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World Press Freedom Review
1998 World Press Freedom Review
After seven years of a devastating civil war, Liberia returned to civil rule in July 1997, but journalists are still operating under exceptionally difficult circumstances and regularly face harassment from the authorities.
On January 6, the Liberian authorities had the only printing works in Monrovia barred from publishing the newspaper Heritage, RSF reported. Theophilius Gould, public prosecutor, sent a letter to the printing works asking it to stop the printing of the newspaper "until some problems between Heritage and the government have been solved". This ban is related to an article published a week before which was critical of the government for its strained relations with the ECOMOG West African peacekeeping force.
On January 7, the Liberian Ministry of Mail and Telecommunications closed Star Radio, a news and information station run by the Swiss-based non-governmental organisation Fondation Hirondelle. Star Radio was accused of illegally using two wavelengths, even though the Ministries of Planning, Foreign Affairs and Information approved the setting up of the station, which began broadcasting on July 15, 1997 under the Liberian interim government. Star Radio had been broadcasting since then without any attempt from the authorities to close it. The station resumed broadcasting on February 6.
According to CPJ, a delegation of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), led by PUL President G. Abraham Massaley, met with Minister of Information Joe W. Mulbah on March 24 to resolve outstanding differences over the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism’s proposed restrictive media guidelines, made public on March 19. The meeting was prompted by President Taylor’s orders, on March 24, that Minister Mulbah had six hours to resolve the differences, and failure to do so would jeopardise his position in government. The discussion was observed by the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC), represented by JPC Executive Director Kofi Woods. All parties expressed satisfaction with the Ministry’s decision to discard the provisions, and in his response to Massaley’s request that all laws inimical to press freedom be scrapped, specifically the Communications Act, Minister Mulbah stated that he had already recommended that the Communications Act be taken off the books. A deadline for newspaper registration was set for April 15, 1998.
The Liberian Ministry of Information finally granted The New Democrat newspaper a permit to resume publishing on April 15. The weekly existed and was registered with the Ministry of Information before the destruction of its offices in April 1996, when warring factions destroyed all independent media outlets in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The New Democrat was not allowed to relaunch its operations due to the government’s claim that the paper had failed to meet a (January 1997) deadline, based on a 1972 law which requires all newspapers to register within a certain timeframe.
Perhaps significantly, the decison to grant the New Democrat a permit came during a joint IFJ/WAJA mission to Liberia. The mission, which received widespread domestic media attention, met with several key political figures to express concern about the Liberian media situation.
In a letter issued on October 14, the Ministry of Information announced a government ban ordering local media to immediately cease posting information on the Internet, CPJ reported. The order stated that television and radio stations were operating news agencies online without a permit and "running un-authenticated newspaper articles and gossip columns." The letter also said that media organisations wishing to run a news agency on the Internet must first register with the Ministry of Information for permission to do so.
On November 23, a group of former combatants in the on-going conflict in the country stormed the Sabannoh Printing Press, attacked journalists and Sabannoh employees, destroyed copies of the independent Inquirer and The News newspapers, and vandalised printing machinery, according to CPJ. The attack was in response to a November 21 front-page story published in the Heritage newspaper, titled "Ex-Fighters Plan Mass Demonstration", which claimed that former combatants had planned to demonstrate to demand that benefits be paid to them by the government. The Sabannoh Printing Press is also the printer for the Heritage newspaper. J. Kpanquor Jallah, Jr., the Heritage reporter who wrote the story, was briefly detained at the scene by police. The journalist was released after colleagues demanded that the police produce a warrant for his arrest, which they did not possess. Mr. Nagbe, a journalist with The News, received a deep laceration on his back during the attack. He reportedly was pointed out as a journalist to the attackers by a security guard assigned to protect the printing press. Neither government security guards, posted at Sabannoh since the commencement of the September 18 fighting in Monrovia, nor the armed police officers who arrived on the scene, intervened to stop the vandalism or assaults on journalists and Sabannoh employees.
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