Attacks on the Press 2003: Liberia

With rebel forces overring the capital, Monrovia, and the international community clamoring for his departure, Liberian President Charles Taylor resigned and accepted exile in Nigeria on August 11. Taylor’s departure paved the way for a transitional national government–comprised, in part, of representatives from two rebel groups, as well as members of Taylor’s government–to lead the country to elections planned for 2005.

During his six-year rule, Taylor ruthlessly cracked down on the political opposition and civil society activists to consolidate his power. As the last remaining openly critical sector of society, the Liberian private media, which Taylor regarded with a mix of suspicion and contempt, was continually subject to government repression.

The Taylor government’s tactics for silencing critics were varied. Police banned independent radio stations perceived to have an “antigovernment” editorial line, and, using pretexts such as tax evasion, they closed newspapers that exposed government corruption or rights abuses. As the war between government forces and the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) intensified, the Taylor regime tightened its grip on information, imposing censorship policies that required all news stories on the rebellion to receive approval from the Information Ministry before publication or broadcast.

When formal censorship policies were insufficient, journalists were co-opted with bribes, driven into exile, or cowed into self-censorship with threats of imprisonment or physical assault. The tactics of intimidation culminated in brutal attacks against two journalists in 2002. Hassan Bility, editor-in-chief of the independent Analyst, was held for six months incommunicado and repeatedly tortured for alleged ties to LURD. In December 2002, Inquirer reporter Throble Suah was viciously attacked by agents of Taylor’s notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit after he covered LURD activities and the refugee crisis in the north of the country. Suah had to be flown out of Liberia for medical treatment; he did not return to Monrovia until after Taylor’s departure.

In mid-January 2003, Taylor accused the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) of politicizing the attack on Suah and of blowing it out of proportion. The PUL issued a release in response saying it had no political interest and was merely concerned for the welfare of the ailing journalist. In the following weeks, PUL members reported that they had received threats and were under surveillance by suspected members of Taylor’s security forces.

An indictment for “crimes against humanity” issued by the U.N.-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone followed Taylor into exile in Nigeria. His adversarial relationship with journalists followed him as well. The Nigerian Union of Journalists mounted a legal challenge to Taylor’s asylum, but the suit was dropped after Taylor arrived in Nigeria. The journalists’ union is still seeking redress for the death of two Nigerian journalists: Krees Imodibe of the Nigerian Daily Champion, and Tayo Awotusin of The Guardian. While fighting to depose then President Samuel Doe, Taylor’s rebel forces murdered the two journalists, who were working in Liberia in the early 1990s, said Liberian sources.

As the war between Taylor’s government forces and LURD rebels approached Monrovia in the spring of 2003, it became increasingly difficult for journalists to do their jobs. The fighting hit a fever pitch in July, and almost all of the Liberian media shut down. Journalists went into hiding for fear of being targeted by either side or hit in the crossfire. The only independent news source still operating in the capital in late July was the Catholic Church-owned Radio Veritas. The broadcaster was finally forced off the air on July 21, when a mortar shell hit its transmitter.

Foreign journalists flocked to the war-torn capital after U.S. President George W. Bush ordered U.S. warships to the region and Taylor’s departure drew near. French photographer Patrick Robert, on assignment for the U.S.-based weekly Time magazine, was seriously injured in crossfire between government and rebel soldiers, and he was flown out of the country for medical treatment.

Several media companies were attacked and looted during the war, and tens of thousands of dollars in equipment was lost or damaged. Radio Veritas was unable to resume broadcasting until the end of August, and then only on the FM band, since the station did not have the funds to repair its shortwave transmitter. Talking Drum Studios, a broadcaster funded by the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Search for Common Ground, lost an estimated $150,000 of equipment. The Liberia Institute of Journalism, a nonprofit journalism-training center, was stripped bare of its computers and broadcasting equipment.

Good news for Liberian journalists seemed to arrive with the October 14 inauguration of Gyude Bryant as chairman of the new transitional government. In his inauguration speech, the former Monrovia businessman and activist for democratic reform declared, “This government will encourage and exercise the freedom of speech and of the press which constitutes one of the basic tenets of good governance. It is only when people are free to speak, write, and print that they can help keep the government accountable and transparent.”

Though Liberian journalists were used to similar-sounding empty promises from former presidents Taylor and Doe, Bryant took an early step toward reinforcing his remarks by lifting the 3-year-old ban on Star Radio in the beginning of November. Star Radio, an initiative of the Switzerland-based Hirondelle Foundation, was established in the run-up to Liberian elections in 1997 to promote democracy and provide a forum for different views. The immensely popular station was banned in March 2000 by the Taylor government for broadcasting what authorities claimed were “hate messages against the Liberian government” that threatened national security. Bryant said that the station would play a key role in the “development of communication and enhancing the integrity of our media industry.”

With Liberia’s literacy rate just over 50 percent, radio is the country’s most important medium of mass communication. Previously, Taylor had a virtual monopoly on the airwaves beyond Monrovia. Though some “amateur” and community stations existed outside the capital, authorities banned at least five of them in the spring, according to journalists in Monrovia, because of fears that they were mobilizing the rural population against the government. Taylor allowed the state media service, the Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS), to deteriorate, preferring to disseminate propaganda through his private media empire–the Liberian Communications Network–which comprised several radio stations.

After Taylor’s departure, journalists continued to fear reprisals from Taylor loyalists who remained in Monrovia. Their fears seemed warranted when, in early October, the United Nations found that Taylor was still meddling in Liberian internal affairs from exile. Meanwhile, LBS journalists protested the reappointment of J. Allison Barco as director-general of the state broadcaster, accusing Barco of corruption and partisanship toward Taylor and his National Patriotic Party (NPP). NPP members of the transitional government had been tasked with appointing the LBS director. Barco was later replaced, local sources said.

But journalists were more sanguine about the press’s prospects once the transitional administration took over; U.N. peacekeepers had firm control over the capital, and disarmament of the warring factions had begun. Sources in Monrovia said the biggest obstacle to the media was no longer government repression but finding the funding to surmount the damage caused by the war and to sustain the press in a shattered economy. Nonetheless, by year’s end, several new publications had appeared on Monrovia newsstands–a sign, journalists said, of the population’s eagerness to engage in the country’s future.

LURD forces, still armed, control the vast majority of Liberia outside the capital, and it is unsafe for journalists to work in the countryside. Journalists in Monrovia were unaware of any independent media operating in the interior at year’s end.