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World Press Freedom Review
2001 World Press Freedom Review
Unmoved by his disgraceful human rights record, President Charles Taylor has continued to suppress the media and has shown scant regard for the due process of law when arresting journalists or ordering the closure of media outlets. The last 12 months have seen a steady wave of attacks on the media. There are signs reports on the war in the north of the country have so unnerved the president that he is determined to erase the last vestiges of the independent media in Liberia.
When reviewing the situation, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president is pursuing a clearly defined plan of silencing the media. The twin elements of this "programme of silence" appear to be the suppression of the printed press and the banning of all independent radio stations with a popular following in the country.
In pursuit of this plan, the president has arrested a number of journalists, shut-down newspapers, passed a new order censoring the content of articles and banned the last independent radio station operating on the short-wave band. All of these acts have led to international protest from groups fearing the voice of the critical media in Liberia is about to be snuffed out.
The government of President Charles Taylor continues to arrest journalists for commenting on military matters. On 21 February, editor-in-chief Joseph Bartuah, news editor Abdulai Dukaly, senior reporter, Bobby Tapson and news editor, Jerome Dalieh, all from The News, were arrested by security forces in Liberia and charged with espionage.
The decision to arrest the journalists followed an article written by Tapson in the newspaper which said the Liberian government had spent US $50,000 on the repair of a helicopter and a further US $23,000 on the purchase of Christmas cards and souvenirs. Members of the security forces claim the article contained defence secrets and revealed "…national defence information to a foreign power for the purpose of injuring Liberia… in the event of a military and diplomatic confrontation."
After being charged, the journalists were denied bail on the grounds they were being charged with a capital offence. Despite this initial rejection, lawyers acting on behalf of the journalists filed a new request for bail. However, this meant the four were forced to spend the weekend in custody.
In a sign of the legal hurdles ahead, on 2 March, the state applied to move the case from the city court to a higher court known as Criminal Court A. The decision voided all previous applications before the lower court and forced lawyers to reapply for bail. Moreover, because of an outstanding murder trial still being heard in the higher court, the lawyers were prevented from applying for bail immediately and forced to wait until the trial had finished. The effect of this was to prolong the journalists’ detention.
After the arrest of the journalists, the attention of the government turned to the newspaper itself. On 22 February, one day after the four journalists were arrested, officials shut down The News and three other independent dailies - the New National, the Analyst and the Monrovia Guardian. In closing down the media outlets the government claimed they had failed to pay "back taxes". As an example, the government claimed that The News owed US $4,600.
In answer to government claims, sources at the newspapers stated that many of the country’s taxes were suspended during Liberia’s civil war which ended in 1997. Indeed, when first told of the allegations regarding taxes, staff at The News were surprised and they alleged that the Finance Ministry had informed them of 13 types of outstanding taxation which they did not know existed.
Despite mounting criticism from press freedom organisations, the trial of the four journalists was scheduled for 26 March in Monrovia. However, it appears there was no actual trial and the journalists were released after being held for over a month. The release was thought to have resulted from the chorus of international protests and the offer of written apologies from the journalists concerned.
Speaking of his imprisonment, The News' editor-in-chief Abdullah Dukuly said, "We are happy to have been released… But we didn't do anything to warrant this detention. We wrote a simple story about government expenditures. We didn't know we could go to jail for it."
Media reports of fighting in the north of the country were used as an excuse to censor the media in late April. On 27 April, the ministry of information stated that all articles relating to the fighting and other issues concerning national security should be cleared prior to being published or broadcast. AFP quoted Information Minister Reginald Goodridge as saying that the order prevented "disinformation that could cause doubt and panic in the public."
Commenting on the order, local journalists said that the government could use the expression "national security issues" to censor critical or unfavourable content. Because of these fears, a number of heads of media outlets met with the information minister to clarify the issues which the government was seeking to review.
In hindsight, government actions in April could be seen as the start of a general attempt to suppress the media. This view gains additional weight if the events of July are taken into account. During this month, President Taylor decided to prevent short-wave broadcasts of Radio Veritas.
On 2 July, Minister of Post and Telecommunications Emma Wuor informed Radio Veritas that it was forbidden to broadcast on short wave. The decision of the government department left KISS FM, owned by President Taylor, and Radio Liberia International as the only stations able to broadcast political news across Liberia.
When the ban was announced, the radio station was experiencing technical problems and was unable to broadcast; but management at the station were still paying fees to air programmes. Despite this, the station received a letter from Wuor stating that only those "short-wave stations in active operation would be allowed to operate in Liberia for the time being". Responding to criticism, Goodridge said that by airing political programming, Radio Veritas had violated its permit, which only allowed the station to broadcast religious shows.
Prior to the ban, Radio Veritas had aired several shows critical of President Taylor's government, including the controversial program "Topical Issues." The ban was the second time in two years that President Taylor sought to ban private radio stations.
Subsequently, there were discussions between the management of the radio station and government officials. A statement was then released by the ministry of information which said both sides "had agreed that they will be available to exchange views on issues of [a] controversial nature to ensure factual and balanced reporting."
The month of August also saw the arrest of a journalist for "criminal malevolence". According to information from RSF, on 20 August, Sam O. Dean, editor of the Monrovia Guardian was arrested by the Monrovian police and taken to their headquarters. The arrest was apparently founded on an article which stated that police chief Paul Mulbah had been summoned by the House of Representatives for "explanations" after a representative accused him of flogging her.
A complaint was also made by Mulbah to the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) about the the newspapers "sensationalism" and "misleading" reports. Due to the article, Dean spent two nights in detention sleeping on the floor. In addition, colleagues of the journalist were denied visitation rights.
Pressure on independent radio stations continued in September with the unlawful detention of another journalist while broadcasting. On 17 September, T-max Jlateh, a journalist with private radio station DC 101.1., was allegedly arrested for airing comments by listeners which applauded the 11 September attacks on the United States.
During the talk show "DC Talk", police forced their way into the independent radio station and arrested Jlateh. Police officers evacuated staff, thus effectively closing the station down. Upon being arrested, Jlateh was taken to police headquarters. No arrest warrant was presented during the incident.
A few hours later, DC 101.1. was allowed to reopen; but police continued to detain the journalist and did not release him until the following day. Before the raid, the government had threatened to arrest and prosecute anyone found selling photographs of Osama bin Laden.
At the end of the year, the government continued in its attempt to suppress the printed media, The News in particular. On 20 November, police visited the offices of The News. Although they failed to produce a warrant, they ordered staff to leave the premises and told the editor the newspaper was being closed because of a failure to pay taxes. On the same day, police arrested Wilson Tarpeh, the chairman of The News’ board of directors. The Monrovia Guardian was closed for the same reason.
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