President Sirleaf Signs Table Mountain Declaration; Second African Head of State to Do So

Saturday, 21st July 2012
President Sirleaf Signs Table Mountain Declaration;
President Sirleaf Signs Table Mountain Declaration;
Photo Credit: James M. Garresen, II/Executive Mansion
Monrovia, Liberia – President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has signed the Table Mountain Declaration, joining a global movement dedicated to replacing statutes under which journalists and media practitioners may be prosecuted as criminal defendants for criminal defamation. However, she cautioned the President of the Press Union of Liberia, Mr. Peter Quaqua, to establish self-regulating measures to ensure that the media acts responsibly if the Declaration will be more than the piece of paper.

“Today I will affix my signature, on behalf of the Government and the people of Liberia, unto the Table Mountain Declaration, to fulfill a pledge regarding our Government’s acceding to the effort toward repealing criminal defamation laws on our statutes in order to underscore the message, loud and clear, that we are committed to advancing free press and free expression not just in Liberia but to use our leadership role to promote it on the entire continent of Africa,” she said.

She cautioned Mr. Quaqua: “You must now act to establish self-regulating measures, as many other countries have done, to ensure that the media acts responsibly by the granting of these freedoms. Both of us have that responsibility, if this Declaration will be more than the piece of paper that I sign, or we can make it a live instrument to protect the rights of all – journalists as well as any other citizen.”

According to an Executive Mansion release, President Sirleaf made these assertions in a statement at an official ceremony marking the signing of the Table Mountain Declaration in the C. Cecil Dennis, Jr.  Auditorium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Saturday, July 21. The Liberian leader becomes the second sitting President/Head of State in Africa to do so. The first was the President of Niger, His Excellency Mahamadou Issoufou.

Speaking further, President Sirleaf directed her Information Minister, Mr. Lewis Brown, to act swiftly to get the laws that prohibit free expression and free speech amended, noting that free press and free expression in any society promotes democracy.

Liberia, one of the few countries in Africa, passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2010. Additionally, it signed the African Platform on Access to Information in 2011, which reaffirms the 1991 Windhoek Declaration on promoting an independent and pluralistic African Press.
The Declaration of Table Mountain is an earnest appeal to all Africans, particularly those in power, to recognize that the political and economic progress they seek flourishes in a climate where the press is free and independent of governmental, political or economic control. It aims at abolishing insult and criminal laws in Africa and setting a free press higher on the agenda.

Commenting on excesses meted out on journalists in the first five months of 2007, when the Declaration was carved, including the arrest and/or imprisonment of 229 editors, reporters, broadcasters and online journalists in 27 African countries, President Sirleaf noted that though the statistics were frightening, Liberia was not among these countries where a journalist was imprisoned. “Our record on press freedom has, throughout our administration, been to safeguard that space for the press to freely express itself in society,” she said.

The Liberian leader said that while her government demonstrates its commitment to a free press and free expression in the country, there are some media practitioners who continue to “let the profession down” by failing to abide by the ethical standards upon which a good journalist is required to perform his or her duties.

She said free speech is enshrined in Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution, which accords sufficient constitutional protection for free speech and also imposes the burden of constitutional responsibility on those who, by their actions, abuse the rights of free speech; adding that all too often ethical transgressions by some media practitioners are embarrassing, worrisome and counterproductive. “If those responsible cannot address this specter of bad journalistic practice by imposing strong regulatory measures to curtail this increasingly rampant problem in the media, I fear the progress we have made could be undermined,” she warned.

In his remarks, the Executive Director of the Center for Media Studies and Peace-building, Mr. Malcolm Joseph, said President Sirleaf’s decision to sign the Table Mountain Declaration shows government’s strong commitment to strengthen democracy and better governance. He said his institution, and others within the media development and freedom of expression domain, remain committed to supporting the government in this drive as it supports the overall mission of promoting the media and citizens in increasing transparency and accountability in the country. Mr. Joseph challenged the media to take the fullest advantage of this opportunity provided by the government and further the campaign for better governance in Liberia.

The President of the Press Union of Liberia, Mr. Quaqua, committed the media to ensuring that it continues to improve its landscape for the betterment of democracy. On behalf of the Press Union, he committed itself and pledged to work with publishers and owners of media institutions in the country in ensuring that journalists play their part. He warned journalists that by signing this law, “this is no license for journalists to live outside their rules and norms of practice,” adding that by signing the Declaration, it places additional challenges on journalists to ensure that they live up to their ethics.
He, however, noted there are still additional laws that infringe on press freedom in Liberia, noting that by President Sirleaf signing the Declaration, she has committed herself to repealing those anti-media laws. He named Sedition, Criminal Libel against the President, and Criminal Malevolence. “Those are laws that are on our books that are contrary to our ideas of signing this Declaration today,” he said.
The Ambassador and former President of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, Mr. Roger Parkinson, said journalists were marking a significant day, “not only for press freedom but for all people of Liberia and Africa.”

He said that by signing the Declaration, the President was committed to create conditions under which a free press and society as a whole thrive. “You are sending a message that a free press is in the best interest of government no matter how critical and even annoying a free press can be,” he said, adding that this is a message that desperately has to be heard and heeded in Africa, where insult laws and criminal defamation legislation are widely used to outlaw criticisms of politicians and those in authority, to jail critical journalists and close media outlets.

The signing ceremony was spearheaded, here in Liberia, by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, led by Minister Lewis Brown and Deputy Minister for Administration, Norris Tweah.