Attacks on the Press 1999: Liberia

The Liberian press has been given to self-censorship ever since Charles Taylor and his National People’s Party won a landslide victory in the July 1997 elections that officially ended the war that Taylor himself started on Christmas Eve 1989. Although local media have criticized the Taylor government on social-service and devel-opment issues, they have generally avoided sensitive security issues such as Taylor’s alleged support for Revolutionary United Front rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone (an involvement that Taylor has consistently denied).

President Taylor owns two radio stations (KISS FM and Radio Liberia International) and a monthly newspaper, The Patriot, all organs of blatant party propaganda. Numerous independent newspapers and four private radio stations operate in Liberia, but not all enjoy equal and fair access to government information. Star Radio, an independent station managed by a Swiss nongovernmental organization, Fondation Hirondelle, remained unable to broadcast outside Monrovia following the cancellation of its shortwave license in October 1998 (although the government subsequently allowed the station to resume posting its news bulletins on the Internet).

In April, armed dissidents based in neighboring Guinea attacked the Liberian border town of Voinjama, in Lofa County, and temporarily kidnapped 17 foreign and Liberian aid workers. In August, Liberian dissidents again attacked and captured several towns in Lofa County and kidnapped six foreign-aid workers. Liberia accused Guinea of supporting the dissidents’ incursions, a charge the Guinean government repeatedly denied. On both occasions, local journalists mainly reported the government’s statements, giving much less attention to dissident spokesmen.

In August, one local radio station abruptly cut off a broadcast of the popular Voice of America (VOA) “Nightline Africa” program featuring an interview with a dissident representative. Another VOA program, “Daybreak Africa,” was interrupted the following day when it broadcast the same interview. The announcer blamed a “technical problem.”

Although the government of President Charles Taylor did not directly censor coverage of the fighting, many journalists said they were afraid to antagonize the infamous state security forces, which waged a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and even murder against all President Taylor’s critics, including journalists. Reporters with the independent Concord Times, often outspoken on issues of government corruption, were repeatedly harassed and threatened by state security agents. CPJ received many other reports of threatened journalists, but in most cases the victims wished to remain anonymous because they feared further persecution.

The local press was also cautious in its coverage of a rebel insurgency in northern Liberia. The inaccessibility of the area, as well as logistical problems, made it difficult to get firsthand information on events, and journalists often depended on secondary sources. Another widespread problem, according to the Press Union of Liberia, was “the constant refusal on the part of some government functionaries to grant interviews or dispose themselves to media inquiries. . .Consequently, media reports sometimes lacked balance. Ironically, however, these very taciturn officials who refused to comment when first contacted by journalists later issued rebuttals, claiming that the reportage was untrue.”

According to one Liberian journalist, the unbalanced reporting of the insurgency was due to the disgust felt by society at large at “yet another group of self-proclaimed freedom fighters with their own selfish agenda.”

In a bizarre July incident, a total of 14 Monrovia-based Liberian journalists were arrested and eventually charged with theft for their alleged complicity in the diversion and sale of a consignment of “contaminated chicken” from Europe. The criminal court subsequently dropped all charges against the journalists as well as a police officer charged along with them.

December 29
Sarkilay Kantan, The Concord Times HARASSED
Isaac Menyongai, The Concord Times HARASSED

Police arrested Kantan and Menyongai, respectively news editor and reporter with the independent biweekly The Concord Times, at their offices in the capital, Monrovia. The police raid followed a complaint by Alexander Kulue, head of the state-run Liberian Refugee Agency, that the newspaper was guilty of “criminal malevolence” for alleging, in a series of December articles, that he was guilty of fraud and corruption.

Four other journalists from The Concord Times managed to evade arrest warrants issued in response to Kulue’s complaint.

Kantan and Menyongai were detained overnight and appeared in a Monrovia criminal court the following day. The judge ruled that the alleged offense was not criminal and that any action should be pursued in the civil courts. All charges were subsequently dropped.