Attacks on the Press 2001: Liberia

President Charles Taylor remains the single greatest threat to press freedom in Liberia. As global pressure mounted on his government to improve its bleak human rights record, Taylor responded with his usual mix of paranoia and brutality, jailing reporters for “espionage,” shutting down newspapers for unpaid taxes and imposing a news blackout on an armed rebellion in northern Lofa County. On May 3, CPJ included Taylor on its annual list of the Ten Worst Enemies of the Press. See CPJ’s 2001 Enemies list.

Early in the year, a United Nations Panel of Experts found “unequivocal and overwhelming evidence” that Liberia has been actively supporting Sierra Leone’s notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. The panel’s report charged that, “President Charles Taylor is actively involved in…international criminal activities.” The panel recommended international sanctions against Liberia.

In response, the Taylor regime announced a “new policy of disengagement” from Sierra Leone on January 12, and agreed to help disarm its RUF partners, who terrorized Sierra Leone during a decade of civil war. On January 18, however, the Liberian government released a white paper titled, “Motive and Opportunity for U.N. Panel of Experts Recommended Sanctions Against Liberia.” Said to be the work of presidential spokesperson Reginald Goodridge, the document contained an abridged chronology of Taylor’s rise to power and discussed his strained relations with the world community. The paper suggested that Taylor was the victim of a vast international conspiracy.

On February 21, police picked up four reporters from The News and charged them with espionage. The detentions came in reprisal for a story on government spending on helicopter repairs, Christmas cards, and souvenirs. The four were jailed for over a month and freed only after vocal protests from the local press community and after they agreed to send Taylor a letter of apology. While they were in prison, however, The News was shut down for unpaid taxes.

Authorities seized equipment from three other newspapers, the New National, The Analyst, and Monrovia Guardian, on similar grounds. The News resumed publication on March 7, while the three other papers continued to publish, though with great difficulties. In May, police seized The Analyst’s remaining equipment, silencing it for another month.

Meanwhile President Taylor was reported as saying, without apparent irony, that “there is freedom of the press [in Liberia] and it will grow. There are no journalists or political prisoners in jail like in other African countries.”

On March 7, the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Liberia. The sanctions also affected the sale of diamonds from Liberia and the foreign travel of some 130 senior Liberian officials. The Security Council hoped the restrictions would help secure peace in Sierra Leone, where the Liberian government has been arming the RUF in exchange for diamonds. Liberia’s rulers were given a two-month grace period in which to prove that they did not in fact maintain ties with the RUF.

Flustered, the Taylor government accused foreign media of pursuing a “massive negative media agenda” against Liberia, “so as to justify pending U.N. sanctions against it,” according to Radio Liberia International, a Taylor mouthpiece. The regime also denounced allegedly “inflammatory and libelous articles” in the press advocating the imposition of sanctions, which were ultimately implemented, as Liberia proved unable to counter the U.N. charges.

On May 25, Taylor’s obsession with conspiracy theories inspired his information minister to set new guidelines for foreign reporters visiting Liberia. An official press release stated that the new rules were intended to “minimize the impact of anti-government propaganda” allegedly fueled by foreign reporters and publications such as Newsweek magazine and the London Daily Telegraph.

The Taylor regime argued that the restrictions would prevent negative coverage of Liberia by dissuading “surprise visits by foreign journalists.” Henceforth, all foreign reporters wishing to visit Liberia were instructed to send a letter of intent at least 72 hours prior to departure. In addition, the release said, Liberian security agents would conduct background checks on all applicants. Foreign media were advised to heed the guidelines or face serious consequences.

Local reporters also got their own set of new rules. In April, after fighting erupted in Lofa County, the government announced that all news reports on the violence and other national security issues would have to be cleared by Information Ministry censors prior to publication or broadcast. The new censorship regime was ostensibly designed to block “disinformation that could cause doubt and panic in the public,” according to Agence France-Presse. Liberian journalists protested, to little avail, that the rule was unconstitutional because the government had not declared a state of emergency.

As the war escalated in Lofa County, President Taylor pursued carrot-and-stick diplomacy aimed at both real and perceived foes. In late July, he offered a general amnesty to all exiles charged with treason in Liberia and to the rebels in Lofa. But few dared to accept the offer, which followed a July 2 ban on short wave broadcasting by the Catholic Church-owned Radio Veritas, the only private station to reach all corners of Liberia with unbiased news about the war. Taylor’s own Radio Liberia International is now the only national broadcast outlet.

In November, the continued erosion of basic freedoms prompted the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) to resume publication of the monthly press watchdog magazine Media Line after a three-year hiatus. In a statement, the PUL declared that Media Line would keep watch on the authorities, promote the welfare of journalists, and lobby for better salaries and working conditions. Days after Media Line reappeared, police shut down The News and the Monrovia Guardian for the second time in 10 months. They also arrested Wilson Tarpeh, an executive at The News.

Liberian officials claimed that the papers had refused to pay back taxes, but many doubted the justification. Tarpeh was freed on November 25, and both newspapers resumed publication in early December. But their tax arrears remained unpaid at year’s end, leaving President Taylor with a pretext for future harassment.

February 21

Joseph Bartuah, The News
Abdullah Dukuly, The News
James Dalieh, The News
Bobby Tapson, The News

Police in Monrovia arrested Bartuah, managing editor of the independent Monrovia daily The News, editor-in-chief Dukuly, news editor Dalieh, and reporter Tapson and charged them with espionage.

The charges apparently came in reprisal for a February 21 story that questioned government spending on helicopter repairs, Christmas cards, and souvenirs. The journalists were jailed for more than a month, while The News was issued crippling bills for back taxes.

Acting on a writ issued by the Monrovia City Court, police came to the newspaper’s offices at 3 p.m. and arrested Tapson, author of the offending article. Later that day, they arrested Bartuah, Dukuly, and Dalieh.

According to The News, authorities claimed that Tapson’s article contained national security information and was published in order to weaken Liberia in the event of a military or diplomatic confrontation with unnamed “foreign powers.” The four journalists were charged with espionage and denied bail because espionage is a capital offense.

After the February 28 bail hearing, the court recessed until March 5, when it said it would issue its judgment. But in what appeared to be a pre-emptive move, prosecutors moved on March 2 to transfer the case to a higher court, which required the journalists’ lawyers to file a new motion for bail.

On March 13, the higher court denied bail, claiming that the article had disclosed information that was useful to rebels, another nonbailable offense.

The four journalists were released from jail on Friday March 30, when the government dropped all charges following an appeal by the Press Union of Liberia and an apology issued by the journalists.

April 17

Sam Howard, BBC

Howard, a stringer for the BBC, was detained by security officers and then threatened by Defense Minister Daniel Chea, according to local sources.

On April 16, Howard commented live for the BBC on the recent killing of Liberia’s youth and sports minister, François Massaquoi. Dissidents fighting to overthrow the Taylor regime in the northern area of Lofa claimed responsibility for the murder.

During his BBC appearance, Howard said that “one who rides on the back of a lion ends up in the stomach,” insinuating that Taylor or his government may have been involved in the murder.

A day after Howard’s BBC appearance, Lewis Browne, an aide to President Taylor, told a local radio program that the government would not tolerate bad publicity. Shortly thereafter, security officers picked up Howard and brought him before Defense Minister Daniel Chea for questioning. Local sources told CPJ that the minister threatened Howard.

Howard was released later that day.

April 27

All News Organizations

The Liberian Ministry of Information ordered journalists covering national security issues, including civil strife in the north of the country, to clear their stories with the ministry before publication or broadcast.

According to the PanAfrican News Agency, the ministry order stated that “any agency or individual who conveys information to the public that could lead to confusion or panic in the country would bear full responsibility for the source or basis of such information.”

Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said the order was meant to prevent “disinformation that could cause doubt and panic in the public,” according to Agence France-Presse. Journalists in Monrovia complained the new rules would constitute prior censorship and charged that, since the government had not declared a state of emergency, the orders violated their constitutional right to freedom of expression.

May 25

All foreign journalists

The Ministry of Information issued new guidelines for foreign journalists visiting Liberia. The release claimed that the guidelines were designed to minimize the impact of anti-government propaganda by certain foreign correspondents and news organizations.

The release singled out journalists from Newsweek and London’s Daily Telegraph who, it said, recently showed up in Monrovia without advance notice, demanded accreditation and went on to publish negative articles that have further damaged the image of Liberia. The statement then declared that no more surprise visits to Liberia by foreign journalists will be allowed.

The new guidelines require news organizations to write a letter on behalf of their foreign correspondents. Foreign journalists seeking entry into Liberia will have to give notice at least 72 hours before their arrival.

In addition, the new guidelines institute a 24-hour waiting period before accreditation is granted. Finally, they give the Information Ministry the right to conduct background checks on all foreign journalists and to reject their requests for accreditation if their credentials are not bona fide.

Liberia’s international image had already taken a serious hit on May 7, when the United Nations imposed sanctions against the country in response to reports accusing President Taylor of trafficking in diamonds from rebel-held territories in neighboring Sierra Leone.

July 2

Radio Veritas

The Catholic Church-owned station Radio Veritas was banned from broadcasting on shortwave radio. That left KISS FM and Radio Liberia International, both part of President Charles Taylor’s Liberia Communications Network, as the only stations airing political news countrywide.

Radio Veritas continued broadcasting on an FM frequency that only covers the capital, Monrovia.

At the time of the announcement, Radio Veritas was experiencing technical problems that prevented it from broadcasting, but the station’s management continued to pay fees to air programs on both FM and shortwave frequencies. While Radio Veritas was off the air, station management received a letter from Minister of Post and Telecommunications Emma Wuor stating that only “short-wave stations in active operation at the moment” would be allowed to operate in Liberia for the time being.

Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said that by airing political programming, Radio Veritas had violated its permit, which only allowed the station to broadcast religious shows. Radio Veritas aired several shows critical of Taylor’s government, including the controversial program “Topical Issues.”

On 20 August, the Catholic Church sued the state to restore the station’s broadcasting rights, accusing the government of violating the Liberian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.

On September 4, government attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that only the Supreme Court had jurisdiction in constitutional matters.

By years’ end, the case had still not been resolved, and Veritas broadcasts were still limited to Monrovia. On January 10, President Charles Taylor conceded that “opposition complaints about not having access to shortwave transmitters are legitimate concerns” but maintained that “broadcasting on shortwave is not a right, but a privilege.”

August 20

Sam Dean, Monrovia Guardian

Dean, editor of the independent daily Monrovia Guardian, was arrested by police and taken to police headquarters, where he was charged with “criminal malevolence.”

Dean’s arrest followed the publication, around August 17, of a Guardian article reporting that Police Chief Paul Mulbah had been summoned to the House of Representatives for questioning after a female parliamentarian was assaulted in the Monrovia suburb of Gardenville. The article, titled “Police Director Wanted,” claimed that the House wished to ask Mulbah why police had failed to arrest the perpetrators of the attack.

Sources in Monrovia said that police were upset by the story’s headline, and that Mulbah went to the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and complained of the Guardian‘s “sensationalism” and “misleading” reports. The PUL called Dean in for questioning regarding the police chief’s complaints, but the editor refused to go, claiming that he had done nothing wrong.

On August 20, the Guardian reproduced the same article and asked the public, “What’s wrong with this headline?” Sources say this infuriated the police, who shortly thereafter arrested Dean in the paper’s offices.

Dean was detained for 71 hours, according to local news sources, longer than the 48 hours mandated by law. He was released after he wrote an apology to the police for the article, and all charges against him were dropped.

Meanwhile, the Guardian withdrew from the PUL in protest, saying that the paper had done nothing wrong. The PUL now says that in order for the paper to rejoin the union, it will have to apologize for its withdrawal.

September 17

T-Max Jlateh, DC 101.1
DC 101.1

Jlateh, host of the popular call-in show “DC-Talk” at the Monrovia-based radio station DC 101.1, was arrested for airing listener comments that celebrated the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

Police raided the studios of DC 101.1, one of Liberia’s last surviving independent broadcasters, and arrested Jlateh midway through his show. The officers evacuated the staff and effectively closed down the station before taking Jlateh back to police headquarters. They presented no warrant for their actions.

DC 101.1 was allowed to reopen after a few hours. Police detained Jlateh throughout the night and did not release him until about 2:00 p.m. on September 18, according to CPJ sources in Monrovia.

Jlateh’s arrest came after several people called in to the show and spoke harshly about the United States. Some of them apparently rejoiced at the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Although many callers expressed sympathy for the victims of the attacks, others claimed that the United States was the chief sponsor of terrorism in the world and that it deserved the attacks for imposing sanctions on Liberia earlier this year.

The raid followed a government threat to arrest and prosecute anyone found buying or selling photographs of Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks.

CPJ protested Jlateh’s arrest in a September 20 letter to Liberian president Charles G. Taylor.

November 20

The News
Wilson Tarpeh, The News

Police officers entered the newsroom of the independent daily The News, a fiery critic of Liberian president Charles Taylor, and ordered journalists and others to leave the building immediately. The officers did not provide a warrant for their action, sources said.

At about the same time, similar action was taken against the daily Guardian, another thorn in the president’s side.

Police claimed to act at the behest of the Ministry of Finance, which had allegedly determined that both papers owed the government large sums in unpaid taxes. Later that same day, police arrested Tarpeh, chairman of The News’ editorial board.

Tarpeh was taken to police headquarters in Monrovia and later moved to the National Security Agency offices for interrogation. He remained there until his release on November 25. He was never charged with any crime; police later said his detention was an “invitation” to assist in the probe into the tax matter.

The News and Guardian both resumed publication on December 4, after the Press Union of Liberia vigorously protested the harassment of the two publications.