Press Union of Liberia 50th Anniversary Statement

Delivered by K. Abdullai Kamara, President, at the Media Ebola Awareness Activity, September 30, 2014

Esteemed Members of the Press Union of Liberia

Veteran members of the Press Union of Liberia

Surviving Organizers of the Press Union of Liberia

Compatriots in the march for a better Liberia

My fellow citizens

Ladies and Gentlemen

Today had promised to be a very exciting date on the calendar of the Press Union of Liberia - 50 years on the struggle to ensure a free and responsible media landscape - 50 years of standing up to power, demanding and insisting upon the right to freely express ourselves, in so far as this expression was not tearing down bridges and creating division.

Unfortunately, the difficult and cruel army of the ebola virus disease has restricted our desire to celebrate this day, given the wily disruption it has posed in our country and the sub-region.

Further on the account of the ebola situation, all aspects of Liberian life have gradually ground to a halt. Schools are no longer open - children are lazying home; non-essential staff - whether from government service, NGOs, factories or other work places - have been ordered to stay away from work; Hospitals are operating at less than a quarter of their potentials, restoring such previously ignored diseases as mainline killers. In other instances, basic health services no longer run, and people are living until they die. Now in our country, the most significant activity that keeps working is the search for food - to survive.

In the few instances where some work is going on, the preoccupation is on addressing the ebola situation. Today, every newspaper story has an ebola angle and every development grant is now directed at ebola.

Now, given the gravity of the ebola situation and the risks involved with holding a normal celebration, the Press Union of Liberia has dedicated the observance of its 50th Anniversary to a nationwide Media Ebola Awareness Day.

While we are joining the rest of the people of Liberia in talking about the gravity of the ebola situation, we also like to pay tribute to the men and women who, on this day in 1964, set forth the challenge to organize a body to protect the rights of journalists in this country, coordinate space for a free, independent and impartial media in Liberia, and at the same time chart their role in the development of the Liberian state, especially towards ensuring freedom of speech, the actualization of democracy and ensuring a guarantee of freedom, justice, equality and development in our country.

The task set forth by those our compatriots have today bloomed into a most respectable organization - which cannot be ignored in anything good that has come out of Liberia.

While our notes will continuously refer to E. Reginald Townsend, Henry B. Cole, Chauncey Cooper, Aston King and J. Persey Gumel, I nonetheless like to reference Tuan Wreh, who would go on to become a professor of law, but especially because he has provided for Liberian journalism students one academic text that provides a clearer idea of what journalism was in the days the Press Union of Liberia was organized. I also noted the longevity of James E Dennis, who has survived his contemporaries, and has given us the opportunity to think of the men who led the struggle.

I also like to recognize Kenneth Y. Best, who has remained in the newsroom, even at the ripe age of 75.

I wouldn't forget T Nelson Williams, Sr., who led the organization of the Department of Mass Communications at the University of Liberia, providing for once an opportunity for Liberian journalists to gain academic qualifications here at home.

But among all, our hero remains Stanton A. Peabody, who had the audacity to describe members of the House of Representatives in the best disposition of his thoughts, risking contempt and jail, raising the conviction of Liberian journalists to hold together and resist intolerance and alarm that speech must for once be free, especially within the realm of public service.

Regrettably, despite a revolutionary coup in 1980, a new democracy-based constitution in 1985, despite ravaging wars that reorganized the entire state in 1990 and again in 2003, the very contempt of 1964 remains ridiculously unclarified in 2014.

This simply says that the purpose of the Press Union of Liberia is just as relevant today (perhaps more) as it was 50 years ago.

Across these years, the work of the Liberian media - now away from just newspapers and radio as in 1964 - has become even more challenged.

The rights to freely speak, think and write - as guaranteed by the constitution have often been suppressed by various methods. At one point it was fancy to lock journalists up. As sensitivity grew and there is now the resort to court of laws to prevent that, other measures grew. Those have included shutting down, burning and in some instances torture and death.

In more recent years, printing establishments were warned against printing certain papers, and as more papers have metamorphosed to owning printing presses, multiple, crime-based lawsuits are cropping up, with intent to shut down media houses.

In still other cases, media houses have been shut down on claims of hate crimes, and at times just short of sedition

In all of these, our observation is that governments - in and out - have simply not come to grips with the reality that none can stop others from disagreeing in words, unless they have the capacity to stop others from thinking. Because the latter is impossible, efforts to prevent people from disagreeing is but a failed venture that only contributes to the evolution of conflict in our society.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Given that we have dedicated our 50th Anniversary to the fight against ebola, we are keen not to get involved with rhetoric that will take over the recognition we are giving to the fight. Nonetheless, it is fair to note that the fight against ebola can only succeed when the various parties are confident that we are all in it together. That means, principles are standard and do not sway from case to case.

We have a situation here, where all ebola deaths are buried en masse, and then burnt. Note is taken of the Ugandan Doctor from Redemption Hospital and the Catholic Priest. In the future - perhaps with better knowledge - some deaths are allowed special burial rites.

At one point, all unexplained deaths will be treated as ebola deaths. A lot of loved ones were allowed to be carried away by a burial, then a burning team. At some point, the ratio changed, and the death certificates began. With deaths extending into the families of lost ones, an alarm has sounded.

While crying aloud about denial and traditional practices, and telling all relatives and friends to accept the ebola reality, a new row has come forth when deaths in high quarters are cited to be ebola.

There must be one standard that will instead get appreciation from all. Otherwise, those who have also doubted the circumstances of ebola in the first place will always have reason to maintain their doubts.

On the other hand, the ebola situation has brought more challenge to the role of the media in reporting occurrences in our society. The state of emergency and yet unexplained restrictions introduces a tricky situation for a battle that must be fought inclusively. While media has pledged to work along in providing public education, the yet unknown keeps media in a position of fear, not sure of what happens next.

In all of these, the Press Union has become a victim, observing 50 years of existence with a closure of a fearless newspaper outside of due process. As difficult as we find this, we still look forward in confidence to a High Court ruling on a number of constitutional issues that will effectively open up the space for freedom and justice for journalists and others in the wider Liberian society.

So, as we arrange the 50th anniversary, our admonition is for journalists to strengthen their drive into making their journalism one that tells the entire Liberian story in a factual and inclusive manner. Our admonition is for journalists to take the greater responsibility of making their journalism enviable, stepping up to the challenge to ensure opportunities for all.

On the other hand, after 50 years, and after a number of transformation in Liberia, it is time that the government - including the legislature, the judiciary and of course the executive - take additional efforts to tolerate dissent and disagreement. This is the purpose of journalism, and of democracy and human rights. Appreciation of free expression is more of the issues and expressions that one find especially offensive. The wider the diversity in our thought and speech, the better we can work together to find a common ground.

We will continue working to improve the quality of journalism in Liberia; We will continue with our self-regulatory mechanism to show greater accountability by Liberian journalists to their audience, but we demand that going beyond fifty years - there must be increased opportunities to make journalism the pivot of our democracy, our governance system and stretching out accountability in Liberian society.

Our disagreement with journalists should not be expressed through the power we wield, to the extent of violating rights and ignoring guarantees of freedom and accountability.

Thank You!

Liberian Observer

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