Conditions for the Liberian press have greatly improved since President Charles Taylor stepped down and accepted exile in Nigeria in August 2003 amid a bloody rebellion. Taylor's departure paved the way for peace accords between the main rebel groups and the government, bringing relative stability to the country. However, years of civil conflict and brutal repression under Taylor have wreaked havoc on the media.
During his six-year rule, Taylor ruthlessly cracked down on opposition parties and civil-society activists to consolidate his power, and he used a combination of censorship, intimidation, and brutal violence to keep the press corps in line. In 2003, with fighting intensifying between Taylor's forces and the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the local press largely shut down as journalists went into hiding for fear of being targeted by either side or hit in the crossfire. Several media companies were attacked and looted during the war, and tens of thousands of dollars in equipment was lost or damaged.
As part of the 2003 peace accords, Gyude Bryant, a former businessman and activist for democratic reform, was chosen to head a transitional government composed, in part, of representatives from rebel groups and former members of Taylor's government. In his inauguration speech in October 2003, Bryant declared, "This government will encourage and exercise the freedom of speech and of the press, which constitutes one of the basic tenets of good governance."
However, stark challenges remain. While no journalists were imprisoned in 2004, many faced criminal charges under repressive laws. In January, four journalists and a former business manager from the private weekly Telegraph were accused of "criminal malevolence," a charge sometimes used by members of Taylor's government to harass aggressive journalists. The charges were brought over an article alleging that National Security Minister Losay Kendor had embezzled public funds. The case was referred to the Criminal Court and remained pending at year's end.
In July, the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC) pressed criminal malevolence charges against Editor Crispin Tulay and Associate Editor Cheechiay Jablasone of the private Monrovia-based weekly Vanguard. The charge stemmed from an article accusing the LPRC of using an illegal oil deal with the West Oil Company to finance "Taylor's terror machine," according to local sources. The case was transferred to the Criminal Court and was still pending at year's end.
In October, 140 media experts and local journalists attended the National Conference on Media Law and Policy, hosted in Monrovia by the Information Ministry, the Press Union of Liberia, and UNESCO. Among other recommendations, participants stressed that criminal sanctions for press offenses should be removed, in line with international standards. Participants also recommended that an effective self-regulatory mechanism be established to monitor the media. Following the conference, an expert group was convened, including government members, to work on legal reforms.
Since the end of Taylor's regime and the violent conflict that accompanied it, threats and attacks against journalists from government security forces and other groups have decreased considerably. However, while security for journalists improved significantly in 2004 as U.N. peacekeepers extended their control across the country, a number of attacks were reported.
In February, a member of the former rebel group LURD assaulted Mike Jabeteh, a reporter for the private Monrovia-based daily The Analyst. The assault occurred in the town of Tubmanburg, west of Monrovia, where Jabeteh had gone to cover LURD's ongoing voluntary disarmament. According to local sources, the LURD member accused Jabeteh of "reporting bad things" about LURD's civilian leader.
In August, another Analyst reporter, J. Nathaniel Daygbor, was beaten by a police officer when he tried to report on a scuffle between a resident of his neighborhood in Monrovia and a U.N. soldier. According to local news reports, the officer was suspended for one month following an investigation by the Justice Ministry.
With a national literacy rate under 50 percent, according to UNESCO, radio is Liberia's most important source of information. In September, local journalists were alarmed when the privately run Ducor Broadcasting Corporation (DC) suspended its news director, Raymond Zarbay. According to local sources, the suspension stemmed from a report that transitional government head Bryant was booed during a trip to Buchanan, south of Monrovia. Local journalists associations protested the suspension, pointing out that DC Chief Executive Officer Fred Bass Golokeh was one of Bryant's advisers. Zarbay resigned in October, characterizing his suspension as "illegal and only intended to deny the public needed information for their survival and to suppress press freedom."
In November 2003, Bryant lifted a three-year ban imposed by Taylor on the immensely popular Star Radio, an initiative of the Switzerland-based Hirondelle Foundation, which has won several awards for its media development projects in conflict zones. Despite hopes that the station would reopen in 2004, a lack of funding prevented it from going back on the air.
In addition to attacks on the press, local journalists say that financial difficulties and a lack of training are the largest obstacles they face. Despite several internationally funded training projects, a significant number of journalists have not received any formal journalism training, according to local sources. In addition, the country's bleak economic situation means that few media outlets are profitable.