Dear Media Colleagues,
Opinion: As we celebrate WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY TODAY, I write to congratulate the many journalists risking it all to effect the required changes in the world. I particularly want to pay tribute to those who have fallen in the performance of their duties. As journalists, the power we wield is extraordinarily immense and must therefore be used to better the lives of our people and societies. We have the power to investigate corruption, human rights violations, cover elections, the various branches of government, wars, and humanitarian crisis as well as development initiatives. In my 2008 dissertation, I wrote: “that the media is a double-edged sword; once used wisely could bring development to a nation and its people, but when wrongly utilized could otherwise instigate chaos and war – and so no one must allow such a power to be manipulated.”
Focusing on my home country of Liberia I am getting concerned about the deteriorating media landscape. Over the past decade, I have observed that the new breed of journalists somewhat does not imagine the enormity of the power they possess – ordinary Liberians are now libeling some of them as “join the list” in Liberian parlance, insinuating the encroachment of this noble profession by unprepared individuals performing journalistic functions. This is humiliating to some us who continue to hold this journalism profession in high esteem. To date, it’s becoming difficult to differentiate between and amongst Citizen Journalists, talk show hosts, rumor mongers, gossipers, town criers, and professional Journalists.
Some of us studied Journalism to the latter for the passion and the responsibility it comes with. We followed the golden rules – all the ethical and professional requirements. Above all, we followed and preserved the impressive legacies of our predecessors and other professional Journalists that stood the test of time. Some paid the ultimate price, a sacrifice we will never be able to repay. Once again, I write to pay homage to them.
My question is, will today’s Journalists separate themselves from the glamour and monetary enticement that come at odd with this noble profession? Will they keep our hard-earned legacies? During the pre-digital era, we strived for excellence, competed with other international journalists at the highest level. We made Liberia proud. Most of our stories filed locally and internationally were handwritten while others were manually typewritten – we did not complain or go below standard. I sometimes crave about the yesteryears where professional obedience paid off. We had to start off as a cadet, a cub reporter, radio producer-III, II, I, senior producer, and then executive producer etc. Are they currently respecting these stages or are they saying that the dynamics have changed?
I have been thinking that today’s journalists would do better than us. But I am still not convinced considering what I am regularly reading in newspapers, listening to on local radio stations, and on social media. Am I wrong to say that journalists of the 70s and 80s covered the clamor of the population to seek democratization, good governance, and human rights during the one party system and military rule? Am I biased to say that we improved on the work of our predecessors to effectively cover the civil wars of the 90s and 2000s? Will post-war journalists learn from the good works of our hands and improve on the mistakes made to the practice of journalism in Liberia?
People seem to be getting fed-up listening to radio stations nowadays because most of what they listen to are phone-in programs including “what is your name, where are you calling from, and what’s on your mind”. Some talk show hosts do not even have the decency or professional patience to moderate shows. They habitually shutdown callers who do not speak to suit their taste – this is one of the ways the media misuses power – it must be halted. Furthermore, some newspapers seem to be complacent so much so that they no longer do proofreading of articles before going to press – this is a shame. Such newspapers misrepresent not only their institutions, but the generality of the journalism profession of our nation. They need to think about their predecessors, and the quality of work they did using typewriters and analogue gadgets.
In spite of all these concerns and worries, I am still optimistic. I do believe that our legacies can be preserved particularly with the active involvement of the Press Union of Liberia, PUL. The union can effectuate the cleanup and reform process – separating the goats from the sheep – because it’s the only viable structure that could undertake this invaluable task. With this level of power, the PUL must ensure that Non-professional journalists are weeded out along with those involved in yellow journalism. The union could establish a committee of imminent journalists in the country to reset the clock so that we can regain the trust of the people. This committee, under the guide of the PUL could work with media managers to firstly classify journalists and enhance media monitoring with the aim of advising the union on specific flashpoints and way forward. These efforts are intended to strengthen the quality of service provided by Liberian journalists. I still believe that upcoming and current journalists can be relied upon to do better and preserve our great legacies.
As it stands the PUL is doing its best considering the circumstances. Meantime, and as usual, the Union must not allow itself to exist as a toothless bulldog, a reactionary umbrella organization, and a stooge of any government or a political party. The PUL must demonstrate that it’s the so-called fourth branch of government or “fourth estate” in the nation. In this case, it will continue to garner the respect it deserves. This Union established in 1964 by independent-minded journalists was intended to serve all media professionals and institutions as well as advocate for press freedom and the legal protection of journalists. It must continue to protect and live up to these values.
Finally, I encourage the PUL to focus on the larger picture to enhance the media landscape in Liberia – representing the media fraternity, providing quality leadership, empowering members of the union, and making sure that the issues leading to the delays in the construction of its headquarters are resolved.
Written by: Sam Howard
Former BBC Correspondent in Liberia
Former Talking Drum Studio Producer
Former Trainer of Internews in South Sudan
Currently the Head of the Community Violence Reduction, CVR/Reporting Unit of the SSR-DDR Section of UN Mission in Mali (MINUMA)
MA in Media and International Development – University of East Anglia -UK