The West African Journalists Association (WAJA) has expressed grave concerns over what it calls growing acts of intolerance against the Liberian media. WAJA in a communication to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf dated May 15, 2013 said, “WAJA and the undersigned media partners and freedom of expression groups wish to express our grave concern over recent threats against media freedom in Liberia by senior state officials, which we strongly condemn.”
“We are also worried about the reported stance of the Office of the President on the matter, which unfortunately is apparently not supportive of media freedom,” WAJA noted in its communication to Madam Sirleaf.
WAJA said information received from WAJA member, Press Union of Liberia (PUL), indicates that in one of the most recent manifestations of this intolerant attitude, on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) 2013, Mr. Othello Warrick, Director of the Executive Protection Service (EPS), described journalists as “terrorists” and threatened; “Be careful, because you have your pen and we have our guns. And if you incriminate the character or integrity of Liberians, like myself we will come after you.”
The letter said a few days later, on May 12, 2013 President Sirleaf was also quoted as stating “I don’t care. If the journalists like they should continue the protest for one year,” in reaction to a PUL-led protest which included a black out of the Presidency.
“Neither Your Excellency nor Mr. Warrick has denied making these weighty statements. It is particularly shocking, disappointing and ironic that these statements were made during the celebration of this year’s World Press Freedom Day whose global theme was: Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media,” WAJA said in a strong statement.
According to the West African Media grouping, States all over the world were expected to reflect on the theme and identify ways in which to increase media freedoms and create an enabling environment for journalists and media workers to work freely and safely.
WAJA then expressed regret that a senior official of Madam Sirleaf’s government has chosen to act against the spirit of the World Press Freedom Day by issuing such threats which unfortunately also indicate a rising pattern of impunity against journalists and the media in Liberia, which the PUL has seen trying to address as reflected in its invitation to the security sector.
WAJA said Mr Warrick’s comments on World Press Freedom Day and the President’s apparent stance are worrying signals of her government’s growing intolerance of the watch-dog role of the media as the fourth estate of the realm.
Mr. Warrick’s reference to the use of arms in his statement: “you have your pens and we have our guns” leads us to believe that an armed agency of your Government intends to use harsh tactics to prevent journalists from doing their work,” WAJA among other things said.
Meanwhile, WAJA has demanded a clear and unequivocal statement by the Government of Liberia dissociating itself from the statement credited to Mr. Othello Warrick, Director of the EPS. The group has also demanded that the Government of Liberia directs Mr. Othello Warrick to publicly withdraw the statement credited to him, which amounts to undue threat and intimidation against the media community in Liberia and issue a public apology to the Liberian media.
The group also want the immediate removal of Mr. Warrick as the Director of the Executive Protection Service (EPS) because his conduct is inimical to the ongoing peace and reconciliation efforts in post-war Liberia in which the Liberian media has been playing a vanguard role.
WAJA wants the issuance of a firm assurance by the Government of Liberia on the security and safety of lives and property of journalists and the media in Liberia.
At the same time, following series of interactions with some local and international media partners, the Press Union of Liberia says it will maintain its media blackout on the Executive Mansion and the Ministry of Information, Culture & Tourism until final decision is being taken by the Union.
The action of the PUL is based on statement made by the EPS boss Othello Warrick, during the celebration of this year’s World Press Freedom Day which was held in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County.
Following Mr Warrick’s statement, President Sirleaf has supported her security chief by telling journalists to continue their blackout as long as they wish.
The Union reached the decision on Thursday at a mass meeting of media practitioners held at the PUL Headquarters in Monrovia.
PUL President, Peter Quaqua said all reporters assigned at the Executive Mansion must be recalled by their various media outlets and that all press conferences called by the Information Ministry must be boycotted by the media pending final decision.
The PUL boss urged journalists in the country to keep up the struggle in a very mutual manner in order to get the needed results.