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World Press Freedom Review
1999 World Press Freedom Review
On July 19, 1997, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP) victory in the presidential and congressional elections in Liberia ended the seven years carnage in what was one of West Africa’s most dangerous countries. The conflict and its inexplicable brutality left approximately 200,000 people dead, about 65 percent of Liberia’s population of 2.8 million displaced, and the socio-economic infrastructure and the media in shreds.
Liberia is one of the last countries in Africa not to have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression. Freedom of speech is enshrined in the Liberian constitution but the reality facing journalists and media owners in this country is different. They simply cannot compete against more powerful forces that run the media scene. The main player on Liberia's media scene is the media empire owned by President Taylor.
The president is reputed to have made his fortune during his seven years as faction leader fighting the civil war in Liberia. During this time he controlled the country's natural resources.
President Taylor owns Liberian Communication Network. During the civil strife in the country, the NPFL of Charles Taylor operated a radio station. Realising the importance of the media, the ruling NPP through the LCN (Liberian Communication Network) is building a media empire that will give it continued dominance in national politics.
LCN, which was established in October 1992, currently runs a television service, two FM stations and one short-wave station. It has its own printing press and publishes two newspapers -- The Patriot and The Newsbeat.
The printing press has a monopoly and all privately owned newspapers have to be printed there. This always leaves open the fear that employees of the Taylor-owned printing press could alert the government to any stories before they are printed. This fear of an unofficial form of censorship forces many journalists to tread carefully.
With over 130 employees including 55 journalists, Taylor's organisation pays an average monthly salary of about US$ 300, the salary of its 55 journalists ranging from US$ 200-300. Journalists on the state-owned broadcasting network earn as little as US $20 a month.
Owned by members of the ruling NPP and Charles Taylor, the LCN enjoys superiority over the other media except the foreign-funded ones in its access to funds and ownership of its own printing facilities. It is ironic that while the state-owned LBS has no television service and is struggling to maintain its radio service, LCN enjoys more facilities and has a wider reach.
Few private newspapers exist in Liberia and even for those that are published today, survival is not easy. The Inquirer is the only daily newspaper. Other newspapers are The Democrat and the National Chronicle.
Liberia has no state-owned print media but there is the Liberian News Agency established since 1978 and the Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS), which started operations in 1960. The bulk of journalists in Liberia had training stints with these two media which today are struggling to survive. The LBS, which used to run both radio and television broadcasting, currently concentrates on radio broadcasting. The war destroyed its premises and equipment but under new management, efforts are being made to renovate the old buildings and enhance its performance. Salaries are pitiably low with the Director General earning a monthly salary of US$ 80. Reporters earn about US$ 20 per month.
The Liberian News Agency, once the major source of foreign and local news, is today ill equipped and understaffed to play the same role. With just 25 journalists, two manual typewriters and no teleprinters or duplication machines it can neither serve the media, its main clientele, nor report the countryside as it did in the past. Monthly salaries for the staff range from a minimum of US$ 6 to US$ 15.
Virtually all the print media in Liberia are privately owned. Most are weeklies or bi-weeklies. What unites all the print media is the fact that they all print at the Sabane Printing Press, a monopoly that does not augur well for press freedom in the country. Circulation figures are very low, ranging between 1000 copies to 3000 copies. Equally low are the salaries of reporters on these papers. The average monthly salary for Liberian journalist is about US$ 15 with the average high just about US$ 30-40.
For a country just emerging out of civil strife it is encouraging to find a vibrant press with courageous journalists working under very severe conditions and with very low remuneration. On press freedom, most of the journalists express fears about the government's commitment to press freedom citing as negative signs or trends the attempt to enforce the registration act, the denial of a licence to newspapers the government see as threats, and police harassment of media personnel.
Most editors also believe the general legal regime; The Communications Act, Decree 88A and the country's criminal code were inimical to the practice of press freedom in the country.
There are several private radio stations in Liberia. First there is the category of independent radio that are indigenously owned like Radio Monrovia. Then there is second category of radio stations, which are owned by religious organisations like Radio Veritas owned by the Catholic Church and Radio Elwa owned by a missionary group. It has been operated for over two decades. There is also another category of private radio stations supported and financed by international NGOs like Star Radio and Talking Drums. It should be pointed out that while Talking Drums produces programmes that aim at peace-building does not broadcast its programmes itself but distributes it to the other radio stations like Veritas, and Star Radio as well as Radio Monrovia.
Star News -- funded by USAID and Fondation Hirondelle, runs an FM and a short-wave service, broadcasting in 17 languages with a website – has been a source of worry to the government. Radio Monrovia was fined US$ 5000 for allegedly granting a frequency to Star Radio. It was closed down and its frequency withdrawn. It was out for two days and only resumed transmission after paying US$ 2000 of the fine. The Liberian authorities were not too happy with the Star website that informs the international community on events in the country.
It is no wonder that Liberia's independent media scene is characterised by caution and self-censorship during and after the bloody civil war. Taylor, who once vowed to "destroy the country" was elected Liberia's President on the promise of rebuilding the nation.
But journalists have a very uneasy relationship with President Taylor. His government's refusal to allow the press to function freely clearly means journalism is a hazardous profession.
The Heritage, a weekly newspaper, was closed in December 1998 after President Taylor took personal interest in the affairs of its publisher and managing editor Momo Kanneh. President Taylor ordered him arrested for being a "contact person" for people who had tried to destabilise his government in September 1998.
Kanneh blamed President Taylor of running Liberia like his personal fiefdom. He charged that Taylor did not like the editorials in The Heritage and blamed him for all the bad publicity he (Taylor) received as a rebel leader. Kanneh said that Taylor "never forgets and never forgives".
Liberian journalists continued to be concerned about the attempt by government to enforce the Communications Act of 1989 which among other things requires newspapers to be registered and gives the Ministry of Information certain regulatory functions; Decree 88A makes it a crime to report stories that the authorities consider rumours and lies.
In August, a local station which relays the Voice of America's "Nightline Africa" programme was forced to cut transmission of an interview with the spokesman of dissidents who attacked the Lofa County in the north. Another VOA programme, "Day Break Africa", was also cut off the air when the interview with the dissident’s spokesman was introduced. The news relay broadcasts of the BBC Africa Service were also censored. The local media was obliged to report only the government version. The government also seized the short wave transmitter of Star Radio, which it is still trying to retrieve.
After writing articles about racketeering and corruption in government and state run companies, Concord Times editor, Sarkilay Kantan, and reporter, Isaac Menyongai, were arrested by police in Monrovia on December 30. An arrest warrant was also issued for the managing editor Lyndon Ponnie, editor-in-chief Sherman Seekuah and reporters James King and Togba Tuwray. The journalists were accused of ‘‘criminal malevolence’’. Alexander Kulue, the chief of The National Agency for Refugees who was angered by the story reportedly said: ‘‘What the newspaper is insinuating is criminal, illegal and deliberately insulting.’’ The journalists had received death threats on 25 November.
The chairman of the ruling NPP, Cyril Allen, brings fear, intimidation and terror to many Liberian journalists. In late August, he ordered the flogging of two journalists from The News newspaper. Their crime was contradicting his stated amount of US$ 7 million in a press conference, allegedly offered by an Asian company for a stockpile of scrap metals and equipment left by the country’s defunct mining company. According to the journalists, the amount stated in the contract was US$ 40 million. Allen’s security men flogged the two journalists, leaving one with a bleeding lip.
In another startling development, journalists of The New Democrat newspaper were all arrested and interrogated at the ministry of defence for publishing a story on the killing of a refugee by soldiers. After a series of threats from the ministry, the newspaper shifted from its critical reporting and analysis of issues pertinent to Taylor’s regime. It is also reported that Taylor says he is ‘‘losing patience’’ with the media for what he calls in official jargon ‘‘unpatriotic reporting’’.
During the long civil war, scores of journalists fled into exile and the Liberia's independent media was intimidated and attacked.
Today, many privately owned newspapers and radio stations are trying to rise from the ashes and coping with ruined printing presses, editorial offices and radio transmitters.
At the core of the problem for private radio stations is Kiss-FM, owned by Taylor. It is the only station broadcasting nationwide. Private radio stations are discouraged from competing against the Taylor media network in Liberia.
Star Radio has borne the brunt of a sustained state-backed campaign to silence it through crushing fines and others methods to influence the station's news programming, and extract more revenue from the station's management.
The rights of journalists are violated with impunity by state security agents. Journalists are attacked when they print articles critical of the Taylor government.
Liberian journalists are aware of explosive stories such as the involvement of Liberian soldiers fighting alongside rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone or Liberian soldiers engaging in arms trafficking. Editors often choose to ignore the story of their government's involvement because of Taylor's denials. Journalists are reluctant to report such controversial stories because of severe reprisals. They are not willing to take this risk.
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