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World Press Freedom Review
2002 World Press Freedom Review
Since April 1999, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) group has been waging a war for power in Liberiaís capital, Monrovia. With the UN sanctions firmly in place, the government is getting weaker, and is failing to provide security and protection for its people. The Liberiaís government has claimed that Britain and America are aiding the LURD, through neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone. The LURD rebels have not declared any political agenda, but appear interested in destabilising the country.
As the LURD rebels massacred people at Tubmanburg and Lofa Bridge, no journalists from the capital Monrovia have been allowed to cover the war. Thus, the government media has largely reported what is already known about the LURD and its activities; human right violations are frequently cited. Over recent months, Taylorís government has been suspicious of local and foreign journalists. Liberia has been engulfed in this crisis for three years and it is used to threatening, harassing and jailing journalists with impunity.
On 12 February, police ordered The Analyst to cease publishing after it ran articles criticising the state of emergency by the government. The suspension was lifted a week later. On the same day, police arrested Stanley Seakor, the publisher and managing editor of The Analyst, and reporters James Lloyd and Ellis Togba. The police also suspended the publication. The journalists were released on the following day, when the newspaper was allowed to resume publication.
Senior police official Paul Mulbah, said action was taken because The Analyst articles were allegedly inflammatory and "not in the interest of peace". Mulbah noted two articles in particular. The first was titled, "Emergency Power Pinches Businesses: What Rights and Freedoms Can the President Suspend?" The second headlined, "Normalcy Slips Away: Liberians Drowning in Horrors". The Ministry of Information announced that anyone who commented on the state of emergency without first seeking proper government authorization would be "dealt with" under the emergency law.
A few months later, on 25 April, police again shut down The Analyst and raided the publicationís offices. Eyewitness suspected that it was related to the paperís 25 April interview with Tiawan Gongloe, a Liberian human rights lawyer who had been arrested the previous day. The article also analysed President Charles Taylorís alleged shortfalls when compared to the previous Liberian heads of state. As the war moved closer to Monrovia, in April, the government announced that press reports on fighting in the north of the country, and on other issues of national security, should be cleared with the Ministry of Information before publication or broadcast. Local journalists feared that the state of emergency will be invoked to censor critical or unfavourable reporting, as indicated by the arrests and closures at The Analyst.
On 11 May, Emmanuel Mondaye, a reporter for the Independent Inquirer, was arrested in Gbarnga by state security forces. He was detained at the National Police Headquarters in Monrovia. He was covering fighting between government forces and the LURD rebels. On 9 May, LURD rebels forced government troops to retreat and attacked Gbarnga. According to IPI reports, the government forces later regrouped and were able to retake the city after several days of gun battles. In towns close to Gbarnga there were disturbing accounts of atrocities committed by the rebels, and journalists travelling to the conflict area were prevented by the government from going beyond the Po River.
In the same month, journalist Hassan Bility received a death threat from a colonel in the Liberian National Police who warned him that those who were writing articles critical of the president would be dealt with. The threat came after The Analyst covered a speech made by leading human rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe on the role of civil society groups in bringing peace to the sub-region. As a result of the speech, Tiawan Gongloe was held in unlawful detention and tortured in April before being released without charge.
Shortly after Bilityís 24 June arrest, information minister Reginald Goodridge described him as a "central figure among those running cells in Monrovia, in collaboration with LURD terrorists and their supporters in the United States". They were accused of attempting to assassinate Taylor. The authorities also claimed that they had intercepted e-mail messages sent or received by Bility that proved his links with the rebels. The LURDs spokesperson abroad said Bility was neither an LURD member nor a sympathiser, and that, on the contrary, the journalist was very critical of the LURD.
After weeks of wrangling, on 26 June, Reginald Goodridge, Minister of Information affirmed at a press conference in Monrovia that Bility and two others were in government custody. Though Judge Winston O. Henries ordered the government to produce the accused in court by 1 July, Taylorís government was reluctant to do so. An extension date for government to comply was not honoured. This increased speculation that the journalists had been killed.
On 9 July, Judge Henries ruled that the court had no jurisdiction over the accused since they were "unlawful combatants" and were to be tried before a military court.
After spending more than an hour in police custody they were released after officials realised they were not involved in publishing the story. The News reporters, George Bardue, and editor, Jerome Dalieh, who went to see their colleagues in custody were detained for over two hours for their involvement in the report. Suku Wesseh, a Liberian staff member at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was also arrested. Wesseh is the brother of Conmany Wesseh, the exiled executive director of the Centre for Democratic Empowerment.
Since rebels pushed the country into another conflict in late 1999, Taylorís government has become intolerant of the media. It has intensified press censorship and harassed human right groups. Additionally, authorities have singled out the Mandingo and Krahn tribes for special treatment, in denial of human rights . The government claimed that many of the LURD rebel fighters are Mandingo or Krahn.
However, LURD says their group comprises of all the ethnic tribes in the country. The government alleged that LURD were "not out for peace" and had "poisoned the minds of the people". On 10 May, the lower house of parliament passed a resolution that the state of emergency should be extended for another six months. During one of the sessions, on 15 May, members of the media covering the session were asked by the speaker to leave the chamber. The exclusion of the media from the upper house of parliament hindered the mediaís right to report on parliamentary discussions in the country.
On 25 July, Liberiaís military court, Martial Court Board, gave the government a 7 August deadline to produce Hassan Bility. In August, IPI indicated its misgiving about the Liberian governments continual refusal to release Hassan Bility and others, though the military tribunal had asked the government to produce "the living bodies" of the journalists by 7 August. This followed repeated representations by human rights lawyers. Reportedly, Taylor, as commander-in-chief had not ordered the military tribunal to sit on the case. Allegedly, the secretary of the military tribunal, a Colonel Ramsey, who had signed the writs of habeas corpus, was arrested and detained. This has been seen as a failure of the Liberian government to respect both human rights and a free and independent judiciary.
On 13 August, Sam O. Dean, publisher of the Independent was detained for several hours by the Liberia National Police (LNP), the police said they were acting upon a complaint filed by Customs Commissioner, Fatu Gittens White. After the detention the newspaper staff expressed fears that they would be harassed by the LNP. A press release by the newspaper read, "We have observed that since the publication of the US $200,000 theft at the home of Commissioner White, security personnel have been visiting the offices of The Independent newspaper and tailing some staff members under the pretext of the need for the paper to assist state security in probing Commissioner Whiteís stolen money."
The Press Union of Liberia was surprised by the police action. In a release, it described the detention of Sam Dean in connection with a story on the alleged theft as unwarranted. The police dismissed suggestions that Gittens White was allegedly using the police as a cover-up for the theft of the US $200,000. Dean was later released.
The office of the Vice President of Liberia threatened to take "strong and drastic actions" against the management of The NEWS newspaper if the paper persists in publishing "defamatory and false information without seeking clarification". Indeed, vice president Moses Blahís office issued a press release emphasising that action would be taken "within the confines of the law" regarding articles in the 2 and 9 August editions of The News titled, "VP Aide's Body Stranded" and "Bad Feelings Mar VPís Aide Funeral" respectively. The editions alleged that the vice president had ill-treated former special assistant Tom Diakpo, actions which led to his untimely death. Commenting on the issue, Blah reportedly said, "This style of journalism not only contradicts norms of objectivity, truth and equal access, but also enhances the malice and treachery of those who are making these false allegations."
Showing displeasure, Eugene Nagbe, a worker in office of the vice president, called the editors "misguided people" who have defiled the purity of the media by "defaming the hard earned reputations" of reputable citizens.
On 14 August, The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) called on vice president Moses Blah to launch an immediate probe into allegations of threats on the lives of two of its members. In a complaint to the PUL, dated 12 August, journalistís Francis Lloyd and Eric Kennedy accused the Vice Presidentís Special Security Service bodyguard, Namayan Kollie, of threatening to harm them for the tributes they paid at the funeral of the late Tom Diakpo. The Union stated that the investigation was necessary in the interests of peace and harmony and to solve the bitterness that has reigned in the vice presidentís office since the demise of his special assistant. An earlier complaint received from the vice presidentís Chief of Office Staff, Lenn Eugene Nagbe, against The NEWS newspaper was sent to the Union.
On 23 August, The News reported that the Catholic owned Radio Veritas had begun a new broadcasting season on both FM and shortwave. The station had also increased its broadcasting time by six hours. The station popularly called, "The Voice of Truth" now broadcasts 18 hours. In addition, Radio Veritas is to broadcast programs on civic education, human rights, HIV/Aids, tropical issues, clear and factual news. The focus is said to be on listeners in rural Liberia and beyond its borders.
Meanwhile, Liberian Journalist, Musue Noha Haddad has reportedly received the United Nations Association Human Rights Award in Washington, D.C. According to a dispatch from the United States, Haddad was recommended by the Lawyerís Committee for Human Rights. Stephanie Robinson, Staff Attorney for the NGOs Washington office said, "Ms. Haddad has remained consistent in highlighting human rights situations in her country despite attempts to discredit her extraordinary work". In the midst of the troubles for the media, in June, two Liberian journalists, Abdullah Dukuly and Noha Musue Haddad received the Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett awards.
Dukuly, former editor-in-chief of The NEWS, was one of the journalists arrested and charged with espionage in February 2001. The arrest followed an article in The NEWS that the Taylorís had spent US $50,000 on helicopter spare parts at a time when civil servants had not been paid for months. Authorities arrested the journalists claiming that they were "revealing national defence information to a foreign power for the purposes of injuring Liberia..." The government alleged Haddad was a CIA spy, following articles she wrote about a visit to the United States in 1998. In the fall of 2000, she accepted a fellowship at the University of Maryland. In February 2001, when many of her colleagues at The NEWS were imprisoned, she became their advocate in the international community.
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