I am aware of the public sentiments, for and against the reported action taken against the owner of Freedom FM regarding the critical broadcast of the station about the Army and its Chief of Staff.
Permit me not to restate that commentary, but the reported mistreatment of the station’s owner by the joint security is one more reason why this country has been begging for an Independent Broadcast Regulator.
By law, the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA) and the Ministry of Information are supposed to regulate the broadcast sector, but they appeared to lack the nerves to perform their regulatory mandates due obvious political thinking as most of the stations are owned or patronized by politicians.
Under a normal and properly functioning regulatory environment, the inflammatory, outlandish and hate broadcast on the airwaves would not have gone unchecked.
I am not just talking about Freedom FM. Many of you would agree that the airwaves have been inundated with unwholesome and unprofessional broadcast, but we care less because some of you have benefited from those broadcasts politically.
So, the action of the joint security seems justified because Freedom FM is a “progovernment station.”
Would you have felt the same way if said action was taken against an “opposition friendly station?” Did I hear the Attorney General of the Republic was there? I am finding it difficult to process that.
Some supporters of the Government have recently been calling for action against the Spoon Network in the wake of its coverage of the elections, probably because Spoon and Freedom are in the same league?
Make no mistake; these kinds of arbitrary actions are counter-productive and should not be celebrated.
Our crusade for the press freedom and free expression was to enable the civic space, not one policed by security people. Unacceptable!
The Chilling effect
When state security actors take on the role of a media regulator, it renders the media susceptible to censorship, interference and intimidation, with significant implications and chilling effects on press freedom and free speech.
In the aftermath of the chastening of the owner of Freedom FM, who is also thought to be a member of the security community, the station immediately went into panic and suspended all of its public affairs programs as announced on Facebook verbatim below:
Kindly be informed that the management of Freedom FM has suspended all political shows and news-related programs beginning this Friday, Oct 20, 2023, until further notice. Programs include:
- FREEDOM MORNING RISE
- FROM THE PRINT NEWS
- FREEDOM HUB
- FACE THE ISSUES
- THE NIGHT-TIME SPIN
- FREEDOM NEWS BASKET
- FREEDOM NEWS HALF HOUR
- FREEDOM NEWS ARCHIVE
- FREEDOM NEWS INSIGHT
We will remain committed to commercial obligations and open for commercial purposes to include, the airing of Jingles, Announcements, and Social, Business, and Religious Programs. Thanks!
I am a proponent of self-regulation. But when the media fails to take responsibility for its errors and excesses, it invites external control with consequences for both society and the media industry itself.
It must be said quickly that media self-regulation is about preserving the freedom and independence of the press, not self-censorship.
journalists submit themselves to a professional peer review, they do not leave room for state and non-state actors to censure them first. The media must be pro-active in challenging its sins.
Admittedly, the spread of media companies across Liberia points to the changing political situation in the country.
Further evidence of that change in the ecosystem is the enactment in 2010 of the Freedom of Information Act and the abolition of criminal defamation laws in early 2019. Thanks to the media for contributing to this story of change.
However, much is desired in improving the operating environment and raising the professional standards of practitioners.
There is reasoning among media stakeholders that the ownership of the growing number of media outlets presents a new kind of threat to professional and independent journalism in the absence of a proper regulator.
The basic responsibility of media in a post-conflict-transitioning country such as Liberia is to strengthen democracy and consolidate peace.
This cannot however be achieved if ethical imperatives are sacrificed at the altar of self-serving journalists and media owners pursuing political interests.
The LTA is the agency of government responsible to assign and manage frequencies under the Telecommunications Act of 2007. However, it seems the LTA has largely been concerned only with the issuance of license.
Other important parameters, such as ownership, content including the amount of time devoted to news and current affairs programs, percentage of local production, protection of minors, hate speech, etc are not of their business.
The Ministry of Information is responsible for broadcast media content, under the heavily-loaded PRC Decree no. 46.
As part of the licensing regime, MICAT must first issue a permit to a would-be operator before the LTA acts.
I took part in study that discovered stations on the air that did not submit neither to LTA nor MICAT. How is that even possible? Meanwhile, there is a moratorium on the issuance of license in Montserrado – seemingly overstretched.
I must restate calls for the establishment of an independent broadcast regulator, considering all the infractions we are experiencing in the sector.
Crucially, I am convinced that if we had an independent sector regulator, perhaps the AFL/joint security could never have done what we are reading in the media about the punishment the Freedom FM owner endured.
I am wondering what would have happened if this man himself was not a security personnel – the Deputy Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), it is said.
Would the Army have moved on the station to make arrests? Hope not!
Looking back in our recent past, I should submit to you that if we had an independent regulator, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government would not have been directly involved in the closure in 2011, of Power FM/TV, Kings FM/Clar TV and Love FM/TV.
Again, if the country had a proper regulator, the Sirleaf government would not have been involved in the closure of Voice FM in 2016; Certainly, if the regulator was not conflicted, the government of President George Weah would have avoided the temptation of closing down Root FM in 2019.
If we had an apolitical regulator, the government of Mr. Weah would have easily excused itself from the reported denial of PUNCH FM operation and the court hearings that attended the standoff.
So, it is very much in the interest of the government of Liberia to stay clear of these technical and professional decisions making by constituting a competent authority of technicians who will act in line with internationally accepted standards and not based on political predisposition.
To this end, it will be a smart move for whoever leads the next government to relinquish some of its authorities by allowing a comprehensive reform of the powers of the Ministry of information and LTA.
I am aware that even in places where proper regulatory regimes exist, state actors still encroach on the media space. Our country must find the courage to take the first by putting together dedicated professionals to do the job without any fear of reprisal.
In the cause of media rights, free expression and democratic development, I remain. God bless our country.