Talk show host Kesselee Sumo after he was assaulted on March 11, 2024, by two officers with the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency and a magistrate’s court sheriff. (Photo: Courtesy of Press Union of Liberia)

Liberian law enforcement officers arrest, beat journalist Kesselee Sumo

Abuja, March 29, 2024—Liberian authorities should investigate the law enforcement officers who tear-gassed and beat to unconsciousness journalist Kesselee Sumo, and drop all legal proceedings against the talk show host, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

Two officers with the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency (LDEA) and a magistrate’s court sheriff assaulted and arrested Sumo, a talk show host and producer with the privately owned Radio Fuamah, in the centrally located Bong Mine Community on March 11, according to Sumo, the outlet’s founder, Rufus Tartee, and a statement by the local press group the Press Union of Liberia.

A court issued a warrant for Sumo’s arrest on charges of criminal coercion under Section 14.27 of the penal code and interference with judicial matters, according to CPJ’s review of the warrant. CPJ was unable to immediately determine the potential penalties Sumo faces.

Sumo and Tartee told CPJ that the charges are in connection to a March 7 broadcast of Sumo’s daily program “What’s happening in your community,” in which the journalist alleged that a magistrate, Linda Sulonteh, unjustly detained two community leaders.

“Liberian authorities must ensure a comprehensive investigation into the violent attack on journalist Kesselee Sumo, hold those responsible to account, and drop any investigations into his work,” said CPJ Africa Program Head Angela Quintal, in New York. “There is no justification for beating a journalist over reporting about alleged human rights abuses, and the fact that these abuses were perpetrated by officers responsible for public safety is even more alarming.”

Sumo went to the local magistrate court on March 8 after officials came to the outlet’s office and summoned him, according to Sumo and Tartee. Sumo told CPJ that at the court, a magistrate informed him that Sulonteh wanted the journalist to pay U.S. $100 to the government as compensation for the March 7 report. Sumo waited three hours for Solunteh and left after she did not arrive.

Sulonteh declined to answer CPJ’s questions, saying that she is “not answerable to CPJ” and “We do not have journalists in Liberia. What we do have are [a] bunch of liars and unprofessionals”

The officers denied Sumo’s request to speak to his lawyer when they arrested him on March 11 before punching him repeatedly, primarily on his back and head, especially his left eye, according to Sumo, Tartee, and a video of the attack reviewed by CPJ. The journalist also said one of the officers hit his hands several times with a pair of handcuffs, and another officer sprayed tear gas in his left eye before he lost consciousness.

The officers took Sumo to the court, where a judge instructed that he be taken to hospital, Sumo told CPJ. He was hospitalized until March 12 and experienced severe pains in his chest and left eye.

Sumo and Tartee told CPJ they reported the matter to the police. The police told Sumo they would not investigate as the matter was before the court. Liberia National Police Spokesperson Moses Carter told CPJ he was not aware of the incident and requested Sumo contact him directly.

LDEA spokesperson Michael Jipply told CPJ that the two LDEA officers had gone to support the court official in executing the arrest warrant, but Sumo resisted coming with them. “They tried to restrain and take him to the court,” Jipply said. “In the process of that altercation…he sustained whatever injuries that he may have reported.”

“It is clear that he was assaulted physically, which I stated was because of his refusal to properly adhere to law enforcement instructions, which of course is provocative. So anything as such that happened, it was because of that, but again we do not train our officers to be brutal on civilians,” Jipply told CPJ. He added that they apologized for the altercation, and the LDEA assisted Sumo in getting medical treatment after the judge ordered him to be taken to the hospital.

Jipply said CPJ brought Sumo’s arrest and attack to his attention, and he had instructed the officers involved to be sent to the LDEA headquarters as part of an investigation. Jipply told CPJ he would contact Sumo directly to learn more and “take actions where necessary.”

The Press Union of Liberia’s acting president, Akoi M. Baysah, told CPJ that the union was writing a letter to the LDEA and the court requesting they hold the officers accountable.