Liberian Media Censorship With A Straight Face


ATTEMPTS BY THE LIBERIA Telecommunications Authority to justify the oldest trick in the media clamp down book, is outright laughable and a disingenuous attempt once again by the government of Liberia to strangulate the free press.

MONROVIA WAS shocked to learn Monday that the Civil Law Court had with immediate effect shut down two radio stations – Voice FM 102.7 and LIB24 105.1 – upon the request of the LTA due to what it terms, alleged refusal to regularize their status.

STATION OPERATORS informed FrontPageAfrica that sheriffs and other men wearing plain clothes entered the Voice FM facility Monday and took away some materials belonging to the station, using a white pickup. The two radio stations that have been ordered closed down by the Civil Law Court upon the orders of the LTA are owned by Businessman and politician Benoni Urey who is the owner of the Love Radio and TV, while the Voice FM is owned by Mr. Henry Costa.

COSTA who is currently in the United States where he has always appeared on his local talk show ‘The Henry Costa Show’ via the internet, is also bracing for another legal battle in the U.S. where he has been sued by Public Works Minister Gyude Moore.

ON MONDAY, MR HENRY BENSON, Commissioner responsible for Engineering & Technology told a Ministry of Information regular press briefing Monday that the shutdown of the two radio stations is due to their repeated refusal to pay their taxes to the Liberian Government as required by law, and further said more radio stations to follow in the shortest possible time.

IT IS NO COINCIDENCE that both stations air the highly-rated Costa Show hosted by Henry Costa and Woods Nyanton which is viewed as one of the critical voices against the Unity Party-led government.

WHAT IS EVEN MORE TROUBLING is the fact that Mr. Benson went on the record to throw jabs against media houses that are in the habit of criticizing the Liberian Government on their respective airwaves without being balanced in its reportage and denying the Liberian Government of its needed revenue intake. “People continue to take the airwaves without any regard; LTA sees that as a clear violation, for which the LTA was established by law to regulate and will continue to do so. We have effectively shut down a radio station, beginning with Voice FM 102.7 and more to come, because we have to show that there is law and order in Liberia,” he declared.

COMMISSIONER BENSON said 102.7 frequency was legitimately secured in 2012 by Liberia Web Radio, a non-commercial station which fulfilled all the requirements to operate in Liberia.

THIS IS THE OLDEST trick in the book used by oppressive governments to go after critical media, one which if left unchecked has the propensity to have grave impact on the media.

WE HAVE SEEN this in Uganda recently where the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) vowed to carry on with its enforcement exercise of shutting down non-compliant broadcasting stations in the country.

CITING Section 27 of the Uganda Communications Act 2013, the commission noted that any station which refuses to settle its indebtedness to the commission is operating illegally and violating the terms and conditions of its license.

THIS HAS LED to the closure of several stations in Kampala including: Hunter FM (Bushenyi), Radio Maria (seven stations countrywide), Kyenjojo FM, Webs FM (Arua), Life FM (Fort Portal), Theo FM (Bushenyi), Kyenjojo Development Radio, Fire FM (Mubende) and Messiah Radio (Kasese).

IN TANZANIA, THE Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), recently fined two radio stations, including a Dar es Salaam based Entertainment fm (Efm) for violating content regulations, warning that stern action will be taken against the electronic media. The Content Committee Chairperson in Dar es Salaam explained that the two radio stations violated the regulations in January, saying Efm violated the laws on January 4 while the other radio station in question, Kahama fm did so on January 10.

IN THE CASE of Voice FM in Liberia, according to Mr. Nyanton, Co-host of the Costa Show, the LTA was in an error to disclose that the organization is operating without permit.

NYANTON says the Ministry of Information has set up a difficult process just to ensure that the station did not get a permit and the LTA needed to clearly tell the people of Liberia that, despite efforts made and readiness demonstrated by Voice FM to pay the require tax to government, the Ministry of Information has decided not give permit to Voice FM.

SAID NYANTON: “We are in partnership with the Liberia Web Radio, the official owner of the frequency of 102.7 and there are legal documents to prove that. We have been behind the government to regularize our status but MICAT has set up a difficult process because we are critical of the government and the people of Liberia can attest to that.”

NEVERTHELESS, MR. BENSON and the LTA, claim that media houses have no regard for the LTA and the Ministry of Information who are responsible to give clearances for establishing radio stations. “We at the LTA do not have the authority to close or shut down stations,” Benson said. “We made our case to the Justice Ministry, who scrutinized our processes and saw merit in our case to clear the airwaves of stations operating without proper assigned frequencies. This is a national security measure. This is also a measure to make available scarce frequency to applicants who follow the right procedure,” Commissioner Benson said.

AS MUCH as the LTA and authorities in government are attempting to make the public believe that the two stations which happen to broadcast the Costa Show are being shut down because they are illegal or owe government money, the reasons are not only outrageous, but pathetic.

THIS IS THE SAME government that owes media houses thousands of dollars it won’t pay but come up every year to conclude that it can only afford paying debts owed the media through a massively reduced rate under the guise of a “handshake” because in their words, “the government is broke”.

YET, IT EXPECTS the media so survive on credit and handshakes.

THIS IS THE SAME government that expects the media to pay taxes when it strangulates the media by refusing to pay its debt.

IN ESSENCE, THE SIRLEAF-LED government is taking advantage and misusing its power by forcefully taking sores out of the media when it cannot clear sores from its own eye.

HAS THE COSTA SHOW been critical of the government? Yes! Do they go overboard sometimes? Perhaps. But So do Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Maher and a host of other talk show hosts who defy conventions in speaking true to power.

IMAGINE WAKING up one morning to hear that the Obama administration had shut down Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh.

THIS IS THE STUFF democracy is made of, allowing the expression of views to be heard, no matter how extreme they may come across.

LIBERIA HAS JUST emerged from a war caused by very hard-headed people who stood up against the likes of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, with venom speech far worse than what the Costa Show airs. Many lost their lives, went to prison for speaking truth to power in systems where it was expected because they were dictatorships.

WE PAID THE PRICE of going to war and must reap the benefits of our newfound democracy. We do that by embracing free speech and not resorting to the very ills of the past to silence those we view as critical; we do this by allowing extreme voices to be heard because those voices represent those at the bottom of the economic ladder who do not have the platform to air their views.

STANDING BY and doing nothing to demand the reopening of Voice FM, LIB24 and the Costa Show, is tantamount to the trampling of free speech and a violation of the press. It dampens our resolve and our obligation to the Table Mountain Declaration, which no one forced Liberia to sign, but one we signed on our own accord.

LIBERIA HAS COME too far and lost too many lives to allow the trappings of yesterday to define our destiny. Voice FM and LIB24 Must return to the airwaves and be allowed to fulfil their obligations, if any, to the government in a more-subtle manner, not with brute force under the guise of an obviously, fractured justice system.