Liberia: Under Pressure From Government, Lonestar Cell MTN Evicts Costa’s Roots FM From Transmitter Site
Monrovia – Henry Costa’s Roots FM 102.7 may remain off the air for some time after the management of Lonestar Cell MTN whose facility the station has been using since February 2014 to host its transmitter, informed the station’s management that it could no longer allow them to use its tower to broadcast.
Lonestar Cell MTN, like most cellular companies, hosts radio stations across the country as part of its corporate and social responsibility.
A Dejected Mr. Costa told FrontPageAfrica Monday that he was informed by the Lonestar Cell MTN Management Monday of the decision which came from pressure from the George Weah-led government.
“I operated from that facility for years under former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and she never one day forced Lonestar Cell MTN to do what they have been forced to do today,” Mr. Costa lamented.
The Liberia National Police last Saturday issued a press statement stating that Late Saturday that it had cordon off the transmitter facility to carry out an investigation and declaring the area a crime scene.
Probe will be Impartial, LNP Says
The LNP statement explained “that based on standard investigative procedures, a Lone Star Communication Corporation (Lonestar Cell) transmission site on Johnson Street, in Central Monrovia where an armed robbery incident allegedly occurred has been cordoned off by officers since Friday, February 15, 2019 to prevent the tampering of evidence and in furtherance of the investigation. Let it be made categorically clear that no LNP officer has visited nor been deployed at the premises of Roots FM 102.7 as alleged by its Management.”
The action led to Roots FM going off the air. But the LNP, defending its action, clarified that it had not shut down Roots FM 102.7 FM as insinuated by its management.
The LNP said Lonestar Cell management, the owner of the facility where the armed robbery is alleged to have occurred, has been called in and are assisting the police with the investigation. “The LNP is pursuing additional persons of interest in connection with alleged armed robbery and assures the general public that it will release its investigative report in the soonest possible time. The public can be assured of an impartial investigation.”
According to Mr. Costa, the cellular company was given an ultimatum by Justice Minister Frank Musah Dean. But Cllr. Dean, responding to a FrontPageAfrica inquiry Monday referred FPA to LoneStar Cell MTN. “Lone Star is a company duly constituted and existing under the laws of Liberia.
The Company makes its own decisions,” the minister said.
Late Sunday, the cellular giant issued the following statement offering clarity on the matter.
“Lonestar Cell MTN wishes to clarify recent reports concerning the Liberian National Police investigation of a transmitter allegedly stolen from Roots FM which hosts the Costa Show. The transmitter in question was located on Lonestar Cell MTN’s property and not Roots FM’s property. The Liberian National Police has cordoned off the site during its ongoing investigation with which Lonestar Cell MTN is fully cooperating. Lonestar Cell MTN wants to make it clear that the site in question has never been under the ownership or control of Roots FM and regrets any public misconception that may have been caused by statements of individuals to the contrary.”
‘They Will Never Silence Me’, Costa Says
Mr. Costa posted on his personal Facebook page Monday that he may be off the air for a while.
“My dear friends, it is with profound regret that I must inform you that we will be off the air for a while. The government has pressured Lonestar Cell MTN to remove our transmitter and antenna from their site, it was the condition upon which they allowed Lonestar Cell MTN access back to their own facilities. I want to thank Lonestar Cell MTN for having hosted us for the past 5 years, like many other radio stations across the country. I am grateful to them, and I understand their situation. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf never did this. Today, it’s Henry Costa, tomorrow they will come for others. We are back in the dark days! We will be back on air soon. They will NEVER silence me!”
The station’s transmitter and other broadcast equipment were stolen by armed men in the early hours of February 11m 2019, marking the the second incident at the stations’ premises in Monrovia in as many weeks.
Workers were doing regular maintenance on the Roots FM transmitter at about 3 a.m. on February 11 when they were overpowered by two armed men who stole the transmitter and other equipment. The station was off the air until February 13, when it was able to borrow a transmitter from another station, Costa said; Roots FM was also able to purchase a new transmitter through a GoFundMe campaign.
On January 31, Roots FM was unable to broadcast for 13 hours after armed men overpowered the station’s security guards and cut its transmitter cables. That attack came as Roots FM was covering a controversial government fishing deal that the Liberian government was forging with Senegal, Costa said.
Several international journalists groups have called on the Weah-led government to curb the constant intimidation of Mr. Costa and his station.
The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement last week, called on Liberian authorities to ensure that those responsible for two recent attacks on independent broadcaster Roots FM are swiftly arrested and prosecuted.
“We urge the Liberian government to send a strong message that it is committed to freedom of the press by moving speedily to arrest those behind the attacks on Roots FM,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ Africa program coordinator, in New York. “Ensuring that the culprits are identified, prosecuted, and convicted will signal to those who want to silence the media that they will find no ally in President Weah’s administration.”
The France-based Reporters Without Borders for its part, condemned recent attacks on Roots FM, which has interrupted the station’s operations.
“These repeated attacks on a privately-owned radio station critical of Liberia’s President George Weah constitute a serious violation of the freedom to inform, RSF said. “This second attack in less than two weeks clearly shows that Roots FM is being subjected to a persistent and unacceptable violation of the freedom to inform in which a government role cannot be ruled out,” said Assane Diagne, the head of RSF’s West Africa office. “This radio station’s security must be guaranteed.”
Low Ranking for Press-Challenged Liberia
Liberia, ranked 89th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 8 World Press Freedom Index, is currently debating a bill before the National Legislature with modifications, to repeal some sections of the Penal Law of Liberia in an effort to decriminalize free speech and create an unfettered media environment.
The Bill submitted by President Weah on May 31, 2018 seeks to amend Chapter 11 of Penal Law of 1978, repealing Sections 11.11 on criminal libel against the President; 11.12 on Sedition and 11.14 on criminal malevolence.
In his submission, President Weah said, Chapter 111, Article 15 of the Constitution provides for Freedom of Speech and expression and a caveat of an abuse thereof. Additionally, Liberia is a signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration which demands that African countries abolish insult and criminal defamation law.”
The President also reminded the National Legislature of the legal instruments on press freedom Liberia established, such as the Freedom of Information Law (FOI) and the Independent Information Commission.
If enacted into law, the Act will be known as the Kamara Abdullai Kamara Act of Press Freedom, in honor of deceased journalist Kamara Abdullai Kamara, former President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL).
Despite the legislation which has been passed by both houses in the national legislature, many foresee challenges regarding implementation, especially in the wake of what is unfolding in the Roots FM saga.