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Special Feature

Will PUL “Emancipate” Liberian Journalists?

Liberian journalists are evidently classified among the lowest ebb of practitioners in contemporary Africa, least to mention developed or/and developing Countries in terms of salaries, equipment, benefits, and protection. Plagued by 14 years of civil crisis, Liberian media practitioners are often branded as “Kato Journalists,” an idiomatic phrase for bribery or inducement; unbalanced, inconsistent and sometimes parochial as they routine to gather news stories.

This phrase “Kato Journalists” often used intermittently against media practitioners unfavorably denote the complexity of gathering and disseminating news contents that extracts egotism from nationalism and easily consumed without reservation of facts.

Evidently, the Liberian media and its practitioners may have performed ‘despicably’ over the years, a situation which unambiguously exposes the grim realities that have had far-reaching consequences on its practitioners and consumers.

The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) has strong relationship with local and international media organizations such as the International Media Support (IMS), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), West African Journalists Association (WAJA), Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC-Liberia), Carter Center (CC), International Alert (IA-UK), Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE), the Civil Rights Association of Liberian Lawyers (CRALL), Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), IREX, Media Rights Agenda, Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), Panos Institute of West Africa, among others.

Without prejudice, OSIWA and IREX have immensely contributed to valuable training programs, organized field trips, donated equipment to journalists; however there are entrenched pragmatic lapses inundated within the media that has not changed the situation of journalists in Liberia.

In our cherished profession (Journalism), lots of media outlets and their managers, associates PUL national media Centers ‘knowingly’ exploit hapless media practitioners to amass wealth and fame at the expense of the harsh and unfavorable economic reality in which daily survival is a litmus challenge.

As Journalists waned from main stream reportage, we are reminded of the disappearance of Star-Radio; Radio VERITAS; Radio Bahai; Radio LIJ (Liberia Institute of Journalism); Charles Taylor’s Kiss FM and host of newspapers are classical examples of vulnerabilities in the Liberian media.

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Supplementary, dismissed Journalists of the Renaissance Communication Incorporated (RCI), redundant employees of the Catholic run Radio VERITAS are empirical illustrations of a profession seemingly dictated by wealthy, corrupt and despotic officials who bullied the cause of the media’s independence.

Invariably, erudite pen-pushers are silenced not by their volition, but, dictated by the power(s) that be in which they ‘remote’ the media’s operation in varying dimensions. The exodus of media practitioners from active news gathering and dissemination has been largely attributed to low salaries, benefits and equipment, which to a maximum extend has shifted our role models to Public Relation where salaries and benefits dwarfed practitioners in the main stream.

With the initiative of IREX, several journalists have access to laptops, cameras, and recorders that were purchased by journalists themselves, which is cost intensive in relation to salaries.

The formation of the PUL by scholarly and visionary Journalists like Stanton Peabody was indicative of the level of press freedom; inclusive of financial, moral and social protection they envisaged that culminated to the Union’s birth in 1964.

However, the perceived redemption they cherished for aspiring and practicing journalists is seemingly under siege in the context of “Independence” as non-practitioners armed with liquid cash often dictates headlines, photos, placement of stories and its content in most instances.

At its 2012 celebration in ‘remote’ Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County, the PUL distributed, debated its draft of collective bargaining agreement that would provide both social and economic relief for “cash stripped” practicing journalists.

While, we zipped soft drinks and disco to the funfair associated with the PUL celebration in water-locked Robertsport City; there were variables that swept my instinct about the collective bargaining agreement signed by the PUL meant for media managers and owners.

Puzzlingly, lots of media institutions are operated by individual(s) that determines salaries and benefits for media practitioners at their will; therefore it will be foolhardy for the PUL to draft salary scales without the expressed input and commitment of media owner(s) in this instance.

Although, the draft by the PUL is worth commending and laudable however, the institution’s share of responsibility in the plight of media practitioners cannot be over-emphasized as we gradually approach half a century since its formation in 1964.

Notably, several media practitioners have not vision the express binder to join the ranks of PUL, and have therefore not attain membership or paid dues as practicing journalists.

For instance, from 1994 to 2005 the Press Union of Liberia reportedly received direct grants totaling US$326, 00 from the NED. In 1991 they also received two indirect grants channeled via the African American Institute.

Also, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) donated a printing machine and 75 KVA generator to the PUL, and the Publishers Association. The machine was expected to be used for the establishment of a Free Press Project.

Manifestly, the Free Press Project was intended to reduce the high cost of printing newspapers in Liberia, thereby providing financial security and employment for Liberian journalists and enhance the dissemination of information by making newspapers more affordable to members of the public.

The free press project code named: The Liberian printing Incorporated has not been heard of. The situation has stalemated media practitioners and has narrowed their financial capacity to establish newspapers, magazines, newsletters in order to create economic empowerment and emancipate their colleagues (Journalists) from undue exploitations.

According to research, despite the difficulties, the Union later secured funding from Global Fund to do an assessment on the press and established that it was still in a perfect state, except that there were problems with the camera.

The capital to jump-start the press had been the main reason holding back the operation of the press. Over the years, while efforts were being made to start the press, its rental arrears accumulated to US$18, 000 (eighteen thousand United States dollars). After negotiation with the owner of the premises where the press was being kept, the PUL reportedly paid US$2000 (two thousand US dollars) and secured an agreement with the landlady on Newport Street in Monrovia for the press to be relocated as she requested.

Presently, the press is being kept on the compound of the Catholic Church run Radio Veritas in Mamba Point, while additional contacts are reportedly being made to see the possibility of salvaging the press.

In more calamities for Journalists, the construction of the Headquarters of the PUL, located on 14 Street, Sinkor, Monrovia is still under legal challenge. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf provided US$100,000.00 to support the construction of its Headquarters in order to escape huge rental payments, but, the fate of the amount is anyone’s guess.

Howbeit, the PUL must ensure that journalists are emancipated from exploitations and create economic sustainability for its practitioners. In that regards, there will exist a vibrant media that will stand for Independence and Objectivity if the vision of its founders in 1964 is expected to remain a cornerstone for emancipation and success. About the Author: T. Michael Johnny is an Advocate Writer of social, political, and, justice in Liberia. He is a member of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and Practicing Journalist.

With T. Michael Johnny- Advocate Writer

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