The Tale of Violations Against Liberian Media: Will 2017 Be Cooling Point?
The purpose of government is to touch the lives of the greater population positively and address the essential needs of the people; for the government to do this efficiently, the society needs a robust independent media and stout civil society institutions which must speak for the voiceless, champion the cause of the defenseless rather than lend itself as a tool of the government.
It must be a tool for empowerment, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of society and identifying how the people can be helped and could also be in the vanguard of the campaign against bad governances which tends to rob the population of the dividend and values of democracy.
The major challenge facing journalism in Liberia nowadays is that of surviving the unfavorable media policy still on the book and persistent attacks against journalists directly or indirectly by individuals with a strong connections to successive governments which rode on the leverage of the media to get to state power through democratic or indisputable elections.
At present, it would be unimaginable for any Liberian security officers or officials operating under the orders of their bosses to lawlessly close down or burn newspaper offices or radio station, as was the case under previous regimes. Instead, the courts in this contemporary era serve other purposes such as to shut down media house under the guise of enforcing the law for reported failures to pay tax, while 2016 was a throbbing year for Liberia media in general, the year saw the unprecedented death toll of journalists in the country in a single year, as the casualties of journalists in the hand of death cannot be matched with other years.
To do justice to this article, this research analysis presents a description of callousness journalists have suffered under successive regimes including the NDPL, NPP and UP led-governments and in the hands of ex-rebel fighters during the 14-year civil war.
Besides, gross violations against journalists were perpetrated by disbanded rebel groups including LURD, LDF, ULIMO-K/J, MODEL and LPC, while in some instances violations against journalists were carried out by solders of West Africa bloc-.ECOMOG.
This article is based on dozen of reports published by both local and international media outlets, journals, human rights institutions and TRC witnesses ordeals and accounts, amongst others publications; however, some of these publications are subject to further inquiries for accuracy.
The Liberian media has a daunting and challenging history dating back from its formation to present, with journalists paying a high price from the brutal hands of successive authoritarians. During the heat of the civil war, journalists were divided into two groups as the belligerent forces through fierce battles succeeded splitting the country, set-up defacto governments, without reference to the Liberian constitution.
These forces were tussling to reach the vulnerable and traumatized population and the only way to do so was to engage into media propaganda, something which ex-President Charles Taylor used effectively to prosecute the 14-year bloody war.
Liberia now enjoys a high level of freedom in this new epoch, the status of the media in the country has significantly improved, and the issues of press freedom and free speech are undoubtedly unrestricted but more are expected from the central government in enhancing government-media relations to turn 2017 into a cooling period.
While in 2012, President Johnson-Sirleaf became the Second African Head of State to endorse the Table Mountain Declaration, which amongst others calls on African governments to abolish criminal defamation laws. Moreover, in 2010 Liberia became the first to enact Freedom of Information Law in West Africa and has established the Independent Information Commission (IIC), headed by a veteran Liberian journalist; an ex-feature writer of the Inquirer Newspaper, Cllr. Beddoe Wla Freeman.
The purpose of the FOI law was to afford both journalists and the general public the rights to equal access to public documents, except the ones that are national security related. Regretfully, Liberian journalists either the general public or student groups have been unable to take advantage of the Freedom of Information Law.
The media is considered as “mirror” of the modern society, in unarguably it is the media which shape our lives and served as a conduit between the government and the people. The role of media is complex and varied, sometimes, media is viewed positively by society, although it is considered overbearing and obnoxious other times.
According to studies, the word media comes from the Latin word medium, and it is used as a collective noun to refer to newspapers, television, radio, magazines, films, and internet, playing a very important role in national development.
Persistently, media has played several roles in the society, including serving as a means to inform and distribute news, and also convey precise and needed information regarding politics, economic, social, health, cultural and progress. Nowadays Liberia enjoys smooth media landscape, emerging as a dominant social figure; it enables dialogue to take place and bridged the gap between government and the citizenry.
The media set the public agenda and act as the gatekeeper of public issues and perform the watchdog role, especially in political situation and fight against bad governance, including corruption, abuse of state wealth, human rights and constitutional violations, and autocratic activities of some corrupt public bureaucrats.
In one of his vivid publications on free press in the contemporary era, the author of this article, Josephus Moses Gray revealed that the presence of free press brings public corruption cases to the voting population while voters most often in an elections, in turn severely punished corrupt bureaucrats and unproductive politicians by ousting them from public offices; this was manifested in the 2011 General Elections and 2014 Mid-term Senatorial Election whereby only eleven out of seventy-four representatives were re-elected and two senators out of 15 were re-elected in 2014; the two are Senators Taylor and Johnson.
In the words of the late James Wolo, “the media also play in important monitoring role in a democracy that enables citizens to hold their governments and elected officials accountable, leading to better policies and implementation”, while a former University of Liberia Professor, Dr. Zogbo Norman accentuated that: The media set the public agenda and act as the gatekeeper of public issues and provides information to the actors throughout society allowing them to participate in the decisions and debates that shape their lives.
Tale Of Violations Against Journalists
In the areas of abused and gross violations against journalists during the 14-year war are compiled and here are some of the highlights. Several media institutions including printing presses were destroyed. This forced most media institutions to discontinue operations.
But several newspapers resurfaced on the newsstand after the peacekeepers took control of the part of the country that was being referred to as Greater Monrovia, once under the shield of ECOWAS bloc.
The tale of gross human rights violations against journalists during the war remained difficult to mention. Every crime perpetrated against journalist by soldiers loyal to former President Doe and fighters of Taylor‘s NPFL as well as rebel fighters of LURD, LDF, ULIMO-K/J, MODEL and the LPC.
The violence and brutalities against the Liberian media dated back from the regime of ex-President William V.S. Tubman but for the purpose of this article, this research analysis squally focuses on the ordeals of the Liberian media from 1990 to 2003, and some highlights from 2005 to 2016, respectively.
The ordeals of Liberian journalists and their foreign colleagues during these periods can be recounted from different experiences based on the particular ordeal, but the similarities are much closed. Liberian journalists or media houses were no exception as they all suffered different forms of brutalities, leaving the unlucky ones dead while others are faced with life time injuries while others fled the country to seek sanctuary in America and Western Europe.
Media practitioners and journalists operated under risky circumstances during the period; some journalists were accused of being biased to any of the former belligerent forces or the peacekeepers. Like anyone else, Liberian journalists had safety concerns and found it difficult that period to operate freely for fear of being hit by stray or intentional bullets as lawlessness became very high.
Reports showed that inhumane treatments against journalists took place in all the areas that were under either factions or ECOMOG but the greatest of these crimes were carried out by Taylor‘s NPFL fighters who carry out summary executions of journalists.
The international standard and ethics of the practice of journalism were grossly violated and abused as journalists allowed themselves to be used by heads of former warring factions to propaganda hate messages.
To begin with, while all eyes were anxiously glued to the mayhem and other dangerous treatments inflicted on local journalists by Mr. Charles Taylor‘s disbanded NPFL, there were even much more gruesome and dreadful acts carried out by the ex LPC, INPFL, ULIMO-J and K, MODEL and LURD.
But these days the situation have improved, the fear of being hit by stray bullets is no more the case, but direct or indirect attacks against journalists and media institutions by some officials and security officers are still visible, in some instances actions have been taken while others go with impunity.
The arbitrary detention of journalists and attacked against media institutions were also a common practice under Doe and Taylor regime. This was also practiced behind areas controlled by ECOMOG, LURD, LDF, ULIMO-K/J and MODEL. Presently, the situation has steadily reduced but there are several cases of violations against journalists and media institutions.
To begin, The Torch-light, THE INQUIRER, the Footprints and Today Newspapers were among print media institutions that resumed operations while LBS, funded by ECOMOG was the first radio station to resume operation.
However, all these institutions were restricted to Monrovia and its surroundings, under the protection of ECOMOG while the Patriot and Scorpion Newspapers were being published as propaganda mechanisms for the disbanded NPFL and INFPL former leaders, Mr. Taylor and former Field Marshal, Prince Y. Johnson, now Senator and Preacher.
The Analysis: ECOMOG and the Media
The ECOMOG peacekeepers also manhandled journalists and attempted to impose censorship on newspaper institutions that were operating in Monrovia during the heat of the war. There were times when ECOMOG soldiers arrested and detained editors and reporters apparently for publishing stories against the interests of the peacekeepers.
The peacekeeping bloc also shares part of the abuses against journalists during the heat of the war; in Monrovia, Nyenti Allison, a former correspondent for the BBC was assaulted by ECOMOG troops in 1993 because he had apparently written an article criticizing ECOMOG. Later, in 1995, James Momoh, formerly of the Inquirer was reported beaten by ECOMOG troops after he tried to photograph a particular episode. Moreover, John Vambo, formally a stringer for the BBC, died after reportedly being flogged by ECOMOG soldiers.
John Vambo was reportedly being punished for asking an interviewee on air how far away from the executive mansion a rocket barrage had landed. ECOMOG apparently had the fear that such information could be used by the rebels to stage future attacks. Also on January 1, 1993 a BBC journalist was beaten by ECOMOG troops after he published an article criticizing ECOMOG, while on April 1, 1995.
In 1994 several members of the editorial staffers of the Inquirer Newspaper including Bana Sackie, Wantu Major and D. Emmanuel Nah were arrested from the paper’s Gurley Street office and taken to Star Base where ECOMOG was headquarters over a story which was published by the paper.
In 1995 the author of this article, Josephus Moses Gray, then reporter of The INQUIRER Newspaper was severely beaten by ECOMOG solider in Vai Town although Gray was identified a journalist. Gray was trying to request for an interview with the solder.
On January 11, 992 Isaac D.E. Bantu and Dan Browne were detained for three days by Prince Johnson of the INPFL at Caldwell where they were tortured and made to drink dirty water on order of Johnson.
The Analysis: Doe and the Media
Unlike Mr. Taylor, ex-President Doe saw journalists as his enemies, isolating himself from them and deliberately failed to discipline his soldiers (TRC final report, 2009). Among Doe’s victims was a veteran journalist, Rufus Darpoh (late) was kidnapped and detained by government security agents for allegedly writing anonymous articles.
Mr. Darpoh, Ghanaian-Liberian was held for over six months at a notorious military prison, once Belle Yalla, and was reported subjected to routine beating and other forms of torture.
On March 20, 1990, Klohn Hinneh (late) of The News newspaper was detained on the orders of Emmanuel Gbalazeh, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia while on April 6, 1990, Mark Huband, a British reporter working with UPI, was kidnapped by anti-government rebels. He was released four days later and said he was not mistreated. On March 7, 1981, Tom Kamara (late) formerly of the New Liberian newspaper was arrested for a story he supposedly published against the Police.
In 1984, Willis Knuckles (late) of the Daily Observer and BBC was detained, held without charge at the once Bellah Yallah prison, and reportedly tortured. He was released several days later while on June 1, 1984 Rufus Darpoh of the New Liberian was arrested and detained until 17 November. On January 17, 1985, former Justice Minister Jenkins Scott announced that the Daily Observer would not be permitted to print after it carried a series of stories and articles the Doe’s regime termed as “anti-governmental” reports.
Ex-President Doe, on August 1, 1985, announced plans for a nationwide radio service that would reach all areas of Liberia. On December 1, 1985, Charles Gbenyon, a senior journalist for the LBS was killed by AFL solders.
In January 1986, the Doe’s regime placed a three-month ban on the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) but lifted it six days after the attempted coup led by the late Tmoas Quiwonkpa, a native of Nimba County. On March 5, 1986, the offices of the Daily Observer were destroyed by fire while on May 14, 1986, PUL issued a complaint concerning the government‘s non-response to anonymous crimes against journalists.
On March 7, 1988, the once Sun Times was banned for printing while on April 11, 1988, Thomas Nimely (late) of the Sun Times was arrested and held without charge for refusing to reveal the source of an article. Mr. Doe on April 12, 1988 accused the media of trying to undo progress by systematically publishing misinformation, while on the 13th of the same month the Footprints Today was banned by the government with five of its journalists arrested. Both Sun Times and Foot Prints Newspapers no longer exist.
The Analysis: Johnson-Sirleaf and the Media
The level of attacks on journalists and media houses in the country compared to past regimes has gradually decreased, there are several instances under this administration of violence against journalists by public officials especially the security officers, deepening the unfavorably ties between the two—government and the independent media despite of efforts by the President Johnson-Sirleaf to cement the transactions.
However, these days Liberia enjoys an unprecedented high level of free press and freedom of speech in this blossoming democracy; the status of the media in Liberia in term of quantities are overwhelmed but in substances of quality and ethical adherence, most need to be done as the impact of the media in context of positivity cannot be mentioned by quantities but quality and knack.
In 2012, President Johnson-Sirleaf became the Second African head of a democratic government to endorse the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls on African governments to abolish criminal defamation laws, while in 2010 Liberia became the first to enact West Africa’s first freedom of information law. The purpose of the freedom of information law was to give both journalists and the general public the leverage of unrestricted to access to public document, with exclusions of those border on national security.
During the summer of 2006, Johnson-Sirleaf established a blue ribbon‖ committee in response to international concerns about the numerous attacks on journalists by Police officers However, implementation of the law, as well as public awareness regarding how to use it. But the PUL has since described the blue ribbon‖ committee as weak.
The Liberian media has been relentless and reports on corruption and mismanagement in government and private sectors, but the media is yet to account for US$100,000 which President Johnson-Sirleaf contributed to the construction project of the headquarters of the Press Union of Liberia, but the status of the amount remains unknown; this dark cloud hanging over the Liberian press continue to blemish the local media credibility.
The current leadership of PUL recently had withdrawn the embezzlement case from the court without bringing the culprits to book or instituting a probe to unearth the actual story regarding the scandal.
There have been several conflicting reports regarding the actuality of the expenditure of the Ellen’s gift to PUL headquarters project. Several reports point to mismanagement but so far those liable remain unknown. This act has ruined the media and persistently sparked claims and counter-claims, thus haunting the Liberian media in general.
However, the patriots of yesterday who were once ordinary citizens and who now enjoying authorities are furious that the media-on whose backs, they made their name and rode to public positions, is looking into their every lives, actions and deeds as they abuse the people’s trust.
The Ministry of Information during the administration of the then Minister Mr. Lewis Brown has ordered all ministries and agencies of government not to directly advertise or give any media institution advertisement or business without the approval of the Ministry of Information; this action has weaken the smooth ties cementing between the government and the independent media. It is not known if the new administration of the Ministry has removed the policy.
This action by then minister who is now Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, USA, is increasingly heartrending the existing of dozens of Newspapers and radio stations while the pro-government ones are enjoying the benefits of the Brown’s policy which many journalist described as “indirect free press restriction”. Despite of Brown’s restrictions, about fifty newspapers are on the newsstand in Monrovia while FM radio stations are about forty-seven in the capital.
It can be recalled that West African Journalists Association (WAJA) on several occasions has criticized the Unity Party-led government for what WAJA described as “the unfortunate closure of media houses in the country”, accusing the regime of an unjustified attacks on free press but the regime has persistently denied.
Although no journalist is in detention, few media institutions have been closed through the legal process either for allegedly failures to pay tax or ethical transgression but several journalists have come under several attacks in execution of their professional responsibilities.
The government is credited for press freedom and free press, free speech and media independence to report, but all have not been charming for the media. Under this regime, Police officers have also violated the rights of journalists, but some of these officers were punished while others unpunished by the government.
The media-government relations in most cases have been up and down with the President persistently accusing the private media of distortion, blackmail and sensationalism and called for media reform and adherence to higher journalistic standards.
In 2013, the then chief bodyguard, Othello Warwick threatened the Liberia media when he said: “Any press member that surpasses his/her responsibility to get involved in Presidential intelligence; trust me, we will restrict you,” Warwick said. “Be careful, because you have your pen and we have our guns. This conflict has manifested itself further through criticism of the administration by the press and physical assaults on journalists by officers of the national Police.
In February 2013, three newspaper publishers were ordered to appear before the Supreme Court on possible charges of contempt following the publication of an article that accused the judges of embezzling funds.
According to report, in February 2013, Police attacked and threatened journalist Edwin Genoway of New Dawn after he attempted to photograph officers harassing motorists. In March the same year, the then acting Mayor of Monrovia, Mary Broh, allegedly ordered the beating of journalists Francis Nyan and Charles Yates.
On one occasion, dozens of armed Police without a court order on August 14 2014 stormed the National Chronicle Newspaper offices on Carey Street an operation that caused panic in the streets of Monrovia.
Following the incident, the Paper’s publisher, Philibert Brown informed the Press Union in a complaint that three truckloads of heavily armed Police from the Emergency Response Unit (ERU), threw tear gas in the office before breaking the door to the main entrance. The Police is said to have taken away “two laptops and arrested two of the paper’s senior staff,” according to Mr. Brown.
The Police action followed a series of publication of the paper, including one on the alleged formation of an interim government to replace the Johnson-Sirleaf administration. Two days after the Police action, the Ministry of Information revoked the Chronicle license to operate.
After months of legal wrangling before the Supreme Court of Liberia over the force closure of the National Chronicle Newspaper by the Government of Liberia, the high Court later ruled in favor of a petition filled by the newspaper through the Press Union of Liberia ordering the reopening of the newspaper.
In November 2011, four radio stations and three television stations were found guilty of propagating hate messages but a court order to have these radio stations shut down was quickly rescinded.
The FrontpageAfrica’s (FPA) editor, Rodney Sieh was also incarcerated for months on woozy libel charges wrapped up in political undertones. However journalist Sieh was later released after he wrote a letter apologizing based on the counsels of the paper legal counselors and other central figures in the body politics of Liberia. Mr. Sieh released was celebrated by journalists in the country.
Editor Rodney Sieh was taken into custody following a Supreme Court ruling that the paper should pay US$1.6 million for defaming the ex-Minister of Agriculture Dr. J. Chris Toe. The FPA’s succession of publications on the subject were reported based on the audit reports of the General Audit Commission (GAC), but the Ministry of Justice under the then Minister, Christina Tah rejected the audit findings.
The former Managing Director of the National Port Authority, Matilda Parker, also suit the FPA for 1million USD, after the paper reported that she lied to the Liberian Anti-corruption (LACC) Commission on her asset declaration forms.
According to media publication in the media, in 2014 traditional leaders reportedly threatened to kill reporter Mae Azango and her 9-year-old daughter for reporting on the health hazards of female genital cutting grabbed international attention. That story touched off urgent debates and forced the government and development organizations to act
But just as the Liberian media were showing their displeasure at what was clearly an unacceptable remark from Sirleaf’s security chief Othello Warwick and did issue news blockade against the Executive Mansion -Liberian Presidency- President Sirleaf is on record to have said: “I don’t care! They can demonstrate all they want even for a whole year, I am enjoying this benign moment.”
It can be recalled that the then Liberian National Police Inspector General Col. Chris Massaquoi physically assaulted a journalist on the grounds of the Temple of Justice, which the home of the Liberian Supreme Court. The former Police boss reportedly assaulted the journalist because the journalist took his picture and “the camera light flash in my face!” Pundits believe the administration, frequent lawsuits against the media on a label charges is an attempt to silence dissent in Liberia.
Also a former Minister in the current government, Vaflor Gayflor threatened to sue the New Vision newspaper for exposing her reported corrupt practices. She demanded that the paper retract the story or face lawsuit, but the paper stood by its accurate report, it is over eleven years now since she issued the threats to file the legal action. Sadly, media houses that were threatened with lawsuit were persistent in reporting and investigation corrupt practices in the public sector. Theses newspapers have been busy investigating corruption cases and nepotism in the Liberian government.
Henry Costa, a radio talk show host was on March 21, 2014, arrested, detained at the Monrovia Central Prison and charged with “Terrorist Threat, Menacing, and Criminal Coercion”. Reporting the incident, The Analyst newspaper said the arrest was based on a complaint filed against Costa by Fombah Sirleaf, Director of National Security Agency. The station, which is very critical of government, institutions and individuals was on several occasions interrupted before finally be close down by the government through the court for reportedly failures to settle its tax obligation.
Another Journalist George Borteh, the Acting Vice President of the Judicial Reporters Association of Liberia (JURAL) and a reporter for The New Republic newspaper, was thrown in prison on 12 October, 2012, after taking a photo of Police Director Chris Massaquoi at the Temple of Justice in Monrovia. Borteh was detained for over three hours.
There have been several other cases of violations against the media by state security personnel; however, some of these accusations published are subject to further inquiries for exactitude. But in most instances, actions have been taken against state security officers that manhandled journalists while others accusers remain scot-free.
The Analysis: Taylor and the Media
To achieve his goals, Mr. Taylor used several techniques including the confiscation of rural radio stations and looted the equipment of the ones that the NPFL couldn‘t seize. They sometimes destroyed items that could not be moved. In certain instances, several broadcast houses out of the range of control were set ablaze. This was never limited to only radio stations but other private institutions and business houses. The ELBS and ELWA, just to name few, suffered seizure of broadcast equipment or destruction.
Just like Taylor, almost all the heads of the belligerent groupings wanted to create and operate their own media propaganda machinery to influence the population both under their controlled territories and other areas. People who resided in these areas were forced to listen to radio stations in their areas. Whenever they wanted news and radio programming from area out of faction control, they would lock themselves up in their homes and lower the volume of their radios.
The other factions were unsuccessful in matching the resources and scope of the propaganda that the NPFL leader created. Mr. Taylor‘s former Liberia Broadcasting Cooperation and KISS FM were effective in the propaganda to mislead the masses. In the rebels ‘territories, especially the one under Taylor‘s NPFL, it was a serious crime to listen to news and programming on radio stations operating from Monrovia.
Greater Monrovia,‘ as it was called was governed by the Interim Government headed by University of Liberia Professors, Dr. Amos Sawyer and a Cllr. David Kpormakpor. The interim government was fully supported by the peacekeepers. They succeeded in dislodging the various factions.
During the invasion and subsequent fall of Taylor‘s Gbarnga stronghold, ULIMO-K captured alive a renowned broadcast Journalist of the Gbarnga –ELBC Radio Station and chopped off his fingers and was later found dead. LPC which was also in a fierce contest with ULIMO-K for the control of Gbarnga captured a Bassa vernacular announcer, Philip Yogar, of the very radio station while escaping from the bullets and wrath of the advancing armed bandits when he fell in an LPC‘s ambush.
He was searched and the station‘s ID card was found with him and for that, his head was placed on a solid rock and smashed to death with an axe. Again, a journalist from Gbarnga who came to Monrovia to print his newspaper was seized by the INPFL and placed in a sealed container to be blown up with an RPG round, but through the grace of providence, a rescue team from the NPFL‘s Representatives stationed in Monrovia rushed to the scene and was released upon serious negotiation.
Due to the tactical strategy adopted from the NPFL wherein journalists picked up in conflict areas were incorporated into its public relations network thereafter while providing protection and some items to feed on, are used to provide coverage for their activities as well as promulgating the usefulness of their missions. These embedded journalists, especially when LURD and MODEL collectively mounted the war theater (battlefield) purposely to capture Charles Ghankay Taylor or to see his back were very mindful not to cross the thin red line in order to avoid being branded enemy journalists or spies.
As a result, violations of their rights or encroachment on their security or wellbeing remain an untold story due to little or no information simmering from those two warring factions. But let it also be made emphatically clear here that this does not mean in any way that it was all bread and butter or honeymoon for those journalists trapped in those two factions ‗web because while some were operating against their will, others had to swallow the bitter pills and often remain mute in the face of psychological threats just to save their own lives or the lives of their loved ones, relatives and friends. With trust and confidence in history, the actual saga shall truly be known by and by.
The limitation of journalist as a result of the civil crisis, led several of them to take sides with politician in supporting their cause. Also, because journalists were inefficient and not scheduled in conflict and peace reporting, the publics were left with nothing but to guess the true nature and cause of the civil crisis. (Gray, Moses J, 2006 Report to American Press in Washington, D.C).
Some of the difficulties are based on the thinking or the mentality of the executors of the conflict on the one hand and the public. The inability of the journalists under conflict to have access to communication vis-sa-vis the outside world in many instances making it extremely difficult for journalists to fairly report since they are allowed to use the facilities of the authority (either government of rebels) on the side they are stationed.
For example: journalist found it difficult to report fearlessly on the side of Mr. Taylor and other hand on the side of ECOMOG. What happens usually in such a dilemma is those foreign journalists fill the gap by reporting unbiasly as the conflict executors fear them far international reprisal. ( Joe W. Mulbah, interview on October 2, 2006)
For instance-BBC report on the 1996 Monrovia fractional fighting that former rebel fighter were burring people alive in central Monrovia. Local journalists who brave the storm by venturing in the former rebel controlled zone to hold an interview with the former rebel leader, were cut in the web, accused of sending unbiased report to international wires( Journalist Gray in his October 2006 report to American Press in Washington, D.C).
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.
On several occasions, the author of this article was held under gun point and on some occasion manhandled by irregular forces and rebel fighters on grounds that he was one of the local journalists who were accused of passing unbiased information regarding the ex-rebels ugly deeds over to the international wires.
Journalists who attempted to venture or reporting in conflict areas usually experience lots of difficulties, sometimes lost their lives or found themselves being either kidnapped or incarceration. Reporting in conflict zones is very difficult and dangerous because as a journalist, the side you find yourself in either rebel or government controlled, were expected you to report in their favor, report only good happening, and not the ugly side. Anything on the contrary, you will be hunted.
Also, if you are reporting from one group controlled area and that side is overrun by the other side is a gun battle, if you are caught in the web, you either be killed or severely manhandled. For instance, in 1994 when Charles Taylor’s NPFL former stronghold of Gbarnga fell to another rebel group, there was killing even where, a local journalist was captured and all his fingers were cut off. He was forced to commit suicide (1999 August Edition, The Forum Newspaper).
In the 3rd world, like Liberia ill-regular forces do not subscribe to the Geneva Convention. This poses a serious impediment for journalists play smooth role operating in hot spot. Both ill-regular forces and government soldiers are in most instances feel uncomfortable with journalist because they fear for international reprisal. Government usually engages in several tactics to force journalists to report in its favor by libeling the jargon “Yellow Journalism”.
The World (Yellow Journalism” is being so misused by state authorities to the extent it become a household word. In a conflict area, when a journalist report the actual story of happenings, that journalist is the labeled and referred to as enemy”” by the group the report is against. Sometimes, the public “lash out at journalists just the journalist, not reported exactly what they want to hear, (Journalist Moses M. Zangar,Jr, August, 2006 interview).
The growth of newspapers was reduced to a ‘mare praise’ singing tools for the government. During the decade of Samuel K. Doe’s rule which commenced in 1980, the press witnessed the proliferation of newspapers. Doe’s clamp down on the press was heavy. It sent a clear message to journalists that the proliferation of newspaper was not a definite progress of press freedom. For example, the late Rufus M. Darploh in 1988 was imprisoned in the infamous Belleh Yellah for investigation the Monrovia Central Prism.(J. Moses Gray October 2006 report to American Press in Washington, D.C)
The Samuel K. Doe Government closed down Daily observer at least five times between 1980 and 1990. The paper was founded in 1980 with Kenneth Best as Managing editor and Rufus D. Darploh as the first Editor. It was published by the Liberia Observer Corporation.
In March 1990, during the heat of the Liberian civil war, attempts were made to burn the office of the observer by men suspected to be agents of the government. For instance, the late Rufus Darpoh who suffered state security abuses and assaults on many occasions is amongst dozens of local journalists with similar experience.
Just to name a few, the late Charles Gbeayohn was picked up from his home by members of the disbanded Special Anti-Terrorist Unit and subsequently killed for refusing to release a tape of the aborted coup attempt by General Thomas G. Quiwonkpa, 1985. The late Bobby Tapson and Jerome Dalieh of the News Newspaper, arrested for reporting government spending a pretty over US$50,000.00 to repair a Russian built helicopter.
Hassan Bility of The Analyst newspaper was mercilessly flogged and torture during the Taylor’s regime, for alleged acts of espionage and subversion, which of course have left journalist Bility virtually life time medical problem. Besides, journalists and human rights activists in Monrovia also suffered the worst reprisals in what appears to be the targeted and systematic looting, arson and rape of residents caught up in the conflict.
Hassan Bility, the ex-editor of the independent weekly “The Analyst,” was arrested on 24 June, together with three other Liberians; on suspicion of operating a rebel terrorist cell in Monrovia. The government has twice failed to honor a court order to produce the detainees in court.
Journalist Bility has been accused of plotting with anti-government rebels to kill former President Charles Taylor. Bility’s newspaper was extremely critical of Taylor’s regime, and has been shut down by the government twice this year. In the attempt to exercise their right to inform and express themselves freely, the media in Liberia under the former autocratic regimes found themselves on a roller coaster ride for the past decade.
For instance, journalist Lyndon Ponnie, Editor of “The Concord Times” newspaper, was a constant victim of harassment and death threats. He was accused of allegedly embarking on a campaign to discredit former President Charles Taylor’s government. In 1999, “The Concord Times”, relying on the auditor general’s annual report, published a series of articles that pointed to corruption in the government. The paper was banned by Taylor’s government in 2000. Independent journalist Lyndon Ponnie narrowly escaped death when armed men attacked his home on 12 June 2003 and robbed him of all possessions.
On June 22, 1988, Washington Post correspondent, Blaine Harden was banned from Liberia after publishing a story on corruption in the Liberian government. On June 15, 1989 ELWA was closed by the government for broadcasting ―false news.‖ Also on January 23, 1998, a group of eight Liberian Police officers led by Saa Gbollie, an Assistant Director of Police flogged and beat Hassan Bility, Managing Editor of The National.
The Ministry of Information under Taylor on October 19, 1998 stopped newspapers and radio stations from posting contents on the internet. On the 21st of the same month, Taylor accused the media and human rights groups of seeking to destroy Liberia‘s image.
Two former reporters of the INQUIRER, Josephus Moses Gray and Jerue Gibson in April 1996 were arrested by Taylor‘s fighters during the late night hour and tortured. The fighters demanded that both journalists, who were arrested in different locations in the district of Gardnersville, give them money. Their homes were looted, forcing the two to flee their homes.
On May 11, 2002 Emmanuel Mondaye, formally a reporter of the INQUIRER newspaper was arrested, tortured by Taylor‘s body guards. The guards who attempted killing the reporter but later decided to detain him for three days in Bong County accused Mondaye of being a spy for the rebels.
The brutality against journalists and media practitioners affected several others including Sam Dean, formally of the Monrovia Guardian newspaper who on August 20, 2001 was detained by former Police Director, Paul Mulbah. He was arrested and detained for printing an article critical of Director Mulbah.
The attacks on media institutions also affected The News and the Monrovia Guardian newspapers which were shut down on November 1, 2001 upon the order of Taylor, while on February 12, 2002 two journalists, Stanley Seakor, and Ellis Togba of The Analyst were arrested. They were accused of printing articles against the interests of the Taylor administration.
On October 22, 1998, former Justice Minister Eddinton Varmah said that the government‘s prohibition on internet broadcasting was illegal and the same month the Ministry of Labor ordered Star Radio administrators Jeanette Carter and George Bennett to leave the country on grounds that they were working illegally.
In December 1997, Alex Redd, a former reporter of Radio Ducor was abducted by plain clothes security officers after covering the funeral of Samuel Dokie. Redd was harassed, beaten, abducted, arrested, and tortured by state security officers in late 1997.
In 1999, Isaac Menyongaiwas held without charge after refusing to disclose a source he used for an article on a South African businessman with ties to the Liberian government. Some detentions were apparently calculated moves ordered by Taylor, including, for example, the arrest of PUL ex-President Suah Deddeh in March 2000 as he left the Executive Mansion.
In January 1992, Issac Bantu and Dan Browne were detained and held at the INPFL‘s Caldwell base. By 1999, Monrovia was home to ten newspapers, which was many more than existed in 1997. Charles Taylor, however, was no friend of the independent press, and the Liberian media soon faced a level of repression reminiscent of the years under President Doe.
Two Nigerian journalists – Christopher Imodibe of the Guardian and Tayo Awotusin of the Champion Newspapers, respectively were starved to death by the NPFL, 1990 on Jan 25. Taylor blamed the murders on a ―rebel within the NPFL. The two Nigerian journalists were tortured and flogged twice a day, morning and evening and were denied food, water and open air. Taylor‘s NPFL accused them of espionage.
On January 11, 1996 Taylor‘s Police stormed the offices of the Inquirer, looking to arrest Jacob Doe, former Pruction Manager of the paper in relation to an article titled ―Jungle Justice at Police Station‖ about the arrests of two editorial staffers of the paper, James Seitua and Stanton Peabody.
The same year, Sando Moore, ex-publisher of The National, and editor Keabah Kortu were summoned by the former Minister of Justice, Francis Garlawulo regarding an article published on NPFL and Lt. Gen. Jack the-Rebel. Moore was beaten and detained.
A year after, former Information Minister Joe Mulbah on November 19, 1997 announced that the New Democrat newspaper would not be allowed to publish in the country. While on January 10, 1996 Stanton Peabody was arrested while attempting to intervene on behalf of James Seitua.
In 1997 six men believed to be former NPFL fighters operating under the alleged instruction abducted one Chris Teah, an associate of Al-Jerome Chede, forcing Chede to flee the country to the USA for fear of being killed. He ran a populace Radio Talk Show, “Issues in the Press”. On December 1, 1997 seven journalists from The Inquirer were taken to the Taylor’s residence, where they were interrogated and received death threats. They include Bana Sackie, D. Emmanuel Nah and A. John Kollie; Nah and Kollie are deceased.
On November 23, 1998, a group of ex-combatants stormed the offices of the Sabannoh Printing Press, attacked employees and journalists, destroyed machinery and copies of The News and the Inquirer. Sheriff Adams and Nyekeh Forkpa of The News on January 13, 1999 were charged with criminal contempt, while Judge William Metzger had previously placed two other journalists from the New Democrat in contempt of court. On March 1, 1999 Philip Moore, formerly of The News was arrested on charges of ―criminal malevolence‖, while on March 5, 1999 Isaac Menyongai of the Heritage was detained without charge for refusing to disclose the source of a story.
Four international journalists from Britain‘s Channel Four Insight News on August 22, 2000 were arrested. David Barrie, Timothy Lambden, Sorius Samura and Gugulakhe Radebe were arrested by the Taylor‘s government and charged with espionage. They were later released. On September 1, 2000, all the editorial staffs of New Democrat were forced to escape the country after receiving death threats for an article published, while three newspapers (the New National, The Analyst, and the Monrovia Guardian) had their equipment seized by Police.
Four journalists of the News newspaper, Bobby Tapson, Joseph Bartuah, Abdullah Dukuly, and Jerome Dalieh on February 21, 2001 were arrested and charged for publishing an article questioning fiscal policy in government. The article uncovered that the government had spent US50, 000 on a helicopter, whereas that money could be used on projects seeking to better the lives of Liberians.
Under Taylor regime, the media was “undersized” while the state-owned media, LBS “attempts with much difficulty to dominate public opinion agenda-setting.” Prior to Taylor’s rule, media workers were embroiled in a seven-year civil war, forced to either flee the country or become party to the conflict.
The Liberian media were attacks on several occasions while some journalists including myself were taken to a graveside to be killed but later released through the intervention of a member of the ill-regular forces. Death threats were regularly used to silence the independent media, (CPJ 2003 report on the Liberian media).
Over the past, Independent journalists have faced newspaper closures at the order of the Information Ministry and “have had a full share of incessant, unpredictable and violent harassment by security personnel. Perhaps, for the security a force, the only condition for peaceful coexistence with the media was when the latter stop being critical and independent.
On 25 August, Liberian authorities released four journalists for Britain’s Channel Four who were detained for a week on espionage charges. On 18 August, Sorious Samura of Sierra Leone, Gugulakhe Radebe of South Africa, and David Barrie and Timothy John Lambon of the United Kingdom were arrested and indicted on espionage charges under claims that they intended to produce a documentary that was “damaging and injurious” to the country.
During the decades of civil war, journalists and human rights activists in Monrovia have suffered the worst reprisals in what appear to be targeted and systematic attacks on residents caught up in the conflict. Former two former investigative reporters of the independent newspaper “The News”, the late Bobby Tapson and award winning feather writer, Bill Jarkloh, as well as Joe Watson of the state-owned Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS), were abducted on 12 June by the disbanded LURD rebels. They were released almost one week later.
On 5 June, Stanley McGill, another former reporter with “The News”, was brutally assaulted by armed men who also confiscated his laptop(CPJ 2003 report on the Liberian media). One week before, on 27 May, he was attacked by three armed men wearing uniforms of the Presidential elite guard, the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU).
The men robbed him of his personal effects, and left with a “promise” to “get back.” The mother of Patrick Wolokpor, a former reporter with the newspaper “Inquirer”, was shot and killed by elements of the ATU when she protested the killing of her dog by the soldiers; Patrick died in 2011.
Mr. Taylor, during his six-year rule 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 ex-President 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 and closed newspapers that exposed government corruption or rights abuses. As the war between government forces and 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.(CPJ 2003 report on the Liberian media).
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.
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 ex-President Doe, Mr. Taylor’s rebel forces murdered the two journalists, who were working in Liberia in the early 1990s.
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 that still operated 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.
Mr. 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. He 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.
On February 8, the same year, Mr. Taylor declared a state of emergency that broadened authorities’ powers to limit press freedom. The journalists were released the next day, and the newspaper was allowed to resume publication. But The Analyst was closed again in April, when officials ordered it to cease publication “indefinitely” and Police ransacked its offices. Taylor interfered with the print media in other ways as well.
Ex-President Taylor banned the private Star Radio in 2000 and revoked the shortwave broadcast license for the Catholic Church–owned Radio Veritas in 2001 for alleged “anti-government reporting,” leaving once Kiss FM and Radio Liberia International, both of which the President used to own, as the only stations with nationwide range.
Josephus Moses Gray, Contributing Writer