Global Witness Condemns Arrests and Closure of Liberia’s Leading Newspaper
London – Global Witness has condemned the recent arrest of Front Page Africa staff and the sudden closure of the newspaper’s offices under a recent Liberian court order.
Despite staff members being released shortly after and the newspaper reopening a day later, the heavy-handed and intimidating tactics severely undermine press freedom in Liberia and could even be illegal.
It is also unclear why FrontPageAfrica staff were temporarily arrested, with no charges brought by the police.
The closure of Front Page Africa continues a worrying trend in which the independence of leading Liberian voices, including the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI), are being threatened.
“The decision of Liberian Judge Yamie Beisay to close Front Page Africa sends a chilling message to the Liberian press,” said Simon Clydesdale of Global Witness.
“Defamation suits should not be used to silence the press, and in this case Front Page Africa is being penalized months before the newspaper even has its first court date. The order to seize assets, including its office, must be rescinded immediately – as should the performance bond imposed upon the paper.”
“The decision of Liberian Judge Yamie Beisay to close Front Page Africa sends a chilling message to the Liberian press. Defamation suits should not be used to silence the press, and in this case Front Page Africa is being penalized months before the newspaper even has its first court date. The order to seize assets, including its office, must be rescinded immediately – as should the performance bond imposed upon the paper.” – Simon Clydesdale of Global Witness.
The Liberian Government has also recently undermined the independence of Liberia’s key transparency agency, LEITI – with President Weah illegally firing the Head of the Secretariat earlier last month (12 March), and using Liberian police to forcibly remove him from his office.
Global Witness, Front Page Africa, and the BBC have all reported on the illegal removal of Mr Karmo from LEITI.
LEITI is a semi-autonomous agency whose Multi-stakeholder Steering Group is empowered by law to appoint its Head of Secretariat. Instead the Liberian President has taken matters into his own hands.
“Having this kind of intimidation imposed on LEITI endangers the independence critical to its mandate to scrutinise and report on the payments oil, logging, mining, and plantation companies make to the government.” said Clydesdale.
“Liberian democracy requires independent voices and impartial information, like that provided by Front Page Africa and LEITI. President Weah should ensure that Liberia’s press – including the vital Front Page Africa – remains free, and reinstate LEITI’s Secretariat Head Konah Karmo.”
The defamation suit and how the closure took place: a timeline of intimidation
According to court documents seen by Global Witness, on 5 April Judge Beisay ordered that the offices of Front Page Africa – Liberia’s leading newspaper – be closed. Four days later, the police raided the paper and arrested its staff.
The order followed a legal complaint in which two plaintiffs reportedly brought a US$350,000 defamation action against Front Page Africa for publishing an advertisement that also appeared in other publications.
Judge Beisay “attached” all of the paper’s assets to the complaint, shutting its doors even through the case will not begin until June. Other publications who ran the advert have not faced court orders.
After being held under arrest for several hours, Front Page Africa’s staff members were released. The offices remained closed on 9 April, reopening only after it reportedly paid a US$5,000 performance bond to the court.
Judge Beisay’s order should be challenged
Under Liberian law, a court can only seize assets in a civil case if it has a “reasonable belief” that the plaintiff will win the case and that the defendant’s assets are hard to reach. (1) The closure of Front Page Africa’s office clearly shows their assets are easy to access.
On the day that police raided Front Page Africa, the Liberian Ministry of Information issued a statement, saying that “the closure of the FrontPage Africa newspaper and arrest of some of its staff was not on the orders of the government of Liberia.” (2)
The court order against Front Page Africa is only the most recent threat to independent Liberian voices since President George Weah took office in January of this year. On 22 March, President Weah verbally accused BBC stringer Jonathan Paye-Layleh of being “one of those that were against me.” (3)
Mr Paye-Layleh has chosen to leave Liberia for the time being. The Executive Mansion later sought to clarify that the President had not attacked Paye-Layleh, but was clarifying that the journalist’s past reporting had not been fair. (4)