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PUL VP Rejects Senate Probe On Journalists

The Vice President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) has described recent decision of his leadership colleagues to turn over two legislative reporters to members of the Liberian Senate for investigation into reports of maltreatment as ill-fated.

Mr. Octavin T. Williams, in his dissenting opinion, said the decision manifests an utter lack of professionalism and a clear violation of the PUL constitution as far as Article 2-Section 1 and 2 is concerned.

He said the decision also undermines the importance and function of the National Media Council, which was established to mediate between state actors and the media, aimed at resolving crisis even following a highly expensive international reform process with support from USAID and INTER-NEWS.

Mr. Williams said he’s appalled that some members of the leadership of the PUL led by President Charles Coffey would subject two Liberian journalists to a Senate probe when in fact the Senate itself is a party to an assault case linking Grand Bassa County Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence to allegedly ordering the flogging of the journalists.

In a statement, the PUL Vice President said the birth of the National Media Council opens a new opportunity for self-watch of ethical journalism. For this, he criticized his colleagues for subjecting members of the Liberian media to a Senate probe in the presence of the National Media Council.

The PUL Vice President then called on journalists Abraham Morris of the InProfile Daily newspaper and Austin Kawah of Prime FM, who are both named for the probe, not to again appear before such Senate probe as doing so will contradict the reputation of the Media Council.

On Wednesday, January 31, 2018, during the confirmation hearing of withdrawn Justice Minister-designate Charles Gibson, Senator Lawrence, also Chairman on Rules, Order and Administration, reportedly ordered the two Legislative reporters flogged while attempting to enter the main chambers of the Liberian Senate.

Senator Lawrence has since denied ever ordering the flogging of the two Liberian journalists.

She responded to the claims by posting on her social media facebook page that at no time did she ever order the flogging of the two reporters assigned by their entities to cover activities at the Capitol Building. Senator Lawrence also happens to be the wife of Montserrado County Electoral District Number 15 Representative Adolph Lawrence.

During the incident, she was said to have been heard ordering the Sergeant-at-Arms and her personal securities to physically push reporters out of the Senate chambers, thus leading to the physical assault on the journalists.

The situation reportedly led to journalist Kawah’s finger being bitten by the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate while journalist Morris was brutally thrown out of the Senate chambers, consequently causing serious scuffle among Legislative reporters and the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and Senator Lawrence’s personal securities.

When journalists under the auspices of LEGISPOL brought such embarrassing situation and impeding of their work to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Senator Albert Chie, the LEGISPOL leadership was seconded to the Secretary of the Senate for formal complaint because the Pro Tempore had guest, but when Legislative reporters reportedly arrived in the offices of the Senate Secretariat, the Secretary of the Senate was said to be busy, and so the Assistant Secretary of the Senate granted the media body audience and promised to relay the information to her boss for the way forward.

It has been gathered that the scuffle leading to journalists Kawah and Morris being manhandled upon the alleged order of Senator Lawrence by the Sergeant-at-Arms and Senator Lawrence securities was a result of the Senate’s reported deliberate refusal to repair the public address system (PA system) that was donated to the Legislature by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The equipment (PA system), which allows journalists to collect proceedings or discussions from the floor of the Senate during plenary’s public or confirmation hearings, has been destroyed or spoilt since March 13, 2016 during the appearance of the Executive Governor of the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL).

The leadership of LEGISPOL explained that it, on several occasions, wrote, met and discussed such embarrassing situation with the past leadership of the Senate, but no effort was exerted to remedy the situation.

The situation led reporters covering the Senate to run from one Senator’s desk to another in order to get a clearer recording or information from members of the Senate during deliberations.

Unlike the House of Senate, journalists said they are restricted to their press gallery during deliberations on the floor of the House of Representatives, owing to the fact that the PA system there is fully functional and working.

Consequently, journalists assigned at the Capitol Building under the banner Legislative Press Pool (LEGISPOL) with immediate effect placed a blackout on the Liberian Senate and also requested Grand Bassa County Senator Lawrence to issue an apology through writing and newspaper publications to members of the body.

The media group also agreed to officially communicate with the PUL and the Senate Pro Tempore, Albert Chie, about the brutal assault and harm meted against journalists Morris and Kawah.

The journalists termed the denial of journalists entry into the Chambers of the Liberian Senate as abrupt and unilateral by the Grand Bassa County Senator.

The group also agreed that the Senate Press Director should withdraw a communication to the InProfile Daily newspaper revoking the accreditation of journalist Morris.

“We strongly believe that journalists assigned at the Legislature are professional people from independent media institutions with the responsibility to inform the general public about happenings in the Chambers of the Legislature. Whereas we have agreed that until the PA system of the Liberian Senate is restored, we will not cover the Liberian Senate. Ladies and gentlemen of the press, the action of the lawmaker should be seriously condemned by all as it undermines press freedom in keeping with freedom of information,” the group declared.

The Legislative reporters resolved to file lawsuit against the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate, Toe C. Toe, for biting journalist Kawah and that they would be firstly informing the police to be charged with aggravated assault.

This decision, according to the group, is intended to serve as deterrence for would be lawmakers or staffers wanting to suppress, humiliate, intimidate and brutalize journalists for exercising their journalistic duties.

In the wake the crisis between the Capitol Building reporters and the Senate, the PUL strongly condemned, and was considering all options to address the cruel violence carried out against Legislative reporters on the ground of the Capitol.

The PUL stated that the journalists had converged on the Senate chamber to cover the confirmation hearing of the withdrawn Justice Minister-designate.

The Union said the flogging of the frontline reporters was shameful, unnationalistic and one especially aimed at undercutting the country’s gains in free expression and journalists’ protection.

PUL President Coffey said: “There is absolutely no justification for violence in the new Liberia, least to mention the burdening of journalists from the floor of the Senate like common criminals and leaving some injured.”

The statement added: “The Union will take the matter up with the Plenary of Liberian Senate through its President, Madam Jewel Howard Taylor and President Pro Tempore, Albert Chie. Journalists are not whipping dogs and this disgraceful incident causes more injury to the reputation of our country, when the country’s profile is being enriched by successful transfer of power from democratically elected government to another.”

The PUL insisted that it is only right that journalists be accorded unhindered access to public information providers in the realm of the laws of Liberia.

The PUL called on Legislative Affairs Reporters to remain professional and follow the confirmation proceedings of the Justice Minister-designate and all confirmation hearings to its logical conclusion.

“Liberian people deserve the news and any attempt to disrupt that sacred service to the state will be defeated by lovers of democracy,” the PUL concluded.

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