New York, August 22, 2000 — A four-man television news crew from Britain’s Channel Four, in Liberian police custody since last Friday, was indicted yesterday, August 21, on espionage charges. Liberian authorities claim the journalists entered the country to produce a “damaging and injurious” documentary about the country.
The Channel 4 team—award-winning Sierra Leonean journalist Sorious Samura; British director David Barrie; British cameraman Tim Lambon, and South African cameraman Gugu Radebe— appeared in a Monrovia court without legal representation, according to CPJ sources.
When the team was arrested last Friday, August 18, they had been in Liberia for about three weeks, filming and conducting interviews for a TV documentary about the country. Samura and his colleagues had requested an interview with Liberian president Charles G. Taylor, who is widely suspected of supplying rebel forces in neighboring Sierra Leone with weapons and logistical support in exchange for diamonds. (Liberian authorities reject this charge.)
Yesterday’s indictment stated that the Channel 4 team was trying to substantiate British and U.S. allegations about Liberian government complicity in the Sierra Leonean diamond trade. According to the indictment, the four-man team entered the country with “criminal design” and “began to carry out interviews and filming in the sensitive areas of the Republic of Liberia.” The state prosecutor cited as evidence a pre-shooting script which, he claimed, indicated that the journalists had a “preconceived plan” to undermine Liberian state security.
Speaking to the BBC on August 20, Liberian information minister Milton Teahjay said that “instructions from the State Department and perhaps what appears to be the British Foreign Office” were found among the journalists’ documents. “That is typical espionage,” the minister said.
The journalists were taken to court without the knowledge of their Liberian lawyer, who was meeting with Justice Minister Eddington Varmah at the time, according to Channel 4 correspondent Lindsey Hilsum.
After the charges were read, the four reporters were taken to Monrovia Central Prison. If convicted, they face up to ten years in prison. Defense lawyers applied for bail today, but the presiding judge declined to consider the request before tomorrow.
Meanwhile, sources close to the jailed Channel 4 team fear the next hearing may not be held before Friday. The government has scheduled an anti-British demonstration for tomorrow, and Thursday is Liberian Flag Day, a public holiday.
The Channel Four team had been in Liberia since early August. On August 7, the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism granted them written permission to conduct interviews, take photographs, and make video recordings. According to CPJ’s sources, the permit was signed by Jeff Mutada, assistant minister for public affairs.
Even so, police apparently entered the hotel rooms of the journalists on Friday, August 18, seizing all their equipment and videotapes. At around 11:30 p.m. on Friday, all four were arrested in their hotel while they were meeting with Sierra Leone’s ambassador to Liberia.
The following day, Saturday, August 19, Justice Minister Eddington Varmah held a press conference, during which he acknowledged that the government had seized the team’s videotapes. According to news reports, Varmah described the videotapes as “damaging” to the government of Liberia and to the security of the state, and charged that they were “designed to present false and malicious information to foreign powers.”