Keynote Address at ALJA: Using Journalism for Accountable Governance and Development
Mr. President and officials of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the United States, my fellow Liberians, distinguished ladies and gentlemen.
I am deeply honored by your invitation to speak to you today. Given the current state of affairs in our county and the unique role that journalists play in a democratic society, I thought to speak to you today about how we can use journalism as a tool for promoting accountable governance and development in our beloved Liberia.
As I gave thought to my speech, it dawned on me that exactly 73 years ago this month—on October 24, 1945—Liberia was among the countries that led the world in founding an organization that, despite its many flaws, has been in the vanguard of the fight for democracy and development across the world: The United Nations.
In 1948, just three years after its founding with our country Liberia as a founding member, the United Nations held its Conference on Freedom of Information that declared access to information an essential freedom.
Let’s ponder this for a moment. In 1948, the United Nations had been in existence for barley three years. It was still faced with the daunting tasks of pulling the world out of the rubble of the Second World War and providing basic services--food, housing, health care and education—to tens of thousands of war survivors.
Yet, the United Nations found the time to focus on the importance of the right to information—the right to know. Why?
The answer perhaps lies in the fact that freedom of information is a freedom that underpins all of the other freedoms we hold dearly.
Access to information promotes transparent and accountable governance. When there is transparency, when people know what is going on, they can monitor and assess the performance of government; they can hold public officials accountable.
When there is accountability, government is more responsive to the needs of the people; it is more attuned to protecting their rights and providing them with basic social services.
So how do you as journalists fit in here? Well, the journalist is the vital link between policy makers and the people. When you perform your jobs well, you are the conduit through which the people communicate with the government and the government communicates with the people.
And what a crucially important role you have to play here. An independent media that represents plural points of view plays an essential role in delivering the information people need to participate in the debates and influence the decisions that shape their lives.
A media sector that reaches and gives voice to the broad populace can create informed citizens who can better monitor the performance of their leaders.
In short, by helping provide the public access to information about the workings of public institutions, the media vests the people with the power to demand quality performance and accountability from their government.
A strong, free, and independent media that monitors those in power and provides accurate information to citizens can also serve as an effective check on corruption—by exposing private and public sector corruption, a free media allows voters to hold corrupt politicians to account.
And we can point to very recent examples of how the media can play a very effective role in exposing corruption. Take the case of the missing containers of money. It took intrepid reporting by independent journalists to expose the fact that somehow our government printed millions of dollars that suddenly went “missing” and cannot be accounted for.
We will depend on you, journalists, to follow up on this story so that the government provides answers to questions that demand answers: who ordered the printing of the missing money? How much exactly was printed?
Where was it printed? Who took charge of the money once it entered the country? Did it go through the proper channels and processes at the Central Bank before being injected into the official money supply? How is it that at one point the government can tell us that millions of dollars is missing and identify individuals who are under investigation for the missing money, but yet at another point the government through its Finance Minister and the Central Bank Governor can announce that there is no money missing? Which version is true? Does this suggest a cover-up at the very highest levels of government? Is the missing money the result of incompetence or outright thievery or both by government officials?
These are crucial questions you can help the Liberian people answer by shining the bright sun rays of fair and objective reporting as a disinfectant on the processes of government. And it is important that we get answers to these questions because as much as we have heard about corruption in previous government, we have never seen anything on this scale: the literal disappearance of tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars that belong to the Liberian people. If there is anything that defines corruption, this is it.
In addition to taking on corruption, your focus should be on providing the kind of information that helps the public evaluate government programs and policies.
Above all, you want to provide information that allows the public to reach sound conclusions about whether public pronouncements actually become sound public policies.
This may require a sea change in the way you operate. You must move beyond a fixation on the sensational. You must resist the temptation to politicize your stories, or to make them just about personalities.
Instead, your stories must focus on issues—issues that matter in the lives of your audience and help them to both understand and affect the policy choices their government makes.
You must also follow up on your stories to see whether the policies announced today are producing the desired effect tomorrow.
Additionally, you must write or broadcast your stories so you provide your readers or listeners the background and context they need to fully understand the issues at stake.
Recent developments in our country again provide useful examples about how journalists can go about doing this. Very recently, apparently as a result of the injection of the millions of missing dollars into the money supply, we saw a significant increase in inflation. Indeed, the President himself told us that the Liberian dollar decreased by about 25 percent under his watch, meaning that ordinary Liberians must now pay 25 percent more for everything they consume. The President proposed to solve this problem by announcing a series of measures, including the injection of $25 million dollars into the economy.
As journalists your duty should be to objectively examine the initiatives proposed by the President and ask critical questions to determine whether they have produced or can produce the desired results: Did the government actually inject $25 million into the economy? How did it do so? Have we seen an appreciable resultant decrease in inflation? Are the policies announced by the government capable of addressing the long term structural economic challenges we face or do they represent at best only short term ephemeral gains?
As you go about asking these questions and examining the results of actions taken by the government you should also examine and educate the public about the merits of alternative proposals for getting us out of the economic morass in which we find ourselves as a nation.
For example, unlike the President, we in the opposition put forward a set of policy ideas that, if implemented, can produce some immediate positive results while simultaneously and more importantly addressing the long term structural impediments to growth and development. It is worth quickly summarizing the key features of the policy proposals we put forward:
Maintain Sound Fiscal Discipline: First, we called on the government to ensure that we live within our means as a nation and avoid unwise debt we cannot afford. There are some indications that the sharp decline in the Liberian Dollar since the President came to office is a result of financial markets already taking into account the strain that servicing over $1 billion in new debt sought by the government will place on our meager national budget. We should thus look to smartly grow—and not borrow—ourselves out of the country’s current economic morass.
Adopt Smart Growth Inducing Tax Policies: We also proposed that the government focus on tax policies that can spur rather than stymie growth. It is often the case that acting out of desperation for cash to fund what amounts in many cases to unwise and ill-conceived initiatives, the government maintains a regime of relatively high tariffs and other taxes that inhibit the risk taking so essential to wealth creation. Moreover, tariffs on essential imported commodities are among the most regressive taxes, adversely affecting the poor whose cause the President claims to champion. Smart tax policies, including targeted reductions in tariffs and other taxes, can stimulate growth and, in the process, add more revenues to the government’s coffers than the current regressive tax regime.
Eliminate Monopolies: Additionally, we urged the government to do away with monopolies and exclusive licenses. The average Liberian knows that if the government gives only one person the right to import “chicken soup” or tomatoes that person, because he has no competitor, can charge supra competitive prices or bring in inferior products.
There is no net economic benefit we derive as a nation from giving only a few persons or entities exclusive licenses to import essential products like rice, chicken soup, and other consumer goods. Opening the market to more people with a focus on Liberian business people, would result in lower prices and better product choices for consumers.
Enhance Environment for Exports/Import Substitution: We further stressed the need for the government to adopt sensible, cost-effective regulations and policies to increase local and foreign investment in export/import substitution sectors. Regulations and policies could include:
Creating a food safety inspection unit along with relevant regulations so that our farmers’ produce can meet standards for export to European and other markets: There are many stories of our development partners trying to help our farmers export crops such as okra, pepper or eggplant only to be stopped in their tracks because of the absence of something as basic as a national food safety inspection system or unit. Small investments in establishing such a unit could pay huge dividends.
Establishing industrial parks in coastal cities like Buchanan and Harper with built in advantages such as sea ports and easy road access to airports and Monrovia: These advantages would serve to attract investors looking to manufacture for export or local consumption.
Improving the value chain for key agricultural products like rice: Pilot projects funded by international donors around the country amply demonstrate that improving the rice value chain by, for example, helping Liberians entrepreneurs establish rice mills can produce huge results—enhancing the quality of locally produced rice and creating a market for local producers. Scaling up these projects could help us reduce the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend annually on rice imports—money that could go to build schools, hospitals and roads.
Implement Reforms that make it easy to move goods In and Out of our Ports: Moving goods in and out of our Ports is unnecessarily cumbersome, complicated and expensive. Reforms to simplify moving goods in and out of our Ports should be implemented to enhance ease of doing business and to help ordinary Liberians.
We now urge you to do these policy prescriptions of ours the same thing we urge you to do to the policy ideas announced by the government: Subject them to rigorous and critical scrutiny. Examine their potential upsides and downsides and report stories that educate and inform the public and policy-makers accordingly.
We are convinced you will conclude that while they do not provide a panacea or a magic wand that instantly cures all of our development challenges, the ideas we have advanced offer us a chance to successfully set ourselves on the journey to development.
Let me now talk briefly about the role of the media in promoting development itself.
The notion of development journalism rests on the premise that the media has the power to make positive change possible.
If there is one thing that characterizes development journalism, it is a singular focus on deliberately and actively pressing for change; on mobilizing the broad populace to pursue a development agenda.
So what do you need or what must you do to be an effective development journalist?
I believe that to be a development journalist, you must first appreciate the unique role the media can play in the development process. You must then be dedicated to using your professional skills to educate, to teach, to pass on knowledge and skills that enable others to contribute to the development of your country.
But to play this role effectively, you yourselves must be thoroughly versed in the relevant development issues and challenges. You must have the ability to evaluate the upsides and downsides of specific policy initiatives.
Much of this you can gain from reading, learning, and thinking through the critical development challenges our country faces.
To be a good development journalist also means that you must be able to target and reach the people most affected by or in need of development programs.
In our country, Liberia, those people live mostly in rural areas. To make development journalism meaningful we thus need to focus on the needs and aspirations of the rural poor.
To understand their needs and aspirations, you must spend time with them. It is not enough to report about them from the comfort and safety of Monrovia or other urban areas.
A good development journalist will also ensure that the people who are affected by development programs will have their voices heard and their views known to policy makers.
A preference for profiling innovation and success stories that motivate people and inspire them to work for change is also a very good attribute of a development journalist.
You must further have a knack for presenting people with the various development options and letting them understand the pros and cons of these options.
There is more you can do. You can show why development issues are important by giving them prominent placement in your newspapers or in your radio or television newscasts.
You must also put emphasis on evaluating and reporting on how specific development projects are relevant to the needs of local communities or the nation as a whole.
So development journalism does not merely mean reporting about something that happened, about a speech, or a project.
It is reporting about trends, processes, policy choices and their broad implications.
Development journalism is not about championing or promoting a political party, a government, or a specific personality.
Development journalism is about telling stories, publishing articles, and providing information that foster fundamental social and economic change—that help people make the right health choices; that educate farmers about emerging market trends, and how to employ improved farming methods; it is about exposing national policies that discriminate against the vulnerable—women, girls, the poor—and what can be done to remedy societal ills.
I must admit it is a difficult task but it’s doable. You have your work cut out for you.
But before you give up and think it is too hard, let me remind you of how hard those that came before you had to work to bequeath us the country we have today.
Many of our founding fathers were journalists. Hillary Teage, who wrote our declaration of independence, edited the first newspaper ever founded in Liberia--The Liberia Herald, which was founded in 1826.
The Herald was the principal source of news about the new country; it provided what we will call development news today, exhorting its readers about what they could do to improve their lives.
Another of our great early fathers, Edward Wilmot Blyden, will go on to serve as the Editor of the Herald from---using its pages to promote the causes he held dear---integration between the settlers and the indigenous tribes.
Many of those who came before us willingly sacrificed their freedom, and chose the jail cell over the comfort of their homes because they steadfastly refused to compromise their journalistic integrity. You know them better than I do: Tuan Wreh, Rufus Darpoh, and Albert Porte.
Then there were those who paid the ultimate price in the performance of their journalistic duties: Moses Washington, Tommy Raynes, Kloh Hinneh, Sekou Kromah; Charles Gbenyon.
So every time you are tempted to throw in the towel and give up because you believe your working conditions are not the most optimal; or because you believe that powerful forces are out to frustrate your efforts to inform and educate your audience, think about these men; think about the powerful examples they set for you; the heroic roles they all played in making it possible for you to enjoy the freedom you enjoy to practice your craft today.
And as you do so, I have no doubt that you will resolve to carry on—to be the best possible journalist you can be; to practice your craft in service to a larger goal: building a stable, truly democratic and prosperous Liberia that serves the interest of all of its people.