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Sunday, May 19, 2024

LIBERIAN MEDIA IS NOT OFF THE HOOK OF US SANCTION WARNING

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An Op-ED by Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh

In a world where information flows faster than ever before, the role of the media and its power in shaping public opinion and influencing political landscapes cannot be underestimated. Recent statements by the United States, announcing visa restrictions for individuals undermining democracy in Liberia, should serve as a stark reminder that the media, too, has a critical role to play in safeguarding the integrity of elections and the democratic process. In this opinion piece, I am arguing, as a media practitioner myself and an instructor, that media institutions and individual journalists are not exempt from the tentacles of the US-announced restrictions.

The United States, through its Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, has made it abundantly clear that it is committed to supporting and advancing democracy in Liberia and around the world. The new visa restriction policy, outlined under Section 212(a)(3)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, is a commendable step towards ensuring that elections remain free and fair.

While the United States wields considerable global influence, announcements of restrictions like these may go unnoticed in some parts of the world, accompanied by dismissive arguments such as “who cares about America?” However, it’s essential to acknowledge that Liberia and its people are unlikely to turn a deaf ear to this latest US warning. Traditionally, politically, and culturally, Liberia and the United States share deep and inseparable ties, with many Liberians considering the US as a kind of earthly paradise. The historical connection between Liberia and the US is akin to a timeless love story, much like Romeo and Juliet. But let’s get to the heart of the matter – the warning. While the US statement primarily targets those directly involved in undermining democracy, it is crucial to understand its broader implications, particularly for the media. And here’s why.

The media is often dubbed the “fourth estate” for a compelling reason. Its crucial role in delivering information to the public and scrutinizing the actions of government and political figures is indispensable for a thriving democracy. Nevertheless, this influential power is a two-edged blade, comprising both positive and negative facets. Responsible journalism has the potential to empower citizens and fortify democracy (the commendable facet of journalism), whereas irresponsible journalism can yield the opposite outcome (the detrimental aspect).

One needs not look further than the tragic events surrounding Radio Kigali during the Rwandan Genocide as a chilling example of how the media can be misused to propagate hatred and violence. The station, under the control of extremist elements, played a significant role in inciting violence and dividing communities in Rwanda. Its inflammatory broadcasts fueled ethnic tensions and ultimately contributed to the genocide that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. This story lives on forever. This is a harrowing example of how the media, when manipulated or exploited, can become a dangerous weapon in the hands of those seeking to destabilize a nation. The media’s ability to shape public perception and opinion can be harnessed for both good and evil.

In Liberia, as in many democracies, media ownership has become polarized, with politicians and political entities exerting significant influence – including using cash violence to control them. This polarization can lead to biased reporting, sensationalism, and a lack of impartiality – as we see right now in Liberia – all of which can undermine the democratic process. When media outlets align themselves with particular political parties, ideologies or figures, they risk becoming tools for spreading misinformation, disinformation, and discrediting the opposition or others who want to be and should be heard.

Dedicated to fostering a vibrant and responsible media landscape that upholds the highest standards of journalistic integrity, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) on September 4, 2023 alarmed over the worrying increasing trend of journalists and media entities siding with political parties and candidates.

The Union emphasized that “such actions represent a clear departure from the ethical standards of journalism, leading to the propagation of misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information, all with the explicit intent of swaying public opinion.” The PUL further compelled Liberian journalists to “uphold the principles of truth and accuracy in their reporting, ensuring that the public receives reliable and unbiased information,” otherwise, they would be named and shamed. Here, the PUL is concerned about how the media, abnormally consumed by political alignment could instigate chaos through their pens and microphones. And here’s where the US Government’s warning sets.

Inarguably, the United States’ warning about visa restrictions extends beyond just politicians and election officials. It applies to anyone involved in activities that undermine democracy, including those who engage in improper influence over the media. This means that media outlets and individuals within the industry who are complicit in manipulating or rigging the electoral process, using violence and their positions to suppress freedom of expression, or preventing political parties and voters from disseminating their views can face these restrictions.

It’s worth noting that the US statement explicitly mentions measures designed to prevent the media from disseminating their views as a criterion for visa restrictions. This highlights the importance of responsible journalism and the potential consequences for those who engage in media activities that obstruct the democratic process. Here, the media is protected by the US government. The media and its roles and responsibilities should not be curtailed for any reason, by any reason at any time. However, it also means that the media should not use its power, influence, roles and responsibilities to undermine democracy and peaceful societies for any reason, by any reason at any time.

In conclusion, the media’s role in democracy is undeniable. Its power to inform and shape public opinion is immense, and this power comes with responsibility. The recent US visa restriction warning should serve as a wake-up call for media outlets and professionals in Liberia and around the world. It is not just about politicians, parties, and election officials; it’s about anyone who can influence the electoral process, for better or worse – the media is included!

The Liberian media must be vigilant in upholding its role as a guardian of democracy, ensuring that it remains on the right side of history and the democratic divide. The US’ warning comes at the perfect time, aligning with the PUL’s September 4, 2023 caveat,  reminding us all that the media is not off the hook when it comes to protecting and strengthening democracy. Journalists must use the pens and pages of papers and microphones and airwaves radios to protect and not disassemble democracy.

Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh
Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh
Is a journalism, media, and communication professional with over two decades of experience. He lectures Journalism at the University of Liberia. He earned an MSc in Media and Communication Studies at Lund University in Sweden, a BA in Mass Communication at the University of Liberia and Diploma in Journalism from the International School of Journalism. He’s UN Media Fellow and former Secretary General and Assistant Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia. He also manages Communications at the Liberia Revenue Authority, contributing to domestic resource mobilization for Liberia. WhatsApp +231777586531/dakasen1978@yahoo.com

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