Liberian President calls for exercising transparency in crisis communication at IGCF 2015

SHARJAH, 23rd February, 2015 (WAM)Sharjah–Recounting the recent Liberian example of fighting the Ebola epidemic, as well as the stigmatisation and banning of the country’s products globally, Liberian President and Africa’s ‘Iron Lady’ Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has urged governments around the world to embrace transparency as the cornerstone of their crisis communication initiatives.

Her comments were made at the opening session of day two of the fourth International Government Communication Forum (IGCF 2015), which was attended by H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Salem Al Qasimi, Deputy Ruler of Sharjah.

In her address, President Sirleaf said, “In the aftermath of the Ebola crisis, Liberians took on the challenge to save our country. A coordinating body was established to include all stakeholders – leaders of the three branches of government, the international community, civil society, as well as traditional and religious leaders – and drive home the message that the responsibility to resolve the crisis rested primarily with ourselves.” She pointed out “Recognising that community and social mobilisation remain key to influencing people and changing mindsets to bring about behavioural change, attention was shifted from a central government-led process to the communities and local structures that assumed responsibility for the dissemination of the required response. The coordinating body designed communication tools to reach the people. In effect, the messages and the responses became the people’s creation rather than an imposition from the government.” Offering further insights, Africa’s first democratically elected female President said, “An aggressive chain of volunteers, structured and mobilised from the grassroots and supported by NGOs, together with traditional and religious institutions, continue to undertake door-to-door visits to provide relevant information, education and communication tools to the citizens.” The story about Liberia on the international media landscape has changed significantly over time – from one of fear to hope, and currently to an unqualified assurance of collective and determined progress. The local media also played a remarkable role in the systemic reporting of the crisis based on released and certified information by an Incident Management System.

She added, “Though we had to grapple with over-amplification of the situation on the ground by international wires and news services, as a government, we provided a platform for regular media briefings that ensured and continue to guarantee unrestricted access to information.” President Sirleaf concluded: “Our inability to quickly learn and inform the public of the nature of the Ebola virus triggered distrust among the people. During the intense period of the outbreak, we were most vulnerable in this era of rapid communication through social media and did not devise countermeasures to convey accurate information to our citizens at home and to the wider diaspora.” She added, “Our attempt to impose restriction through the use of security was not an appropriate response, and led to conflict with a population already in a state of fear and distrust. The participation of the community was a valuable lesson we learnt – which found huge resonance with the people. We also learnt that forging valuable partnerships through sustained good relations can result in effective support in times of crisis.” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been ranked among the top 100 most powerful women in the world (Forbes 2012), the foremost powerful woman in Africa (Forbes Africa 2011), among the 10 best leaders in the world (Newsweek 2010) and among the top 10 female leaders (TIME 2010), as well as called ‘the best President the country has ever had’ (The Economist 2010) and one of the six ‘Women of the Year’ (Glamour 2010).

As a global leader in women’s empowerment, President Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in securing women’s rights. Earlier, in 2007, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award, for her personal courage and unwavering commitment to freedom and improving the lives of Africans.

Earlier, Osama Samra, Director of Sharjah Media Centre (SMC), introduced the opening session on Day 2 and said the forum aims to come up with recommendations and outcomes that reflect the current times and seeks to address challenges that threaten the cultural and social fabric today.

The SMC Director said, “The Sharjah government’s vision stems for the belief that people are the focus of all decisions and activities, and government communication process must reflect the truth and aim at achieving concurrence between what is said and what is done.” Samra added, “The accomplishments that Sharjah has achieved in all domains have led to greater credibility in our messaging and inspired us to leverage innovative ways in developing a model to communicate with the world. This model of credibility is based on the principle that government messages must reflect government action and not be separated from them or in conflict with them.” Held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, IGCF 2015 is examining the actions needed today to ensure a better relationship between the government and the public using effective and clear government communication mechanisms. The opening day’s session on February 22 was attended by General Michel Sleiman, former President of the Republic of Lebanon and Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia, in addition to a number of political figures, media representatives, academicians and thought leaders.