduction, conservation of environment and effective institutions become possible.

Others that should benefit from the campaign are human rights defenders, citizen journalists community radio journalists.

He referred to the Ebola outbreak as a situation that demands safety consideration for journalists, urging media managers to take heed.

He appealed to the presenters of the panel discussion to do justice to the theme in bringing out the key issues of concern to the Liberia media.

He used the occasion to make an appeal for increased support to the office of the Information Commissioner in ensuring that Freedom of Information Act 2010 serves the intended purpose; the passage of national broadcast legislations among other pending media bills.

 

Abdullai Kamara President of the Press Union of Liberia: registered his delight to welcome all attendees f the event saying “very soon this day will be the most important on the calendar…”

He said before now the World Press Freedom Day provided the opportunity to make case for media rights, but with the recognition of the international day to end impunity crimes against journalists by the UN General Assembly, it must be seen as an added advantage to exploit.

He referred to the 700 journalist killed around the world, disclosing that Committee to Protect Journalists and others have been very vocal in calling to attention the failure of state governments to prosecute the perpetrators. He said such act of impunity represents the greatest threat to journalism.

On the home front K. Abdullai Kamara made mention of a couple of journalists that have been flogged and brutalized, media houses closed, detention and impounding of working tools.

He said there has been no closure to some of these matters and expressed hope that the organized symposium would lead to amicable resolution of the outstanding issues.

He said even as there are harrowing stories of media brutality and victimization, hope is not lost for reforms.

He disclosed that even at the weekend there were engagements with stakeholders for reforms and resolution of some controversial issues that fraught free media practice.

He concluded by expressing hope that at the end of the deliberation actions and commitment will be enlisted to extend rather than limit the democratic space.

 

Albert Jarjar Assistant Minister of MICAT: whilst thanking the organizers of the event said that as a journalist himself welfare and safety issues are very close to his heart.

He said it is good news that during those tumultuous years for journalists quoted in death lists, Liberia has been enjoying peace and tranquility, but as a member of the global community the report speaks to all and sundry.

He said inspired of a couple of few distractions that the Police Inspector General has swiftly responded to Liberia has provided a safety environment for journalists. He described President Sirleaf as lover of civil liberties.

He reassured that his government will remain committed to the protection of rights; and urged journalists to take ethical issues of the profession seriously.

He said whilst taking about safety issues for journalists the question should take into consideration what is done for journalists who fall sick and die for want of requisite medical attention. Citing a couple of journalist who have died in the past, he made the case for health insurance or something to the effect to be instituted for journalists.

“PUL needs to disaggregate the list of deceased journalists to know that the safety issue transcends non-repressive actions,” the Assistant Minister of MICAT intoned.

UNMIL Rule of Law Advisor Kedar Poudyal: stated that impunity is one of the crucial human rights applicable to all arena not only journalists. He said the rule of law serves as the code of conduct for the protection of all rights.

He spoke on three layers: media in development, professionalism and safety that May 3rd World Press Freedom Day had represented, adding that the recognition of the International Day to End Impunity Crimes against Journalists is just a continuation of previous UN supported ideals.

He reminded all about the fact that media is exposed to a host of vulnerabilities in speaking out against the ills of society.

He stressed the importance of the day in advocating for media friendly legal frameworks- sufficient and adequate for investigation, complaint mechanism, prosecution and protection.

He said it is the responsibility of the media community to ensure that the broader ideal of freedom of expression is achieved as guaranteed in international law and reaffirmed in the Liberia constitution.

He reminded all that it is the responsibility of the state to protect journalists and urged stakeholders to critically re-examine the landscape in understanding the weaknesses and gaps that need to be addressed.

 

PANEL DISCUSSION

 Presentation of Chairperson Independent Human Rights Justice Gladys Johnsons: She started by saying that the topic was important not only for journalists “but for everybody impunity issue must be of interest…”

She underscored the point that everybody needs the protection from government “but because this is your day I will restrict my presentation on the implication it has for journalists…”

She recalled that few years back the fact “we are sitting here discussing this issue could not have happened because impunity was the order of the day especially as it relates to freedom of speech…”

She said talk bad about the President landed many people in the Bella Yalla prison. She said it was only the courageous Albert Porte that had the audacity to criticize the government. She said under the True Whig Party workers salaries were deducted with impunity but only Porte resisted such actions.

“Let us thank God that even as there are challenges no journalists has been killed and there is none in jail…”

She seized the opportunity to send out an appeal to journalists to write believably and follow up on what they publish, adding that it takes education to understand these guiding principles.

She pointed out that freedom of the expression and the press must not be abused by the quest for money that has driven journalists to write misleading headlines.

“if you cannot support what you throw out know that somebody has right to good name; prove it before you print it,” she warned.

She suggested that it is because there is less violation and abuse of rights by the government which is why the public has been hearing less from the Independent Human Rights Commission.

 

Presentation of the Police Inspector General Chris Massaquoi: He prefaced his presentation with the reassurance that he did not come with guns to intimidate anyone. He said because of the seriousness he attaches to the celebration he instructed his operational commanders to be in attendance to learn and make amends.

He said the Police are responsible for the protection of all rights and prevention of crimes in a state.

Speaking on journalism in crisis situation Chris Massaquoi said it is important for journalist to self preserve themselves. He argued that in crisis situation identification becomes dicey. In such a circumstance he said journalist need to help the state as law and order becomes paramount.

“When the Police say don’t cross the red line, please take instruction,” Chris Massaquoi implored journalists, indicating that the intention is not to abuse media rights but to protect journalists.

He disclosed that it was a personal decision that he took upon assuming office that nobody should die as a result of Police action. He made reference to the Yekepa incident when mob fired guns and the Police exercised high degree of restraint by drawing back, without striking back to ensure that nobody died and lives and property protected. He disclosed in that incident journalist were involved adding that this the extent the Police are going to do damage control but when it turned out bad, the Police get negative publicity.

He said there have however been isolated incidents where the Police had no option but to step in and take action because some news can affect the economy, hurt personal feelings and even create instability.

He alluded to the publication of the now closed National Chronicle Newspaper that was publishing inciting stories at a time rumors abound about guns in coffins and people were poised to attack and overthrow the government.

“We wanted to be sure that history did not repeat itself and stories that have security implications have to be arrested within the law; nobody is above the law; if you commit the crime in the full glare of public we can come for you without arrest warrant…”

He warned journalist s to refrain from writing falsehood about people’s father, or somebody’s son, as it can hurt.

He alluded to a headline that imputed Police in Ebola corruption which was very unfounded and unfair.

Whilst admitting that there are bad eggs in the rank of the force, he spoke about the Professional Standard division of the force that is responsible to institute disciplinary measure and record s are there to attest to the fact that many delinquent officers have been penalized, disrobed and processed for court.

He concluded by calling for cooperation, collaboration and coordination between the PUL and the Police.

 

Presentation of Inquirer Publisher Philip Wesseh: he described the day as historic insofar as it is talking about impunity that has witnessed the recent closure of a newspaper in a manner that cause panic  in the whole city.  He said the way and manner the Police went to arrest the National Chronicle Publisher was as if they were going for Bin Laden.

He lauded the progress that has however been recorded in the area of freedom of expression in compare to previous days when headlines were changed in printing press.

He said there is need for the ministry of information to change to communication and devote more time to strategies than being loquacious on radio.

“Some issues require engaging the media houses rather than going to the PUL or closing media houses, closure of media houses can create fear amongst journalists…”

He said it is unfortunate that journalists hardly follow up stories published; adding that one way to fight media impunity is to follow up.

He threw out a teaser about a certain Police Director that use to send out press releases about nonexistent dismissed officers but without following up on those fictitious names, nobody ever uncovered the trick.

He admonished all journalists to remember that there is no news worth dying; implying that self preservation must be the watchword of every journalist in dangerous zones.

He recommended discreet photographing in such situations rather than the folly of some journalist who are giving to saying: “I am doing my work…”

He appealed to the PUL not to wait for complaint but be proactive in engaging some journalists engaged in ethical infractions.

 

Interactive session

Moderator Frank Sainworla ensured that each speaker’s strong point was restated for emphasis. He started the interactive session by asking all panel discussant to respond to the question: What is the state of journalists safety in Liberia?

Justice Gladys Johnson averred: “I don’t think there is threat, we have monitors across the country who furnish us with information, no journalist is in jail…I did concede that this impression does not negate the fact that there are challenges and it might not get bad…”

Inspector General Chris Massaquoi maintained: “I don’t think there is a threat, we have made commitment that we will work within the rule of law, you can move around without fear-absolutely on threat

Publisher Philip Wesseh noted: “there is relative improvement now…time there was when printing press were targeted for censorship, but we need to work on the overall media environment

 

Questions and comments from audience

The first question was posed to the Philip Wesseh as to who is encouraging journalists to be lazy?

One journalist of the Success Forum press stated that he was tortured and detained by Police for intervening in matter where a motor bike rider was knocked down by Police officers

Another journalist spoke about the incident of a Police officer shot and killed one fellow by the name of Piah which still remains a mystery…

Another journalist questioned why were two journalists barred from entering the Police headquarters

A female journalist from Developmental Media asked what other tools could be used apart from follow to tackle impunity

Another journalist citing Amnesty International and documentation of CEMESP stated that contrary to impressions created by some of the panelists argued that the media is not free as there have incidents of harassments referencing the unresolved flogging and detention of journalist Papy Kollie

Another journalist questioned what red lines are and how can the Police and Media collaborate…

 

Responses to questions and comments

Justice Gladys Johnson said that they have received a complaint about the alleged murder incident and file has been sent to the Justice Ministry for investigation.

Police IG Chris Massaquoi commenting on the same issues said that evidence are so far lacking to nail their officer, he urged anyone in the hall with information to volunteer on the allegation to speak to him before he left the hall…On the National Chronicle closure he said that there was an air of imminent danger, rumors about arms in coffin at Red light all of which coincided with string of stories that newspaper published. He admitted that some of their officers can get on the wrong side of the law but that does not justify blanket accusation on the Police force…He wondered whether the journalist claiming to have been brutalized did not obstruct the Police investigation noting that the motor bike rider in question was riding in prohibited area. He said going back to the definition of ‘Impunity’ it will be noted that some individuals bring up personal issues some of which have never come up to his notice, “how do I deal with these when nobody brought it to my notice…we put over 5000 officers on the street there is no way we are going to monitor all of their activities…this is why we need your support…even the New York Police department has problems…but the truth is we are committed to constructive partnership…isolated incidents of bad apples in our midst must be seen as the whole picture…Help us have a better force…As matter of fact we expected the communities to have helped us identify miscreants during the recruitment vetting processes when we went in the communities… ”

Publisher Philip Wesseh on the question of who make journalist lazy said that good editors make good reporters based on his experience…He blamed the editors for not ensuring that reporters do the right thing…He said the PUL must do more than publishing press releases…He warned just about the feeling of infallibility which implies that they should owe up to their errors rather than relying on the cliché:”I stand by my story…He added that there are steps embedded in follow-up on stories which includes cultivating friendship in various quarters and levels including the security services…

 

Communiqué on the Occasion Marking the Celebration of the First International Day to End Impunity Crimes against Journalists

Preamble

In commemoration of the first International Observance of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, the Press Union of Liberia collaborated with UNESCO and Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding to organize a national symposium under the theme: Breaking the culture of impunity: creating a safe climate for journalists in Liberia.

The symposium heard from Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism, Press Union of Liberia, UNMIL, Independent National Commission of Human Rights, Liberia National Police and media institutions on issues relating to journalism, freedom of media, impunity and safety of journalists, among other things

Whilst reaffirming the linkages between free media, democratic progress and national stability; stakeholders acknowledged the need for both journalists and government actors to work together in ensuring safety for all.

The symposium discussants committed to working along in ensuring safety for the journalists and:

  • Acknowledged the first International Observance of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists as worthy of the intent that informed its adoption by the UN General Assembly;
  • Deplored impunity as not acceptable for journalists and all others;
  • Underscored the imperative of creating situations responsible for journalism that thrives on truth saying;
  • Stressed the point that journalist must aspire to be better educated in understanding the issues that germane;
  • Urged journalists to take precautions in crisis situations and abide by prescribed  guidelines;
  • Appealed for sustained stakeholders collaboration to have adequate laws which provides safety for journalists;
  • Called for effective partnership between Police and journalists to ensure perpetual justice and a way forward;
  • Recommended special protection to be accorded female journalists;
  • Expedite effort to reopen the National Chronicle newspaper that has been closed down;
  • Inspired journalists to follow up on stories as a strategy that checkmate impunity;
  • Journalist to make conscious effort in imbibing personal safety regimen in work places;
  • Strengthening self regulation mechanism in media institutions and at the level of the PUL Grievance and Ethics Committee;
  • Urging all journalists to take PUL activity more seriously.

 

Conclusion

The celebration of the International Day to End Impunity Crimes against Journalists has come at time when efforts are underway to resolve contentious issues between media and state actors. The fine sentiments that attended the event are supposed to be matched with tangible commitment in addressing unresolved issues that make for a freer media landscape.  Relative gains alluded to in freedom of expression are not evidently adequate. Much has to be done using the multistakeholders approach to ensure that the legal frameworks are in sync with democratic ideals within which context media operates professionally. Certainly shared responsibility, give and take and sincerity of purpose by all actors can put the media in better stead in upholding the public trust. There is no turning back along this trajectory.