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World Press Freedom Review
2000 World Press Freedom Review
Despite paying lip-service to democratic principles, the government of President Charles Taylor has sought to consolidate its hold on power in Liberia by intimidating the country’s free press. Supported by a strong security infrastructure and displaying a vindictive and aggressive nature, Taylor has shown himself to be prepared to use every weapon at his disposal to silence the media. The result of these predations is a media which exists in fear of the current regime, with many members of the press too frightened to participate in the media’s traditional role of scrutinising the government.
In the pursuit of an acquiescent and compliant media, the Taylor regime has attacked the media at every possible level. The regime has managed to split the media by successfully driving a wedge through the Press Union of Liberia, the governing organisation of all journalists in the country. Unified until recently, the organisation now faces a breakaway organisation comprised of pro-government media institutions which have supported the Taylor regime.
As a means of inducing support for Taylor, the government has shown itself prepared to coerce media organisations by offering financial inducements for the preparation of "congenial" media coverage. The resulting stories are then carried by an Internet service, allegedly owned by the president; thus creating the image of a country seeking to affirm its democratic credentials.
Unfortunately, behind this façade lies a country which is totally at odds with this image.
On 15 March heavily armed policemen in riot gear raided the offices of Star Radio and the Roman Catholic Radio Veritas and ordered their "immediate" closure. The police seized documents and broadcasting equipment; journalists and technicians were also manhandled by police. A government statement sought to justify the measure by referring to, "the threat to security and reconciliation process from disruptive elements who are misusing the unprecedented press freedom in Liberia". The statement added that Radio Veritas could start operating again if its managers guaranteed that it would only broadcast religious material in the future. In the past, both radio shows featured phone-in shows where callers expressed criticism of the government.
In a letter addressed to the management of Star Radio on 14 March, Information Minister Joe W. Mulbah stated that Star Radio, which is sponsored by the Swiss non-governmental organization Fondation Hirondelle, had only been granted a temporary license allowing it to broadcast during the 1997 general elections. Mulbah added that because the electoral "playing field had been levelled," there was no reason for Star Radio to continue broadcasting political talk shows, news, and interviews". However, after an examination of Star Radio’s articles of incorporation, CPJ reported that it was allowed "to disseminate useful, impartial and objective information to Liberians without time restrictions".
Star Radio was accused of waging "cyber war" in July against the country through its Internet services and given a final ultimatum to cease all operations. A statement from the Post and Telecommunications Administration Department ordered the station "to dismantle your equipment ... so as to avoid embarrassment".
The government of Liberia has also sought to pursue a vendetta against the New Democrat newspaper which has led to the loss of advertising revenue and harassment of staff. As a result of these actions, the newspaper has been forced to cease production and its editorial staff forced into hiding. Several staff members have also resigned in order to escape the attentions of government officials. Many commentators believe the actions of the government have been motivated by the New Democrat’s allegation that President Taylor was involved in the death of vice-president Enoch Dogolea; an allegation which so enraged Taylor that he declared he would "personally move" against the New Democrat’s journalists and become "ferocious" with them.
Significantly, these latest acts against the New Democrat are only the latest in a series which have financially crippled the newspaper. In April 1996, the offices of the New Democrat were burnt down and, following the 1997 elections, the government refused to accept the newspaper’s application to publish. The application was only granted after a protracted campaign on behalf of the New Democrat. After the destruction of the newspaper’s offices, President Taylor held a press conference in which he asked, "Is the New Democrat still around?".
In perhaps the most serious press freedom violation of the year in Liberia, four foreign journalists were arrested for carrying out "acts against the security of the state". Britons David Barrie and Timothy Lambon, South African Gugulakhe Radebe and Sierra Leonean Somoura Sorious were arrested in their hotel rooms in Monrovia on 18 August.
The journalists, all with Insight News Television, had been in Liberia for three weeks shooting a documentary series for the London-based Channel 4. A spokesperson for Channel 4 said the four journalists had been engaged in legitimate activities and had obtained written permission to film from the Ministry of Information.
Responding to the barrage of criticism from the international community, Deputy Information Minister Milton Teahjay told BBC Radio's "Focus on Africa" programme that the journalists were trying to implicate Liberia in diamond smuggling. He said the journalists had been given accreditation to work but not to film around the country.
Commenting on the work allegedly carried out by the journalists, Teahjay said, "then we began to get intelligence reports that they were filming in areas and conducting interviews with security personnel", Teahjay said. The accusations were swiftly denied by Channel Four who said a review of the confiscated film would support the news organisation’s view.
On 23 August, the journalists appeared before a Liberian judge and were denied bail. Judge Timothy Swope, speaking in the Criminal Court, said that bail had been denied due to the severity of the charge. "Espionage is a first degree felony. It is not bailable,", he said. Lawyers acting on behalf of the defendants argued that since their arrest the journalists had been "tortured, humiliated and abused". After the hearing Channel Four stated it would appeal to the Supreme Court in Liberia.
After intensive international pressure, from such varied sources as Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela, the footballer George Weah, the European Union, the US State Department, the British government and a number of press freedom organisations, the journalists were finally released on 25 August. However, in one of the most distasteful events in the whole affair, the journalists were only given their freedom after being forced to apologise "to the nation" on Liberian television. Speaking after leaving the country, all the journalists spoke of the sheer physical terror they had felt upon being arrested.
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