I extend profound thanks and appreciation to the newly elected leadership of the Press Union of Liberia for selecting me to be the keynote speaker at this Induction ceremony. Delivering a speech at a PUL event has to be a very difficult and delicate business, if only because you have almost the entire media in rapt attendance. You’ve got to be careful about what you say during these occasions!
Let me extend heartfelt congratulations to the newly elected leadership, particularly, Mr. Charles Cuffy, whose re-election confirms that he must be doing some great things with the Union. Mr. Coffey has been at the center of reforms within the PUL aiming to hold media institutions to higher levels of media accountability and responsibility for coverage and reporting. That he has been reelected after initiating these reforms suggests the era of media responsibility and accountability has now dawned within the PUL.
The Government for its part and working through the Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs and Tourism is committed to collaborating with the PUL on improving the overall content of Liberian journalism and maximizing its positive impact on Liberian democracy and development.
I have no doubt that you Mr. Cuffy and your able team will use your re-election as a rich opportunity for turning a critical corner in our media landscape.
We are gathered here to inaugurate media professionals and officials of the PUL at a time when the power of information, both factual and fictional or non-factual content, holds powerful possibilities. Deployed to its most creative and patriotic purposes, the media information can be a source of inspiration and nation-building. It can fuse diverse perspectives and understandings into functional, unifying wholes.
Deployed to its nefarious effects, fictional media content can uproot societies or plunge them toward precipices of annihilation.
Throughout the long history of Liberian journalism, we have seen Liberian media rise to patriotic highs. My generation bears ample witness to the role of creative, inventive and patriotic Liberian journalism in the demise of despotism.
Our democracy would not have been possible without so many journalists braving the storm to speak truth to power at the peril of their lives.
Today, the digital information revolution has made the management of media content much more difficult, particularly for the print and electronic media. My generation grew up listening to only two radio stations: ELBC and ELWA. If you wanted politics and government news you turned to ELBC. If you wanted some gospels or some spiritual stuff, you turn to UNSHACKLED on ELWA.
Today, we are far removed from this traditional world of old Liberian media as we knew it. The digital revolution and the internet have profoundly changed the way people receive their information and has even adversely impacted rumors. Where rumors were once slowly spread, rumors today are now digitized and nicely packaged into news content.
A few months ago, I saw the digitization and packaging of rumor on full display and it impacted me and my associates so profoundly. I was sitting with the President when news of my resignation broke and inundated social media. Upon receiving countless calls about my resignation, one of my close affiliates dashed off in pursuit of me, burst through the gates at Jamaica, where I was with the President, and began crying, asking ‘what happened again?’ My response was ‘what are you talking about?’ “They say you resigned, he blurted’. Then I said, “but if I resign you would be among the first to know, so why are you panting and losing breath on a rumor!”
A few days later, I received an apology from the media practitioner who ran with the fake story!
Mr. Cuffy and other newly elected officials of the PUL, this is just to say that your job is far more difficult today than the work your predecessors had to do in the seventies and eighties. I do not for one minute begrudge you your fortune of managing this complexity.
But difficult challenges command extraordinary leadership and I have no doubt that you and your team command the passion and possess the capacity to reduce this complexity to manageable simplicity.
For its part, the Government does NOT EXPECT, neither does it want favorable treatment or coverage form media institutions. The Government only demands and expects accountable, responsible news coverage that redounds to our democracy, to our national peace, and to our overall development.
The Government has done more than its fair share to situate unfettered press freedom on a surer foundation. The Weah administration passed the Kamara Abdullah Kamara free speech act, which effectively decriminalizes free speech, abolishing the legal treatment of speech on the basis of sedition, criminal malevolence and criminal libel against the President of the Republic of Liberia. So speech is no longer a criminal offense in Liberia: speech is now a civil offense.
Beyond these legal constructs, the Weah administration prides itself on the protection of the fundamental rights of Liberians, including rights to free assembly and to speech. But just as journalists must be held accountable for their reporting, citizens must be held responsible for the consequences of their speech. No Liberian citizen has the right to use the freedom of the press or of speech to terrorize compatriots, to incite violence against their fellow compatriots, to push bands of citizens into mob action that endangers lives and property. These understandings and definitions of freedom do not have constitutional cover under our laws. Hate speech has no or should have no basis in our fundamental legal protections.
And so today we are an active, powerful democracy. Thousands of our citizens are locked in interminable debates and discussions about the future of their country. They demand the right to know what their Government is doing for them and aim to trust media institutions to convey the extent to which the Government is accountable and responsible to its citizens.
This present administration is committed to transforming the lives of all our people as enshrined in its Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development, whose aims revolve around: improving health and education outcomes, taking Liberians out of poverty, developing infrastructure, improving the business climate to attract private investment and securing our hard-won national peace.
Recent events have exposed the depth of our national development challenge. At the launch of the PAPD, we thought we were on a much stronger economic foundation as a country, considering the flows of resources we have seen in the recent past. But macroeconomic headwinds have said otherwise and the structural economic weaknesses have come to take their toll on the population.
We have responded to these macroeconomic pressures by a series of actions captured in the Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies developed with the International Monetary Fund. We have reformed our fiscal and monetary policies to better respond to macroeconomic vagaries.
For the first time since the end of the war, we are learning as a Government to live within our means, to spend money we have, to refuse to borrow to fund recurrent expenditure, to better manage our deficit, to reduce our wage and to run a responsible fiscal policy that can bring huge dividends to our national reputation.
We have agreed to reform our monetary policy as well to protect our reserve by moving to an interest-rate based monetary policy framework and by reforming the Central Bank of Liberia.
We are committed to improving Governance. We look to strengthen to fight against corruption by establishing a special corruption court that can fast track corruption cases, to reform the LACC law and give prosecutorial powers to the LACC to strengthen our Anti-Money Laundering Framework, and to provide greater support for anti-graft and integrity institutions such as the GAC and the Internal Audit Agency.
We are working to improve the business climate and the President has directed that we work with the Chief Justice to relaunch the annual Judicial Conference and embed the business climate as a key feature of such a conference. Businesses and banks look to courts for judgments that affect their financial bottom line or their ability to extend credit. These reforms led by the judicial sector itself hold the promise of significantly improving our business climate. Several of our development partners have agreed to support this approach and we are working to deliver it.
Of course, we are moving toward Big Agriculture. We will continue to make space in the budget to fund agriculture and other critical investments. We are working with several agriculture stakeholders to expend some 1.7 million dollars earmarked for the agriculture sector in the current budget. This is a mere drop in the bucket but, under current circumstances, is a meaningful resource that demonstrates the Government’s commitment to improving the sector.
Today, the President announced in his radio talk that the World Bank and other partners are working to scale up their support for agriculture. We are holding conversations with the European Union to provide funding for Agriculture in its next round of European Development Fund. We are also working with the EU to leverage existing EU facilities to de-risk lending to the private sector, especially agriculture.
Yesterday, I and the Minister of Public works joined the Vice President to break grounds for the Sanniquellie-Logatuo Road. This critical road will unlock the possibilities of regional trade in the Mano River region. We thank the EU, the AFDB and the European Investment Bank for supporting. The Government is paying its RAP contribution through the National Road Fund.
In the next three years, this country will see an unprecedented road development spanning the Ganta-Harper road corridor and the Coastal Highway road projects. Next year, yellow machines will hit the Ganta-Tapita road and procurement for this project is now underway. We thank the World Bank and partners under the Liberia Road Trust Fund for the support. The National Road Fund is being used to crowd in private financing for this critical road segment.
The Government under the direction of the President will engage its development partners on the Tapita-Zwedru segment of the corridor. It is the desire of the President to see the entire Ganta-Zwedru completed in the soonest possible time.
In the electricity sector, we are working with our development partners to support a US 109 million business plan developed by the current management at the Liberia Electricity Corporation. The Government has passed an energy theft law criminalizing power theft, which is a key challenge to generating revenue at LEC. The President has pledged his full commitment to turning LEC around through this plan and the cabinet is awaiting a plan from the current managers of LEC that will inform a possible extension of their contract.
By the middle of next year, we will be in a position to import cheap power from Côte d’Ivoire, which will have an impact on reducing the prices in our economy. A large part of high prices is because power costs are still high in Liberia.
And so Mr. President-Elect of the PUL, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, this administration is doing its fullest to meet the challenges of the time and deliver for our people. As we speak we are delivering November checks to Government workers and are working with commercial banks facing liquidity challenges to enable people access their money. We will stabilize salary by February of next year.
We encourage all our people to endorse the Government’s plan to move toward digital payments. Money does not have to be in the form of paper. Countries like Kenya and Rwanda are leveraging the possibilities of digital money, be it mobile money or digital cards or electronic money. The Cabinet recently passed a Financial Inclusion Strategy and the government is rolling out its digital plan under this strategy.
The Ministry of Commerce is working with all large businesses to move toward digital money. Several workers of the Government have complained that stores and supermarkets and businesses are not accepting mobile money. We are working to accelerate this acceptance of mobile money.
And as you can see through this tour d’horizon I have tried to sketch, there is a whole panoply of positive and rich stories to be told by the Liberian media about the paths toward transformation this administration has embarked upon. The Government will have to work better with you the media houses to get these stories out.
And we have begun that. Quite recently, the Government brought a whole set of media practitioners at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning to explain the technical processes of harmonization, the National budget and the IMF program. We aim to standardize and routinize these engagements as a tool for knowledge and information sharing.
We look forward to working with you to build a powerful and democratically productive and peace-enhancing national media technocracy.
It pleases me to announce to you that the MFDP is under instruction from the President to liquidate all Government debts to media houses, irrespective of the age of the debt. We invite all media houses to submit requests at the Ministry early Monday.
As we end the current year and look forward to the new year, we embrace a new positive partnership with the Liberian media and the PUL. Ours is a partnership for results and transformation, one based on mutual respect for laws of our country and our respective obligations to do right by our people.
I wish all media houses a Merry Christmas and a Wonderful new year!