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Opening Remarks by Min. Brown at Donor Meeting on Media & Communication in Liberia

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Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

On behalf of the Government of Liberia, and in my own name, I thank both the African Development Bank and the World Bank, two of our core development partners, for convening this meeting.

My gratitude also goes out to all of you who have taken time out of your busy schedules to join us in this important conversation. Please convey our heartfelt appreciation to your governments and the leaderships of the various important organizations you have come here to represent.

And in a special way, I thank Mr. Eric Chinje without whom, I can admit, our meeting today would have been difficult, if not impossible. Mr. Chinje, thank you for your passion for the media across our Continent, thank you for your confidence, and thank you for your faith in Liberia’s continuous transformation.

My friends, we have come together today to initiate a critical dialogue – to propose and, hopefully, to find solutions to a problem that is clearly beginning to undermine our development efforts and our endeavors to build a free and democratic society in Liberia.

In the room, I am happy to see representatives of the primary stakeholders in media development and public outreach. Here we are: the government, the private media, the Information Commission, and the Donor community. Obviously, we know that organized outreach and improved media performance will contribute greatly to enhancing the quality of development which we seek for the country, and to which we are avowedly committed.

And here we meet, at a compelling time – perhaps at no better time – when public communication and the media are in a state of crisis in Liberia – a crisis which, unfortunately, bears telling consequences for the ongoing socio-political and economic reconstruction project which is Liberia. Admittedly, with some ways to go, it is a project which is doing well and would have been impossible to undertake without the many direct and indirect interventions of all of your respective governments and institutions.

Today, though, the Liberia rebuilding project is being inadvertently threatened. This, I am sure, comes as no surprise to you as I believe that you too are ardent consumers of our media product and keen observers of the government's ability, or lack thereof, to articulate its development messages. No doubt, you too, are keenly aware of the persistent weaknesses in our overall public and development communications, and the relative absence of depth in our media content.

As Liberia works to reinforce the foundations of peace, pursuing a development program built around its Agenda for Transformation and a governance agenda that seeks to strengthen the institutions of democracy, the need for a vibrant, informed, and ethically-based media is of critical importance. The absence of such a press could significantly compromise those efforts, denying the nation a veritable platform for a healthy debate on its development priorities and democratic choices.

Further complicating our development efforts is the relative absence of systems within the public sector to package and deliver coherent development messages and a basic rationale for the choices that not only the government has to make but also choices that the people are to make on a daily basis, as Liberia’s transformational challenges evolve.

As such, two issues preoccupy us for our discussion with you today:

i) Building a robust development-oriented media in Liberia; and

ii) Supporting efforts to put in place viable structures and systems for communicating the development message 

As we think about these issues, some questions come to mind: How well has media in Liberia captured and articulated the social development priorities of the nation since the return of peace to the country? How well has media told the evolving development story?  Have media professionals effectively served as moderators of the necessary conversations on such national priorities as agriculture, infrastructure, education, health, peace and democracy? How informed is the public debate on the choices that government must make in a competing resource environment and on the fundamental issues of governance, corruption, transparency and accountability in the society? Do the Liberian media owe the public such duties? Have our people become more enlightened to make the kind of choices needed to sustain the advances we have made?

Undoubtedly, the invaluable support of our development partners over the last decade of our peace has contributed to achieving some rather spectacular outcomes. In a country that saw a significant loss of its human capital, the wanton destruction of basic infrastructure, a major decline in the social trust that undergirds community living, everything had to be either rebuilt or introduced. Liberia and Liberians will remain eternally grateful.

However, constant communication with the public, healthy debates on leadership options, persistent reminders about the challenges and the opportunities offered in the building of a new Liberia to which we collectively aspire and from which we will collectively benefit cannot but remain a matter of constant focus for the government, our development partners, civil society and the national media.

Somehow, and sadly, this has not always been the case! We can – and I dare to say – we must fix this. 

A more structured public outreach by government and support for the development of media in the country should be considered as strategic priorities, and therefore, similarly benefit from the relevance such priorities deserve. This will not just enable us to turn ourselves and our society around but to move on in the right direction to building a more just, equitable, accountable, freer, secured and prosperous society for ourselves and for our children.    

We must go beyond the sporadic efforts to build capacity in the media. We must go beyond the tentative and diffuse attempts to improve the quality of media content. And we must go beyond the persistent inability of the state to adequately tell its own story. This, really, is not for public relations purposes. It is communication to constantly engage and enliven the public with a common sense of ownership of what really is a shared destiny.

Important, then, as this is, why is it not happening? Quite simply, the government and its development partners have not focused on structured public communication and media development as a strategic priority. We have not done so in spite of the fact that national media content has consistently been devoid of in-depth sector knowledge of, or qualitative reporting on the national development agenda. 

As yet, while these sectors are invaluable to the development agenda, there is no effective debate on agriculture, health, education, infrastructure and important initiatives to expand the economy. All of these important issues have been crowded out by loud and sensational noises from the political arena. The result is that Liberians remain largely uninformed as to the rationale behind policies and public investment choices that the government must make – policies and choices that inevitably affect and alter our lives. As a result of this lapse, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain focus on the big development picture and to be engaged in a healthy national conversation. We simply cannot permit this state of affairs to continue much longer.

Of course the issues that determine media performance are multiple and I am certain our colleagues from the Press Union of Liberia will dwell on those. We know that such issues will invariably include capacity, financing, ethics, and the legal environment. When these issues are not addressed in a systematic and structured manner, performance becomes questionable and the society suffers.  It is critically important that government, development partners and media organizations join hands in the search for solutions to these problems.

This is why we are here today – to begin the conversation not only about the problems which gravely affects us all but also to search for solutions by which we may all be uplifted. Let us therefore see what we can do individually and collectively to address the problems we know to exist and to affect us all.

My friends, when we consider, for example, that most of the projects funded by our development partners come with targeted resources for stakeholder information, communication and education, and given the pervasive ignorance we still encounter within the population on our numerous development choices and programs, is it not a fair question to ask what have these resources been used for? Might this not be a good place to start our conversation? Perhaps, I should leave that with our friends from the development agencies.

And so, let me end by again thanking all of you, and your respective governments and organizations for being here, and invite you to be seriously enjoined, over the next couple of hours, in a deeper reflection on these issues as well as possible solutions to the problems of media and public communication in Liberia.

I thank you for your kind attention.