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Suffocating the messenger

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Lewis Brown NDThe Government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will no doubt be best remembered for its promotion of free speech and arguably press freedom.

In September 2010, as part of the demonstration of such action, it signed into law the Freedom of Information Act or FOI and would soon sign the Table Mountain Declaration two years later, to be followed by the setting up of an Independent Media Commission or IMC.

The President would later in her Annual Message speak of repealing some of the draconian laws on the statute books of the land, all aimed at strengthening the level of freedom the local media have come to enjoy here, winning her some international accolades.

From the surface, the Government appears to be media friendly and encourages the establishment of multi-media entities without restrictions or bottlenecks – an image it has gained overtime and would love it stays as is.

So why would it put in place measures that would undermine its own public face, when there are other silent restrictive measures by which these media institutions can be censored without undoing some of these milestones it has already achieved and won international recognitions for?

Trust me; there is a common saying in our Liberian parlance that there are many ways to skin a cat. So why wouldn’t the government maintain its public face of being press friendly and instead censor or trample upon it through another means that will go unnoticed for as long as it wishes?

“Let them write; they will get tired,” as one minister would say, indicating that the countless numbers of articles against the government will not push it to do anything as regards its new frontier of media censorship.

Okay, if I were to find the right word that would be suffocation. “We will encourage as many media institutions as would want to be, but we can easily put them out of business by withholding their payments and forcing them to play by our rules. As poor as they are with this measure, we can control them.”

Officials of this government would argue this pre-emptive quote above, but in practice, this is how it has come to censor the already struggling media industry, with many playing to their gallery, organizing unmerited awards for some state officials. They have to stay in business though.

The Government, no doubt is the biggest advertiser in the country- thanks to requirements set up by bilateral and multi-national partners. So, it has no choice but to engage in advertising.

So, it comes to these struggling media houses, booking these advertisement spots through the Communications Department of the Ministry of Information, a well calculated move -reason definitely clear, to place these advertisements.

Many would applaud this just as its resolve to ensure that media houses here are protected under Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution – Free Speech. But its motive is definitely clear: Media institutions will run these adverts and return the bills to the Communications Department of the Ministry of Information for onward transfer to the responsible ministries or agencies with a current tax clearance and business registrations attached. In some instance, bills are either held up there or misplaced, as this institution has suffered.

After keeping these bills for more than two to three months, the government comes back and says, “You need to produce your current tax clearance before we pay you; the one you submitted has expired.”

Wait a minute. At the time you did business with me, I was tax compliant, but didn’t you see that your inability to pay me within the 30 days period, keeping my bills for mouths has also had an adverse effect on my business? How do you expect me to pay my taxes when you deliberately refused to pay advertisement bills owed my institution?

Simply, what the government is also trying to tell every business entity is that it doesn’t care how you stay in business, you must produce tax clearance, meaning if a business entity goes bankrupt and closes its doors, government would definitely refuse to pay debts owed you prior to your closure because you will only have in your possession tax clearance as at the time you did your last transaction – something it would totally refuse to honor.

Many media institutions have fallen victim of the Government’s tactics – refusing to pay their debts but demanding renewed tax clearances. It will give you the advertisement to avoid criticisms of being hostile towards critical media houses. But it will withhold such payments deliberately to put you out of business.

The Government’s suffocation of the media has made media houses unqualified candidates for loans at the banking institutions – even the Central Bank of Liberia’s micro-financing loan scheme is yet to consider this staving industry as desiring such loans.

However, in the midst of all these, this government would award consultancy worth millions of United States Dollars to foreign organizations for Public Relations – making such institutions viable in foreign lands, while its own suffer and died off, with many being jobless.

But like I said earlier, there are many ways to skin the cat and this is the Liberian Government’s way of censoring the local media. It is not interested in its viability and independence. To do so is suicidal. As they say, you can’t bite the fingers that feed or you can feed the mouth that bites your fingers.

As a result, many well trained and experienced practitioners have left this noble profession to cub reporters.

Someone once said, the Liberian Government does not believe in building local capacities. Trust me, I believe this now. Its pronouncements are mere rhetoric. When a government chooses to dish out millions to foreign media institutions but would refuse to pay few hundred bucks to local institutions subjecting them to all forms of frustrations, it speaks volumes.

I know, this article would mean nothing to the government because as one of the ministers always say, no number of articles can force the government to act. But posterity will judge their treatment of the media.

The Government may in public be respected for upholding free speech unlike other regimes that are noted for sending countless journalists to prison. However, for sure, it will be remembered for its economic stagnation of the media, which is equally another form of subjecting these breed of men and women, who have taken up the civil duty to reporting on societal ills to silence. – By Othello B. Garblah

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