President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has signed the
Table Mountain Declaration, replacing statutes under which journalists and media practitioners may be prosecuted as criminal defendants for criminal defamation, but expressed dislike of media institutions bent on “bad journalistic practice” in Liberia.
“If those responsible cannot address this specter of bad journalistic practice by imposing strong regulatory measures to curtail this increasingly rampant problem in the media, I fear the progress we have made could be undermined,” she warned Liberian media practitioners Saturday.
She said free speech is enshrined in Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution that accords sufficient protection for free speech as well as imposes the burden of constitutional responsibility on those, who, by their actions, abuse the rights of free speech.
But she lamented: “All too often ethical transgressions by some media practitioners are embarrassing, worrisome and counterproductive.”
The signing of the Table Mountain Declaration means joining a global movement dedicated to replacing statutes under which journalists and media practitioners may be prosecuted as criminal defendants for criminal defamation.
In this light, the Liberian leader cautioned Mr. Peter Quaqua, president of the Press Union of Liberia, “to establish self-regulating measures to ensure that the media acts responsibly if the Declaration will be more than the piece of paper.”
President Sirleaf said, while her government demonstrates commitment to free press and free expression, there are some media practitioners and institutions that continue to “let the profession down by failing to abide by the ethical standards upon which a good journalist is required to perform his or her duties.”
“Today I will affix my signature on behalf of the Government and people of Liberia unto the Table Mountain Declaration, to fulfill a pledge regarding our Government’s acceding to the effort toward repealing criminal defamation laws on our statutes in order to underscore the message, loud and clear, that we are committed to advancing free press and free expression not just in Liberia, but to use our leadership role to promote it on the entire continent of Africa,” she asserted.
“You must now act to establish self-regulating measures, as many other countries have done, to ensure that the media acts responsibly by the granting of these freedoms. Both of us have that responsibility, if this Declaration will be more than the piece of paper that I sign, or we can make it a living instrument to protect the rights of all—journalists as well as any other citizen,” she admonished the PUL president.
Liberia is one of the few countries in Africa that passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2010. Additionally, it signed the African Platform on Access to Information in 2011, which reaffirms the 1991 Windhoek Declaration on promoting an independent and pluralistic African Press.
The Declaration of Table Mountain is an earnest appeal to all Africans, particularly those in power, to recognize that the political and economic progress they seek flourishes in a climate where the press is free and independent of governmental, political or economic control. It aims at abolishing insult and criminal laws in Africa and setting a free press higher on the agenda.
Commenting on excesses meted out on journalists in the first five months of 2007, when the Declaration was carved, including the arrest and/or imprisonment of 229 editors, reporters, broadcasters and online journalists in 27 African countries, President Sirleaf noted that though the statistics were frightening, Liberia was not among these countries where a journalist was imprisoned. “Our record on press freedom has, throughout our administration, been to safeguard that space for the press to freely express itself in society,” she said.
PUL president Mr. Quaqua expressed commitment of the media to ensuring that journalists continue to improve the media landscape for the betterment of democracy.
On behalf of the Press Union, Mr. Quaqua pledged to work with publishers and owners of media institutions in the country in ensuring that journalists play their part. He warned journalists that by signing this law, “this is no license for journalists to live outside their rules and norms of practice,” adding that by signing the Declaration, it places additional challenges on journalists to ensure that they live up to their ethics.
The Ambassador and former President of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, Mr. Roger Parkinson, said journalists were marking a significant day, “not only for press freedom but for all people of Liberia and Africa.”
He said, by signing the Declaration, President Sirleaf committed to create conditions under which a free press and society as a whole thrive. “You are sending a message that a free press is in the best interest of government no matter how critical and even annoying a free press can be.”
“This is a message that desperately has to be heard and heeded in Africa, where insult laws and criminal defamation legislation are widely used to outlaw criticisms of politicians and those in authority, to jail critical journalists and close media outlets,” Mr. Parkinson added.