Four journalists arrested, charged with espionage

New York, February 22 –— Police in Monrovia yesterday arrested four journalists from Liberia’s The News and charged them with espionage, apparently in reprisal for a February 21 story that challenged government spending on helicopter repairs, Christmas cards, and souvenirs.

The page one story questioned the government’s allocation of US$50,000 for helicopter repairs, and drew attention to another US$23,000 that the government had recently spent on Christmas cards and souvenirs. The article challenged the rationale behind such expenditures at a time when Liberia’s social services have fallen into disrepair and civil servants have gone unpaid for months.

Acting on a writ issued by the Monrovia City Court, police came to the newspaper’s offices at 3 p.m. on February 21 and arrested News reporter Bobby Tapson, author of the article. Later that day, they arrested managing editor Joseph Bartuah, editor-in-chief Abdullah Dukuly, and news editor Jerome Dalieh.

According to the News, the court’s writ alleged that Tapson’s article contained sensitive national security information that was published with the intent of injuring Liberia in the event of military or diplomatic confrontation with foreign powers. The four journalists were charged with espionage and denied bail, on grounds that bail is not granted in espionage cases.

Although lawyers for the journalists filed new bail requests with the City Court, a hearing was put off until Monday. The journalists will have to spend the weekend in jail, according to local sources.

The News is known for its independent editorial stance. It has suffered frequent official threats and harassment in the past for its criticism of President Charles Taylor and his government.

Liberia is currently one of Africa’s worst press freedom offenders. Last August, four journalists from Britain’s Channel 4 television network were charged with espionage while trying to film a documentary in Liberia, for which they had obtained permission from Liberian authorities. All four were subsequently released, after the incident attracted international press coverage and condemnation from human rights organizations worldwide.