Liberia: National Conference on Media Law and Policy

Final Declaration adopted by the the National Conference on Media Law and Policy Reform, Liberia, 23 October 2004

MONROVIA -- "The Liberian government should repeal all statutes that criminalize freedom of expression and the press within six months," the National Conference on Media Law and Policy Reform declared at its closing session in Monrovia on Saturday.

Journalists and lawyers cited many repressive and restrictive laws that infringe upon the rights of Liberian journalists.

"It will be incumbent upon the executive and legislative branches of government to ensure that outdated laws are repealed and enact only new laws that meet international standards of freedom of expression and of the press," the Conference said.

The group therefore recommends that criminal sanctions for journalists, such as imprisonment, should be removed from all laws to bring them into conformity with international human rights standards. In their place, the Group suggested that other methods of resolving these issues should be utilized, such as an effective regulatory mechanism, which could require media institutions and journalists to publish retractions and apologies in appropriate cases, as an option to minimize the use of criminal sanctions for content-related offences.

The more than 65 journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers, etc., attending the meetings observed that legal and policy regimes governing print media operation in Liberia need to be reviewed to meet international standards. In line with international standards, newspapers should be given the leverage to regulate themselves.

The three-day conference was organized by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP-Liberia), the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), and the Partnership on Media and Conflict Prevention in West Africa. Support was also provided by International Media Support (IMS), Open Society Institute and Ibis-West Africa.

The main aim of the conference was to review all laws and policies which have implications for media practice in Liberia, and to develop a comprehensive program of action for the reform of the legal and institutional frameworks for the media.

The conference organizers will name a working group that will include government members who will work together to see if meaningful legal reform can be achieved during the duration of the interim-government.

Those attending the conference acknowledged the challenges facing the Liberian media in this difficult transition period, and urged all stakeholders to work together to build the capacity of the media practitioners and institutions.

Concerned about the need for independent broadcasting in the country, the conference said it believed that the government should turn the Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS) into a public service broadcaster.

The meeting recommended that an Independent Regulatory Body be created to monitor, protect, enhance and ensure the smooth operation of a sustainable broadcasting media in Liberia.

For the overall effective operations of the Public Service Media and the Public Service Broadcasting, the meetings said that an independent Board of Directors should be democratically selected by parliament and the civil society for the provision of check and balance in their management.

Among other recommendations approved were the following:

  • A Freedom of Information Act, which will give members of the public, including journalists, a right of access to records and information held by public bodies, subject only to legitimate exceptions, should be enacted as soon as possible. All other laws which unduly restrict the right to information, such as the Media Commission Act, should be amended to reflect the principles of maximum disclosure of information under an access to information law.

  • The desire by government to own a print media be discouraged. Rather, government should be encouraged to establish an enabling environment for professional competition in the media sector.

  • To encourage the development of proper journalistic standards, there has to be persistent education of journalists, and each media institution should have its own philosophy and code of ethics as well as put in place mechanism to abide by these. In the case of a failure of a newspaper/journalist to adhere to ethical standards the Press Union of Liberia should make the loudest of noise to expose such paper in an effort to get the public to shun the paper/journalist. But this shall be the last resort.

    The membership committee of PUL should do a yearly assessment of the media to see which one have conformed to standards and award those who have done well. The PUL should encourage newspapers to put an end to the annual honoring programs of various personalities in the absence of a mechanism setting up clear and transparent criteria. When people who do not merit honor receive them, it is a break of codes and ethics for singing praise songs or hailing the wrong simply on financial basis.