Friday, February 6, 2009


Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Liberia is a transitioning state struggling to heal wounds of a protracted civil conflict that resulted from a culture of marginalization, (attempts to alienate inalienable rights) suppression of inalienable rights, and opaque system in government transactions - underpinned by a system of bad governance. The people’s views were suppressed and crushed, thereby keeping them a distance from the administration of their country. This promoted imperial leadership, undermined democracy, and all values of transparency and accountability. The gross suppression of the views of the people, their rights to associate and express themselves freely, left them with no definitive role in the nation-building process, but to sit as passive observers. Unfortunately, while the people went through such political-dehumanization, the state was theoretically claiming to be run under a democratic system. But the overwhelming demands of the people have been popular participation and equality before the law. This surely can not take place in the absence of a propitious and enabling environment that will guarantee their rights to free expression and free speech.

In this post-conflict era democracy has been welcomed and its tenets promulgated in all corners of the country mainly by local and international civil society groups. Freedom of Expression and freedom of Speech are the pillows on which a durable democratic state stands. Practically, in the absence of a system that guarantees and promotes these rights, the people become separated from their state, vis-à-vis, their own destiny with fears and act of intimidations. Constructive and challenging competitions for leadership become non-existent, and policy decisions are made for a selected few.

The institutions of society and the state that guide and watch the activities of the state and the people to promote the tenets of democracy, the rule of law, and the inalienable rights of the citizens are the media and the civil society groups. These groups have pivotal roles in all aspects of the socio-economic and political developments of the state.

This paper will examine the essence of upholding the values of free speech and free expression in post-war Liberia not only as fundamental rights, but as sine quo non to fostering democracy and making it a culture and system of governance. It argues that if democracy is to be a system of governance in Liberia, the people must be free to speak and express themselves, they must have unlimited access to the media (both private and public media), participate in constructive dialogues and debates; and the people must also be conscientiously aware of the dangers associated with the abuse of those fundamentals rights.

The paper also asserts that the civil society and the media are the most appropriate vehicles through which the citizens express themselves, reach their government. Considering the critical aspects of the role of the civil society and the media in terms of values and objectivity, the paper concludes with a call to civil society and media groups to remain critical and independent in the performance of their roles as watchdogs.

The Rights to Free Speech and Expression

The rights to free speech and free expressions are inalienable rights given to mankind by his creator. The two are absolutely inextricable. Governments and civil society are created to protect those rights because it is those rights that set the foundations upon which democratic governments are legitimized and popularly supported. Attempts to have them suppressed or abrogated are potential causes for mass civil unrest, dishonesty, underdevelopment, and ultimately war. Several wars and unwanted revolutions have provided the absence of free speech, democracy and injustice as justifications. The Liberian Civil War, the fight Against Apartheid in South Africa, and the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe are examples.

The building of democracy in Liberia will not just be dependent upon the holding of periodic elections for public officials. A genuine and functional democratic society is constructed by the participation of the people in a system of unhindered freedom to determine their own destinies singularly or in association with others through processes of dialogue and opportunities to provide alternatives for the operations of government and where necessary. In the 1986 Constitution of Liberia, Article 15 (a) declared the state’s commitment to its citizens in protecting their rights to free expression by providing that: ‘Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government…’

The above provision of the 1986 Constitution draws a balance sheet which needs to be promulgated and properly interpreted for the people at all levels. That balance sheet is the point where the people’s rights as to be guaranteed by their government and their (people) responsibilities to those rights meet. A responsible government protects and strengthens the inalienable rights of the people, protects them from fears, relies on their views to make informed policy decisions, and maintains power by their general consent. On the other hand, a responsible citizenry gives loyalty to the state and supports its programs, and live under its laws. In a society where both sides honestly and transparently perform their shares of the responsibilities, democracy is strengthened and solidly consolidated, and the potentials for fears, corruption and injustices are considerably minimized.

In addition to the rights of free speech as part of free expression, the rights to freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of association and assembly, and the right to equal protection before the law are all complimentary in building and sustaining democracy in any civilized society. The suppression or attempt to abrogate any undermines the existence of all. These rights therefore, must in no way be limited to demands of constitutional provisions or statutes, but as natural gifts to mankind that are indispensable to the pursuit of happiness and liberty in society. Governments also must in no way legislate or decree in any form that will place restrictions on citizens from practicing those rights.

The state of democracy in Liberia today remains a function of extensive dialogues through symposia and conferences that ended the civil war, and called for elections which was freely held to inaugurate the present government. The democratic credentials of the present government, as have been declared by study groups, are ‘Good’ (World Bank, 2007). Liberia is a party to numerous international conventions and protocols that assert the basic fundamental rights discussed above. But the threat the country currently face in its transition to democracy is the looming illiteracy problem. As it is widely stated that democracy is for a conscious society, so is the requirement that consciousness goes with information through average literacy. The state must now work in programs to promote mass literacy which will not only build consciousness and awareness on fundamental rights, but will indeed promote growth and save succeeding generations from the scourge of bad governance and misrule that are extremely counterproductive to democracy.

The Media and Democracy

The role of the media is indisputable in generating and building a culture of democracy that extends beyond the political systems and becomes a way of life of the people as their consciousness increases. The media, as the name presents it, stands as a bridge that links the people to each other and their government. It is through the media that the government gets the thinking of the people and vis-à-vis the people get informed about the government and its activities, and also information from amongst them. The media as a channel of information also synthesizes and objectively presents to both the people and their government balanced reports to ensure that decisions are taken in the public interest.

By definitions, the media is the channel through which messages and information flows, and democracy is a system of government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

As stated above, freedom of speech and expressions are basic pillars of democracy. The common fact that the people can only express themselves or freely speak out their views through the media, makes it (media) an indispensable element of a democratic society. In the affirmative, no democracy exists without a vibrant media.

As the media’s role has been declared sacrosanct in the consolidation of democracy, its viability is essential in maintaining independence. The Liberian media community, like a typical African community, has struggled with tyrannical and oppressive regimes, and it still struggles to gain full independence from the ruling political establishment. Adding to the challenges posed by political influence-peddling in the media that undermines objectivity and credibility are the economic constraints and professional and technical inadequacies of practitioners and institutions in Liberia. Durable democracy in Liberia depends on an independent and vibrant media that will continuously provide credible reports, solicit views, and do critical analyses on principles of objectivity. The existence of such media community in a democratic state can transcend the role of message and information carrier in the eyes of the people to building trust and confidence among them and for their government. Those are the threads that hold the fibers of democracy together.

A state craving for democracy must not only have media institutions to use as channels for mere message carrying, but must ensure a propitious environment for the development and emergence of more institutions that will promote the tenets of democracy independent of government and political manipulations. The Liberian state must therefore ensure structural and functional viability and stability of media houses by enforcing laws of the media, promoting free speech and free expression, and legislating statutes where necessary to further strengthen the role of the media in the consolidation of democracy. It will be a resounding step forward if the current government can effectuate the passage of the three media laws drafted by the Liberia Media Law and Policy Reform Working Group: The Freedom of Information Act, the Act to Establish an Independent Broadcast Regulator for Liberia, and the Act to Transform the LBS into a Public Service Broadcast System.

Article 15 of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia supports the above requirements. In section (B) it outlines several rights to the citizens including ‘the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to knowledge’, the ‘right to free speech, academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge and information’, the right to libraries to make such knowledge available’, the ‘privacy of usage of the mail, telephone and the telegraph’ and the ‘right of citizens to remain silent’.

To have the above proclaimed rights fully exercised by the people, Section C states that ‘…there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries’.

The Role of the Civil Society

The civil society is the largest portion of the society representing all forces out of the government. Governments are functions of the civil society because it is from the civil society that all free governments are formed and operated. The civil society therefore has a pivotal role in ensuring that democracy is consolidated in Liberia. According to the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs there are over four hundred civil society organizations operating in the country. The goals and objectives of most of these groups are nearly the same, and sometimes they form coalitions to implement programs.

The history of effective contemporary civil society organizations in Liberia can be traced to the 1970s when pressure groups from around the country bounced on the national scene and began advocacies and agitations for multi-party democracy. These groups, the Movement for Justice in Africa, Progressive Alliance of Liberia represented people mainly from the destitute masses that were marginalized in political activities. The advocacy then could be done in no robust way in the absence of a democratic system that values and protects the rights of the people to express themselves by associating or socializing, and the right to speak out without intimidations.

Much of the works of mass public sensitization and awareness on governance and rule of law issues are done by the civil society. The media is more or less left as a one man army to inform and educate the people at the same time fearing reprisals for reports unfavorable to the political establishment. The civil society is now leading the campaign of mass awareness and civic education all directed at consolidating democracy as a way of life from the grassroots level. It is the civil society that leads the campaign against human rights violation, and the freedom of the press, and the freedom of the people to freely express themselves.

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) must therefore build a firm reputation and stand vigilantly as the frontline agent in the advocacy for free speech and free expression. The need for effective internal governance and transparency in the operations of CSOs activities must be the moral ground on which CSOs should stand as campaigners against social malfeasances in society. In the absence of that the civil society by itself will drown into irrelevance, thereby fertilizing the ground for the sprouting of a modern dictatorship or totalitarian regime.

Civil society organizations in our context of free speech and expression must ensure that media institutions remain protected, and must continuously present the case that freedom of expression and access to official information are keys to sustainable human and economic development, democracy development, and the prevention of corruption, which in turn support conditions necessary for economic growth and good governance.

The Media and Civil Society as Partners

The partnership between the media and civil society organizations should be by practice, an ordained marriage of the proverbial ‘Roman Catholic’ style. In this partnership each compliments the work of the other and stands for the sake of the other in all instances. There is absolutely no room for divorce. The campaigns of civil society organizations can not go public in the absence of media coverage and at the same time the media can not afford to work in an environment that has no civil society independent of the government.

In contemporary societies, like Liberia, the media is an integral part of the civil society. And its role as a part of the whole civil society community is being seen through the works of independent media houses that have taken lines of ebullient advocacies for social justice and democracy in reportages that are people-sensitive. Since the return of normalcy in the country, several independent media institutions have emerged and hundreds of civil society organizations have also been formed by conscious-minded citizens. At the same time, some media practitioners have established civil society groups intended for the promotion of free speech, freedom of the press, and the empowerment of local journalists through training.

The results of the collaborations of the media and other civil society groups have been of significant impacts on both sides. The Press Union of Liberia and the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) are in a partnership in which the JPC provides free legal services for journalists who during the expeditious execution of their duties are arrested or taken to court. At the same time, the three draft Laws of the Liberian Media that are now before the Legislature for enactments were drafted by a collaboration of government line agencies, several civil society groups, and the mass media, including the Press Union of Liberia, the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building, the Liberia Media Center, and the National Coalition of Civil Society Organizations in Liberia. The Liberia Coalition of Free Expression, another collaborating group comprising of media advocacy groups, other civil society groups and the PUL, is leading a campaign to ensure the speedy passage of the draft Laws.

Many civil society groups in the country are in specific agreements with media institutions for promotional and awareness programs aimed at civic education and the promotion of good governance and democracy. The Actions for Genuine Democratic Alternative (AGENDA) has a special program area intended to strengthen media institutions and civil society groups.


Building a culture of democracy in Liberia and establishing a system of democratic governance must be done simultaneously with the building and consolidating of a culture of press freedom and civil liberty. Democracy can not survive in an unfriendly media environment and an environment where the people’s fundamental rights are abused.

Consolidating democracy in Liberia with the media and civil society as active participants requires technical and professional capacity building of both the media and civil society actors. A weak civil society and biased media can pose challenge to the survivability of democracy. The media and the civil society must therefore be strong, unwavering and dedicated in the discharge of their duties as watchdogs and promoters of good governance. The people, too, the ultimate beneficiaries of a democratic system, must be empowered to participate through mass awareness and education. Article 6 of the Constitution of Liberia recognizes the people’s right to be educated as a requirement for national development:

The Republic shall, because of the vital role assigned to the individual citizen under this Constitution for the social, economic and political well-being of Liberia, provide equal access to educational opportunities and facilities for all citizens to the extent of available resources. Emphasis shall be placed on the mass education of the Liberian people and the elimination of illiteracy.