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World Press Freedom Review
2003 World Press Freedom Review
Despite being blessed with natural resources, Liberia remains one of the poorest countries in Africa, and one of the most politically unstable on the continent. A comprehensive appreciation of Liberia's anguish depends on an understanding of the political and media situation in the country.
As coordinated rebel shelling attacks left civilians and the Liberian government helpless, the media was once again left at the mercy of marauding warring factions. The situation also heightened fears in a region that has experienced wars for decades. The string of political attacks also raised questions regarding Taylor's government, which dominated the country's media and prevented news broadcasts about the war. Moreover, there were reports that the government's stringent stand against the media was due to a fear of attacks by the rebels.
On 9 March, four Liberian journalists -- Grody Dorbor (editor) of the Inquirer newspaper, Oscar Dolo, Nyahn Flomo and William Quiwea, local correspondents of the radio station Talking Drum Studio-Liberia, were reported missing for more than two weeks in the central part of the country, where government forces battled with rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development ("LURD").
Allegedly, no investigation into the disappearance of the four journalists had been carried out. Dorbor and Quiwea disappeared in Zwedru, in the southeastern county of Grand Gedeh; Flomo disappeared in Ganta, in the east-central region of Nimba; Dolo, who was based in Gbarnga, in the central county of Bong, fled to Ganta after fighting broke out. Apparently, the newspaper and the radio station have not heard from the journalists since LURD attacked several provincial capitals. On 9 April, Grody Dorbor contacted his family to inform them that he had sought refuge on the Ivorian border, but wanted to return to Monrovia. However, his three colleagues are still reported missing as this goes to press.
On 10 June, Stanley McGill, of the independent paper The News, fled his home near Monrovia for fear of being attacked by members of President Charles Taylor's Anti-Terrorist Unit ("ATU"). The united had already targeted him on several occasions. In a letter, RSF secretary-general Robert Ménard said, "McGill has been repeatedly harassed by the ATU probably because he is a journalist."
According to various media sources, armed men, thought to be Taylor's ATU unit, attacked McGill and confiscated his radio and mobile phone in April 2002. This year, on 27 May, three men in ATU uniforms trailed him, threatening him with their guns; they stole his personal belongings and warned him they would return. On 6 June this year, ATU gunmen visited him again, attacked him and seized his laptop computer and important papers. McGill went into hiding after neighbours told him the ATU men said they would "get him at all costs."
During the same month, Emmanuel Todo, head of the National Communication Bureau at the Ministry of Information closed six FM amateur radio stations. Todo reasoned, "the motives and scopes of operations of these stations were not clear." However, the Association of Amateur Radio Stations said the stations had been authorised to operate by the government.
On 19 July, French photographer Patrick Robert, of the Sygma Corbis Agency on assignment for Time magazine was shot and seriously wounded in the chest and arm during skirmishes between government troops and rebel forces in Monrovia. He was flown out of the Liberia on 23 July aboard a French military plane sent by officials of French forces stationed in Côte d'Ivoire. Robert was treated by Red Cross surgeons and transferred to the Percy Military Hospital in Clamart, near Paris.
Sadly, Liberia's warring factions do not comply with the Geneva Conventions that protect civilians (including journalists) in war zones. Since the beginning of the war, many Liberian journalists have been forced to flee the capital after being threatened by the warring factions engaged in violent fighting in and around Monrovia. According to the BBC, at least 500 civilians have been killed since fighting resumed this year to force Taylor out of power.
The Liberian Institute of Journalism ("LIJ"), a non-profit, non-partisan journalism training organization based in Monrovia, also suffered the bitterness of war. The LIJ was ransacked and its computers looted by armed men involved in the fighting. LIJ Executive Director Vinnie Hodges says, "We had a journalists' computer literacy programme that had trained over 100 Liberian journalists in computer education. We had 25 computers. Our production studio that was used to train broadcast journalists and produce programs for our rural community radio project was completely looted."
The LIJ is seeking donations, computers, books and production equipment to continue its training program in a country where a ragtag army and drugged boy-soldiers hold the freedom of civilians to ransom. LURD and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL, another rebel group in the south-eastern region border with Ivory Coast) sent Taylor into exile to Calabar, Nigeria on 12 August. Taylor's exile was the result of an escalation in the fighting in June when militias loyal to former president Taylor tried to push the rebels to the outskirts of the capital, Monrovia. As a consequence, around 200,000 people fled their homes and sought refuge in schools, empty buildings and the national football stadium.
The wave of killings and outbreak of disease prompted international calls for Taylor to step down. U.S. President George Bush said, "President Taylor needs to step down, so that his country can be spared further bloodshed." Taylor, wanted in neighbouring Sierra Leone for war crimes and crimes against humanity, offered to step aside to make way for a transitional government.
During the negotiations for Taylor's removal, the U.S. reportedly offered a two million dollar bounty for his arrests and for him to stand trial in the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone. In a statement read on 4 June by David M. Crane, the American chief prosecutor for the Special Court, said, "Taylor bears the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international humanitarian law within the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996."
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