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World Press Freedom Review
Throughout the year, there were a series of attacks on media from groups ranging from angry students to members of the security services. Attempting to solve the problem of attacks by police officers, the government appointed a "blue-ribbon" committee to investigate these incidents and provide recommendations for ensuring that there is no repetition.
Aside from the physical assaults, one of the main problems this year was an ongoing battle between the media covering President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The war of words escalated into threats to ban certain media from attending functions and accusations from the president that the media was practicing a form of journalism that sensationalized events.
However, so far, the Liberian government has failed to acknowledge the possibility that it is their own treatment of the media, allied to their harsh words about journalists, that might be fuelling and encouraging attacks. At present, there is a need for both sides to reflect on the consequences of their actions and to ensure that their future relationship is based on the acceptance of each other’s role in Liberian society.
In a violent assault on 20 January, four unidentified men attacked Alfred Kaine, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly newspaper The Parrot, in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. During the attack, Kaine was whipped and dragged along the street leaving him with bruises to the body and an injury to his head. His attackers accused him of writing stories that interfered with their political interests. Prior to the attack, the editor had noticed a jeep following his car. The jeep then drove in front of him; he was then ordered to step out of the car and beaten.
On 20 April, two reporters, Charles B. Yates of the privately-owned daily The Inquirer and Morris Gayboe of the private daily The Informer were beaten by police officers when reporting on the eviction of street vendors in Monrovia. On arriving at the scene of the eviction, the journalists were told that they did not have authorisation to take photographs at the scene. Ignoring the police officers, the journalists continued taking photographs; several policemen then beat them.
Seakor was told that his headline of 24 April titled, "Contempt Epidemic" on contempt charges by the Senate against two government ministers overstated the case because it had only happened once. Kamara was told that an article on Senate salaries should have used Liberian dollars and not US dollars, while Best was informed that an article on Nimba county had annoyed the senator representing the area.
In an exercise of judicial power, on 27 April, the sixth judicial court ordered the management of the weekly Telegraph to appear in court. According to the writ of summons, which claimed damages of US$1 million, issued on the previous day, the newspaper had made defamatory statements against the plaintiff in an article dated 13 April and titled, "Greaves, LPRC, Telegraph Draw Battle Lines—A case of Witch hunt." The article said the plaintiff had threatened not to do business with the newspaper. Responding to the allegations, the management at the newspaper said they had grave doubts whether they would be able to meet the cost of legal representation.
The order appeared in a memorandum from Benjamin N.Tangay, Assistant Director General for News and Public Affairs (ADG) and clearly stated that all such stories should first be sent to his office. It also said, "Any reporter or newscaster's failure to adhere to this reminder will leave the office of the ADG with no alternative but to institute stern administrative measure(s) against violator(s)." The statement also offered the opinion that "LBS news bulletins are not [a] courtroom for prosecuting government officials and other personalities in society."
On 12 June, bodyguards protecting President Johnson-Sirleaf physically manhandled a number of journalists leaving one reporter with an injured neck. The assault took place at the International Airport when an aid to the president told journalists that she would only be talking to three of the eight media organizations present at the airport. All three of the media chosen held some form of allegiance to the president or were state-owned.
Reacting to international concern regarding the numerous assaults on journalists in the first half of 2006, the president announced the decision to appoint a presidential committee to examine the situation. The members of the committee included Deputy Information Minister Elizabeth Hoff and lawyer Beyan Howard, the co-chair, as well as George Williams of Liberia Democracy Watch, Sekou Konneh of the Talking Drum studio and Ambrose Sieh. After documenting the cases, the committee said it would report its findings to the president.
Although the decision to set up a "blue-ribbon" committee to investigate assaults on journalists was welcomed, the war of words between the media and the president’s staff continued in late August. At this time, the Executive Mansion announced that it was seriously considering excluding certain media from coverage of the president in order to avoid what were described as "distortions." The comments were made by Presidential Press Secretary Cyrus Badio on 21 August and he hinted that action would be taken against those media who continued to report misleading information on the work of the presidential office.
On 10 September, the local authority in Margibi County cancelled a talk show on the community radio broadcaster, Radio Kakata. The cancellation was due to continuing hostility between the supporters of President Johnson-Sirleaf’s party, the Unity Party, and the political party of losing presidential candidate George Weah, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Both political parties were fighting a run-off by-election in the county.
According to news reports, the CDC had book airtime with the radio station, but wanted additional time, which would have overrun into the time booked by the Unity party. The decision to cancel was taken because of worries that the fighting over airtime could lead to clashes between supporters. Adding to the tense atmosphere, the radio station’s manager, Cris Karjou, also claimed that a group of men had entered the station and made a threat against his life.
In September, the Special Presidential Committee tasked with examining assaults on journalists published its findings. The issue of the report led to a growing controversy over whether journalists named in the report had actually been invited by the committee to provide testimony.
According to four journalists named in the report—Patrick Hunder of Truth FM, Abbas Dorley of the New Democrat newspaper, Jallah Grayfields of Radio Veritas, and Olando Zeongar of The Heritage newspaper—they had not been invited to give testimony before the committee.
In its recommendations, the committee said there should be constant discussions and interaction between the media and security personnel in order to avoid the types of misunderstanding that had arisen throughout the year. The committee went on to say that there was a need for the development of a cordial relationship between the two and that damaged media equipment should be replaced at the cost of the security services.
However, while the report appeared to be an earnest attempt at solving a serious problem in Liberia, bitterness in the two camps welled up once again in late September when the Unity party called some reporters, "Opposition journalists" and threatened retaliation. The comment was made by the chairman of the party, Dr. Charles Clarke, who said some journalists were "card carrying members of opposition political parties." Once again, there was little attempt to define the exact nature of the retaliation threatened against these offending journalists.
In early December, Managing Editor Gibson Jerue and Editor-in-Chief Lyndon Ponnie of the Public Agenda newspaper received death threats by persons believed to be agents of the SSS. At the time, the newspaper was investigating the murder of an SSS officer at his home and had interviewed the man’s sister who described the investigation into his murder as a "mockery." The threats were made in calls to their mobile phones and on a local radio station.
In what appeared to be a government-orchestrated attempt to influence the media at the end of the year, there were reports that officials had given US$500 donations to certain media institutions as a so-called "Christmas gifts." The accusation came from publishers under the title Concerned Publishers of Liberia.
Based on information from the group, the money was sent in a number of Christmas cards. The group also said it was a "clever attempt to undermine the credibility of the independent media, thereby diverting the attention of the media from independently and fairly reporting . . . events in the country." Journalists also questioned where the money had come from given the fact that there appeared to be no appropriation in the budget for this type of disbursement.
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