CPJ protests espionage charges against four local journalists

March 12, 2001

His Excellency Charles G. Taylor
President of the Republic of Liberia
Monrovia, Liberia
VIA FAX: 231-225-217

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the arrest and imprisonment of four Liberian journalists from the Monrovia daily The News on espionage charges. The four journalists have now been in jail for nearly three weeks.

On February 21, Monrovia police arrested reporter Bobby Tapson, managing editor Joseph Bartuah, editor in chief Abdullah Dukuly, and news editor Jerome Dalieh at the offices of The News. The arrests were prompted by a February 21 Tapson article titled “US$50,000 Spent on Helicopters.”

Tapson reported that the Liberian government had spent US$50,000 on helicopter repairs and an extra US$23,000 on Christmas cards and souvenirs at a time when Liberia’s civil servants have not been paid for months. The government claims that the article was intended to “reveal national defense information to a foreign power for the purpose of injuring Liberia…in the event of a military and diplomatic confrontation.”

The four journalists were charged with espionage and denied bail, on the grounds that espionage is a non-bailable offense under Liberian law. Although lawyers for the journalists filed new bail requests with the City Court, a hearing was put off until Monday, February 26.

On March 2, the state moved to transfer the case from the City Court to Criminal Court A, a higher court. The move voided all previous City Court proceedings in the case, meaning that defense lawyers must file yet another motion for bail.

Criminal Court A is currently hearing a separate murder case. Under Liberian criminal law, two jury trials cannot proceed at the same time before the same court. Therefore, the lawyers for the journalists can only file their motions after the court has disposed of the ongoing murder trial. As a result, the four journalists could face a long detention.

The News is known for its independent editorial stance. In the past, the paper has suffered frequent official threats and harassment in response to its criticisms of Your Excellency’s government. On February 22, the day after the four journalists were arrested, officials shut down The News and three other independent dailies–the New National, the Analyst, and the Monrovia Guardian–allegedly for failure to pay tax arrears. The government claimed that The News owed back taxes amounting to 184,616 Liberian dollars (US$4600).
According to sources at The News, most taxes were suspended during Liberia’s seven-year civil war, which ended in 1997. Moreover, The News had already paid the few taxes still required by law, such as those governing business registrations. The paper was evidently surprised by the government allegations, stating that the revenue department of the Ministry of Finance accused them of not having paid thirteen different taxes of which The News had no prior knowledge.

The Ministry of Finance imposed additional fines on all four publications, amounting to 50 percent of their total alleged tax arrears. The News resumed publication on March 7 after paying 25 percent of its arrears, which amounted to more than 200,000 Liberian dollars (US$5000). However, the paper is required to pay off the balance in 45 days. It is extremely doubtful that The News will be able to raise the necessary funds.

This is not the first time your government has resorted to trumped-up espionage charges in an effort to silence troublesome journalists. In August 2000, a four-member news team from Britain’s Channel Four television network were arrested, charged with espionage, and denied bail when they visited Liberia to produce a television documentary about the country. Although the Channel 4 crew had obtained permission from the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism to conduct interviews, take photographs and make video recordings, their equipment and videotapes were seized from their hotel rooms. The journalists were held for one week before being freed.

As a nonpartisan organization dedicated to the defense of press freedom worldwide, CPJ urges Your Excellency to take all legal measures to ensure that Bobby Tapson, Joseph Bartuah, Abdullah Dukuly, and Jerome Dalieh are released immediately and without conditions of any kind. We also urge you to ensure that the harassment and intimidation of journalists ceases immediately, so that all journalists in Liberia may practice their profession without fear of intimidation or imprisonment.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your reply.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director