Exiled Journalists Condemn Press Clampdown In Liberia

The Perspective

November 27, 2001

The Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) condemns the arbitrary closure of the independent "The News" and the Monrovia Guardian newspapers, and the detention of Wilson Tarpeh, chairman of the board of directors of The News.

According to reports, The News and the Monrovia Guardian were shut down on November 20, supposedly for tax arrears owed the government, and Mr. Tarpeh was subsequently arrested by police for interrogation. No official reason was given for his detention.

However, it has come to the attention of ALJA’s executive members that the government’s actions against The News was prompted by a lead story in the paper quoting the recent report of the U.N. Panel of Experts that investigated Liberia’s compliance with U.N. sanctions imposed on the country for President Taylor's involvement in gun and diamond smuggling with Sierra Leonean rebels. On the day of Tarpeh’s arrest, the paper had named several officials of government who, according to the U.N. report, had violated the U.N travel restriction by secretly travelling out of Liberia to other African and European countries.

From all indications, the closure of the newspapers without due process of law and the detention of Mr. Tarpeh amount to a violation of the Liberian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, and also a violation of the personal freedom of Mr. Tarpeh.

While Mr. Tarpeh was reportedly released from further detention on November 26, we call for the immediate reopening of the offices of The News and Monrovia Guardian newspapers. There can be no question that the government’s actions are illegal and politically motivated.

In February 2001, the offices of The News and Monrovia Guardian newspapers were closed supposedly for tax arrears. During that time, three editors and a reporter of The News were imprisoned and charged with espionage, after the paper reported that the government of President Charles Taylor had spent US $50,000 for helicopter repairs and US $23,000 on Christmas cards and souvenirs at a time Liberia’s social services are in disrepair and civil servants had gone unpaid for months.

We view the arbitrary closure of the two papers as a political move, rather than one necessitated by economic factors, considering that numerous other business entities with higher arrears still have their doors open.

We also call for the immediate and unconditional release of two lawyers, who have been jailed for the past several weeks for signing a statement by the Liberia National Bar Association criticizing the House of Representative for violating the Liberian Constitution by arbitrarily detaining the bar’s president. The detention of the lawyers without due process of law once again speaks to the rule of the jungle prevailing in war-ravished Liberia.

Since coming to power in 1997, the Taylor regime has maintained a policy of savagely punishing free speech. Kangaroo trials, arbitrary detention, intimidation, harassment, and in other instances politically-motivated murders have become common place, making a mockery of the civil war he waged on the country ostensibly to rid Liberia of such draconian and barbaric policies. We must remind the Liberian Government that freedom of speech or of the press is not a gift, which the government can withdraw at will. It is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Liberian Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mr. Taylor should be reminded that he would be made accountable for the havoc he continues to wreak on Liberia through his brutal and barbaric actions. We wish to serve notice on the rebel leader-turned-president of Liberia that, in the fullness of time, he would be brought to book for war crimes and crimes against humanity for the campaign of death and destruction he continues to wage in Liberia and the West African sub-region, which has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people, including the murder of five American Catholic nuns in 1992.

Given the history of Taylor’s destructive influence in West Africa, we hope that the United States and the international community would leave no stone unturned in investigating reports of Taylor’s connections with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network, regarding diamonds smuggling in collaboration with rebels in Sierra Leone.

ALJA welcomes reports that the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa has begun public hearings on the role of Africa in the war on global terrorism. We are in agreement with the Chairman of the Committee, Representative Ed Royce (Republican-CA), who said during the committee’s first hearing recently that the general weakness of African governments as well as civil strife, which exists in several countries, makes parts of the continent hospitable grounds for terrorist operations.

Chairman Royce also said, "the subcommittee is particularly concerned by reports that al Qaeda has been dealing diamonds with Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front and Liberia’s President Charles Taylor. It is far overdue that we got serious about Liberia and Charles Taylor."

There can be no question that it is about time the United States considered a serious course of actions aimed at destroying this notorious ex-warlord’s terror network. There would be no peace in Liberia and the sub-region as long as Taylor remains in power with his terror network, which is supported by Libya, known to be a leading sponsor of terrorism in the world. The United States’ abandonment of Afghanistan and its traditional ally Liberia at the end of the Cold War was what provided the opportunity for the likes of bin Laden and Taylor to move in and thrive on anarchy. The September 11 terror attacks in the U.S. indicate that instability in other parts of the world, no matter how remote they may seem, can turn out to threaten the security of the United States.

We hope the U.S. would review its relationship toward Liberia and help the Liberian people recover from the continued state of death and destruction.

We call on the international community to continue to withhold any direct assistance to the brutal regime of Mr. Taylor until he subjects himself to the rule of law, respect for human rights, and good governance, and also until he desists from regional armed intervention projects leading to disintegration.

In another development, ALJA deeply regrets the death of eight journalists killed recently while on assignment in Afghanistan. We extend our condolences to the bereaved families and the news organizations they represented. Their death signifies the danger that journalists face reporting in countries such as Afghanistan and Liberia.

Dated this 27th Day of November, 2001

Signed: Gabriel I.H. Williams, Secretary General

Approved: Isaac D. E. Bantu, Acting President

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