New Narratives’ Wade Williams, Newsroom Chief of Front Page Africa, was invited to appear on UNESCO panel celebrating World Press Day at UN headquarters in New York City. See the video of the speech here and news about the event here.
First of all let me say a big thank you to UNESCO for organizing this event. I must say it feels good once again to be back at the United Nations almost two years when I served as a Dag Hammarskjold Fellow.I also want to take this opportunity to thank all international organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists, New Narratives, IPI, Syracuse University, Amnesty International and others for standing beside my newspaper FrontPage Africa last year when we were shut down and our publisher was sent to jail in retaliation for our reporting on government corruption. The powers that be thought we were a little media house and no one would notice but they were proved wrong.The international community of journalists and press freedom advocates is strong and loyal, and no media house is truly alone. After a tremendous backlash from the international community including an opinion piece in the New York Times the government and the courts were forced to back down. No one will take on that fight again lightly…As we celebrate Press Freedom Day, Journalists around the world continue to pay a huge price for truth telling. In Liberia we paid a very high price for the press freedom we have now. We saw that when the truth is suppressed, dictators are free to spread lies and sow descent. 1 in 10 of my countrymen and women lost their lives as a result.
Sadly many of the worst oppressors of press freedom are still in Africa. We are deeply concerned about the jailing of so many journalists recently in Ethiopia and Egypt and demand leadership in those countries release them and make a commitment to press freedom.
In my country Liberia’ we are in our tenth year of consecutive peace after democratic elections that saw the election of Africa’s first woman President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, something for which the entire world cheered us on.
Liberia is one of only two countries that have signed the Table Mountain Declaration that calls for the decriminalization of insult laws and criminal defamation laws.
Yet journalists in Liberia suffer repression from government officials in a new way. They now use the courts to trump up charges relating to libel and defamation with the courts awarding these officials in millions of dollars against journalists. My country – despite being heralded around the world as being on a good course transitioning to peace – has used the courts as an instrument to stifle the press and trample on free expression. That’s what happened in our case. We reported accusations of corruption against a former government minister that were made by an independent auditor. The minister was dismissed and never charged – almost none of the scores who’ve been dismissed under a corruption cloud from President Johnson Sirleaf’s government, have ever been charged. The minister then sued us and was awarded a staggering 1-point-5 million dollars in damages. We were unable to pay – our publisher was thrown in jail and the paper shut down until international pressure forced the government to make a deal.
The constant use of laws on sedition, Criminal defamation and insult are a good example that if care is not taken and nothing is done to stop it, when the United Nations leaves Liberia in the next few years it will become a no-go zone for journalists.
We acknowledge the gains made by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in terms of widening the space for the exchange of ideas, but her constant silence on lawsuits filed against journalists and political commentators by members of her family will tarnish an already muddy legacy.
It is only with vibrant and unhindered press can there be true development because it is when the media is allowed to propagate the truth unhindered, that people are educated on the dangers of war, disease and poverty.
Despite this, we have strengthened our resolve to report the truth. Journalists will continue to be on the side of the people instead of governments because it is by us reminding governments of its responsibility to the governed that we can create a better world for all.
Let me close with the words of U.S President Barack Obama when he addressed world leaders at the 66th United Nations General Assembly in this same building in 2012.
“True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and that businesses can be opened without paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear, and on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people. In other words, true democracy — real freedom — is hard work. Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissidents….”