Liberia needs to lock in and expand the gains made in the years since the civil war, in particular in the areas of freedom of expression, media independence and government transparency, a UN expert said after visiting the country.
At the end of a week-long visit, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said the new administration’s commitment to freedom of expression deserves the strong support and encouragement of all sectors of Liberian society and the international community.
“Liberia has come a long way since the civil war, and the space for open and indeed vibrant debate in the country is remarkable,” Kaye said.
“After two democratic elections marked by increasingly active media and free expression on the campaign trail,” the Special Rapporteur said, “Liberia enjoys a particular moment to savour its early post-conflict successes.
“It is a fraught moment, however, given the deep economic problems the country faces and the legitimate demands of the Liberian people for an improvement in the economy and basic institutions of governance. In such a moment, strengthening guarantees in law would signal globally that Liberia is indeed, in President Weah’s phrase, ‘open for business’.
“At the top of the priority list,” Kaye added, “should be the decriminalization of defamation, in keeping with basic international and regional standards, and the transformation of the state broadcasting system into an independent public broadcasting service. Legislation for both is already pending in the legislature, and their quick enactment at this early stage of a new administration would signal to Liberians and the international community a basic commitment to rule of law and media pluralism.”
Pointing out that Liberia adopted in 2010 one of the strongest freedom of information laws, the Special Rapporteur urged the authorities to prioritize implementation. “The Access to Information Act depends on political will for its implementation,” he said. “I particularly urge the authorities to actively disclose and disseminate information, through online mechanisms, regular press briefings, and other tools.
“The strength and diversity of the media depend on more than just legal change, though that is foundational,” Kaye added. “In the face of poor working conditions and extremely limited funding and equipment, the media, governmental actors, and international donors should collaborate to improve the sustainability and professionalism of journalism in Liberia.
“I also note that women journalists face significant challenges and opportunities, but they are evidently quite underrepresented in the profession. I urge all stakeholders to take steps toward better gender balance in the profession, an outcome that would strongly benefit all consumers of the media in Liberia.”
Kaye concluded by underlining his intention to work further with the Liberian Government. “Liberia maintains a very good and open dialogue with various human rights mechanisms. I thank the authorities for their openness to engage in frank discussions at the highest levels and I look forward to exchanging information on my recommendations,” he said.
The expert, who visited the country at the invitation of the Government of Liberia, met with Government authorities, including the President. He also held discussions with civil society organizations, journalists, academics, students, and lawyers. The Special Rapporteur will prepare a report to the Human Rights Council on the main findings of his visit and make recommendations on the promotion of the right to freedom of expression in Liberia.