Attacks on the Press 2000: Liberia

THREE YEARS SINCE HIS NATIONAL PATRIOTIC PARTY (NPP) came to power after multiparty elections ended a brutal, eight-year civil war, Liberian president Charles Taylor has become one of Africa’s fiercest enemies of the press.

On March 15, for example, Taylor’s government shut down the independent station Star Radio and suspended the Catholic Church-owned Radio Veritas. The president’s office later charged that the two broadcasters were responsible for “the rising incidence of inflammatory comments and radio programming” and that they were being manipulated by “agents provocateurs” to create security problems in the country.

In response, the independent press launched a news blackout on government activities. Authorities then threatened to punish dissident newspapers with tax audits and by revoking press credentials and withholding government advertising. Police also detained Press Union of Liberia president Suah Deddeh after he charged that officers had stolen broadcasting equipment during the raid on the two stations. He was released a day later.

On March 22, the ban on Radio Veritas was lifted after the Taylor government announced that the station’s directors had agreed to “ensure that all tenets of professionalism are adhered to.” But when the daily News reported the station’s return in an article headlined, “Amidst Mounting Tension, Government Reverses Decision,” Taylor quickly called a press conference to denounce the paper. The president castigated The News for being “anti-patriotic” and for “abusing freedom of the press, creating hatred in the society, and preventing investors from coming to the country.” Taylor also pledged that Star Radio would “not come back on the air again.”

Star Radio remained silent at year’s end, leaving Liberian airwaves to KISS FM and Radio Liberia International, both owned by Taylor. (Radio Veritas, the Baptist Church-owned station ELWA, and the private radio station Ducor FM continued to air, but with limited broadcasting range and increased self-censorship.)

The authorities also enforced strict licensing requirements for print media, declining to renew the licenses of at least three independent newspapers, including the Monrovia daily New Democrat. Taylor had vowed in July to become “ferocious with the New Democrat” after the popular daily questioned the circumstances surrounding the sudden June 23 death of Vice President Enoch Dogolea. After an increasingly ominous series of threats, several staffers resigned. And in September, the newspaper’s entire remaining staff abruptly fled the country.

Taylor’s touchiness was common knowledge in Liberia, but it took the August 18 arrest of four journalists from Britain’s Channel Four television network to alert the world about his systematic assault on free speech. The four men (Sorious Samora, David Barrie, Tim Lambon, and Gugulakhe Radebe) had entered Liberia to film a documentary about the sensitive topic of Liberian support for rebel forces in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Liberian authorities argued that the journalists had entered the country with “criminal designs” to gather “false and malicious information.” All four journalists were released on August 25, after sending a brief handwritten letter of apology to President Charles Taylor. Channel 4 also sent a letter of apology to Taylor, but insisted that the crew was in the country to make a documentary, not to spy. The incident caused an international outcry.

Star Radio
Radio Veritas

Citing public security concerns, the Liberian government shut down Star Radio, a station sponsored by the U.S. and Dutch governments, and suspended Radio Veritas, which is owned by the Catholic Church. A statement from the office of President Charles Taylor defended the decision to silence the two broadcasters, citing an alleged “rising incidence of inflammatory comments and radio programming.” The government accused “agents provocateurs” of using the stations to create security problems in a country still recovering from a brutal eight-year civil war.

In the morning hours of March 15, heavily armed police officers in riot gear occupied the Star Radio compound and sealed its gate, according to CPJ sources in Monrovia. Star Radio’s Internet-based news service was also interrupted. Under the command of Director of Police Paul Mulbah, the troops seized documents and broadcast equipment, and also manhandled journalists and technicians. Several armed officers from the Police Special Operation Division were posted in front of the two stations.

The government later announced that Radio Veritas could resume operations if it provided a written guarantee to broadcast only religious material.

In a March 17 letter to President Charles Taylor, CPJ condemned the closures. On March 22, the government lifted the ban on Radio Veritas after the station’s directors met with the ministers of information and telecommunications. The Ministry of Information later announced that the meeting had “resolved that the government and Veritas [would] cooperatively ensure that all tenets of professionalism are adhered to.” The ban on Star Radio remained in place, however.

At the beginning of August, the government ordered Star Radio to dismantle its equipment within 48 hours, claiming that the station’s U.S. and Dutch sponsors were responsible for the broadcast of “hate messages.” The government reversed the decision a few hours before the grace period expired.

Star Radio remained closed at year’s end, although President Taylor promised that the station would resume broadcasting. Because foreign ownership of media is illegal in Liberia, the government was apparently negotiating with Star Radio to replace the foreign sponsors with Liberian owners.

Suah Deddeh, Press Union of Liberia

State security forces arrested Deddeh, president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and a free-lance journalist, as he left the Executive Mansion, office of Liberian president Charles Taylor, where he and other PUL members had gone to protest the government’s earlier closure of two privately owned radio stations, Star Radio and Radio Veritas (see March 15 Liberia case).

Deddeh was driven to an unknown location. The PUL issued a statement expressing concern for his safety. Police later announced that Deddeh was “assisting” their investigation into allegations that the government had improperly confiscated Star Radio’s broadcast equipment. (Deddeh made the allegations on the phone-in talk show “DC Talk” on DC Radio 101.01 FM, a small, Monrovia-based station.

Deddeh was released on the afternoon of March 18. While he was never charged with any crime, police said they might “need his help” in the future and told him that he was not allowed to leave the country.

Sorious Samura, Channel 4
Tim Lambon, Channel 4
Gugulakhe Radebe,
Channel 4
David Barrie,
Channel 4

Police in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, arrested a four-member news team from Britain’s Channel 4 television network and charged each with espionage. The team consisted of Samura, an award-winning Sierra Leonean journalist; Barrie and Lambon, both British nationals; and Radebe, a citizen of South Africa. Police also seized the journalists’ equipment and videotapes, even though they had a written permit from the government allowing them to report in Liberia.

The Channel 4 news team entered Liberia on valid visas in early August. On August 7, they received written permission from the government to film a TV documentary about the country. According to CPJ sources, the permit was signed by Assistant Minister for Public Affairs Jeff Mutada. The permit explicitly allowed the news team to conduct interviews, take photographs, and make video recordings.

On August 18, police entered the hotel rooms of the Channel 4 team and seized their equipment and videotapes. At around 11:30 p.m., all four were arrested at their hotel during a meeting with Sierra Leone’s ambassador to Liberia.

The next day, Justice Minister Eddington Varmah held a press conference in 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.”

Following widespread protests by diplomats and international press freedom organizations, including CPJ, all four journalists were released on August 25, after sending a brief handwritten letter of apology to President Charles Taylor. Channel 4 also sent a letter of apology to Taylor, but insisted that the crew was in the country to make a documentary, not to spy.