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Media faces violence, harassment

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The media in Liberia has persistently suffered crackdown, imprisonment and arbiterray closure by repressive regimes particularly under the administration of slain President Samuel Kanyon Doe and jailed former President Chalres Ghankay Taylor.

During the Doe era, government’s crackdown against media houses led to the burning down of offices of the Daily Observer newspaper and subsequent closure of the independent Footprint newspaper, respectively, while under jailed ex-President Taylor, the independent Star Radio was ordered closed, and staff of The News newspaper sent to prison, all because of various reportage in the country.

The Doe and Taylor era came from the background of brutal military forces that carried out summary executions and widespread human rights abuses.

But despite cessation of arm violence, holding of democratic elections and return of civilian administration, attacks against journalists and media houses are continuing unabated in post-conflict Liberia, as documented by the 2017 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Liberia, specifically highlighting such crackdowns under the administration of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, leading to closure of radio stations and one independent newspaper amid violence and harassment.

According to the report, during the period underreview law enforcement officers occasionally harassed newspaper and radio station owners because of their political opinions and reporting, especially those that criticized government officials.

It notes that in January, Liberia’s Information Minister Eugene Nagbe, currently serving in President George Weah’s pro-poor government, threatened to dismiss a journalist from the state-owned Liberia Broadcasting System for granting an interview to an opposition lawmaker minutes after former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s final state of the nation message.

Minister Nagbe subsequently apologized to the journalist concerned after public criticism.

The report released last week Friday, narrates that government officials harassed and sometimes threatened media members for political reasons or to protect personal interests through telephone calls and text messages.

It specifically recalls that in July supporters of former representative Morais Waylee threatened to kill a reporter, Bettie Johnson-Mbayo, in response to her coverage of Waylee’s alleged rape and impregnation of a 13-year-old girl.

“State security forces sometimes arrested journalists for publishing allegedly criminally libelous opinions critical of the government; they also occasionally arrested those with whom the government disagreed. The government also used libel and slander laws against print and broadcast media journalists”, the State Department details.

It continues that the publisher of the Nation Times newspaper was arrested and questioned by the Executive Protection Service after running a story on presidential candidates’ conflicts of interest, but he was not further detained after questioning., and that in July 2016 the government closed two radio stations, Voice FM and LIB 24.

“The official reason for the closure was failure to pay a licensing renewal fee, but many other stations that had not paid the fee were allowed to continue operating. Media proponents suspected that The Costa Show–a radio talk show critical of the government that aired on Voice FM and then moved to LIB 24 after the former was shut down–was the real cause of the closures. Henry Costa, the show’s host, was running for the legislature, and The Costa Show returned to the air on a smaller radio station. The two stations, however, were not allowed to resume broadcasting. Furthermore, although a court had ruled that the government must return the equipment it seized from LIB 24, the government failed to comply.”

On the question of media censorship or content restrictions, the report explains that although generally able to express a wide variety of views, some journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid possible libel charges, adding that “Journalists and media directors also practiced self-censorship to keep advertising revenue from the government, the largest advertiser in the country, and to continue receiving ‘bonuses’ for writing positive stories about the government.”

The U.S. Human Rights report says under the Sirleaf regime, there were several reports that libel, slander, and defamation laws constrained the work of journalists and media outlets reporting on high-profile government or other public figures, citing for example, after reporting on corruption in the award of a high-value road construction contract, a reporter from the Nation Times newspaper was arrested and sued for L$200 million ($2.2 million) by the executive awarded the contract.

It says the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) advocated decriminalizing libel and slander laws to eliminate prison terms for persons unable to pay large fines, and subsequently launched the National Media Council (NMC) to address court cases against the media as well as issued a Revised Code of Ethics for journalists in the country. “The NMC and revised code were efforts to self-regulate the media and ensure adherence to standards including investigation and settlement of complaints against or by the press.”

At the same time, the report notes that in August President Sirleaf introduced legislation that would repeal the penal laws related to criminal libel against the president, sedition, and criminal malevolence and would therefore help bring the country into compliance with the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls for the repeal of criminal defamation and ‘insult’ laws across the African continent.

Madam Sirleaf however, did not fulfill that commitment before leaving office as she promised.

Finally, the reports explains that the Constitution of Liberia provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, noting that permits are required for public gatherings and obtaining a permit was relatively easy, but groups protesting government actions, unlike other groups, were not granted access to the road on Capitol Hill; however, permits to march on this road were generally granted to schools and church groups.

“The government made some areas, including the area in front of the National Elections Commission (NEC) and Supreme Court off limits for public gatherings and refused permits related to political rallies in these locations.

“The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, although with some unofficial limits.
Individuals could generally criticize the government publicly or privately, but criminal libel and slander laws and national security laws placed limits on freedom of speech.”

Though the report exclusively looks at the Sirlear era, the situation from the Sirleaf administration to the era of President George Weah, as it relates to conducive environment for the media seems not much different with unofficial arrest of journalists and other staff of one media house recently in Monrovia for publishing an advertisement, and the gruesome murder of Journalist Tyron Brown in what is seen here as murder with a motive.

Police are interrogating several persons and have charged a prime suspect, Jonathan Williams, with murder while the Press Union of Liberia calls for spedy trial to bring perpetrators to book. Story by Jonathan Browne