The Press and Human Rights Records of President Taylor: A Survey
By Musue N. Haddad
Since Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP) Government came to power in July 1997, freedom of expression and the press have suffered constant abuse and censorship. This period can be considered as the most dramatic and darkest moment in history of the Press in Liberia.
The NPP is an offshoot of the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Charles Taylor was leader of the NPFL that invaded Liberia and initiated the civil war that claimed the lives of over 250,000 people. The war lasted from December 1989 to the July 1997 election in which Taylor was declared winner.
Although during his inauguration President Taylor had pledged to uphold freedom of expression and of the press as well as other democratic values, the Liberian media, individuals and groups critical of the government continue to suffer harassment, personal attacks and intimidation.
From 1997 to date, over two-dozen journalists have fled the country, several media institutions have been closed and a countless number of human rights advocates and politicians perceived as anti-government have scurried into exile. Some have been silenced into submission.
Despite the outcry and international condemnation of the government’s policies, the government has not relented and has continued to clamp down on the press. On February 21, 2001, an intense attack occurred on the Liberian media when four journalists from The NEWS newspaper, an independent daily were detained for 37 days. They were charged with espionage in connection with an article captioned: “US $50,000.00 spent on helicopter". The article challenged the government for spending $50,000 to repair helicopters and US $23,000 on Christmas card and souvenir while basic social services continue to degenerate.
The article made reference to the government's publicized inability to rehabilitate institutions leading to the closure of hospitals and health centers and civil servants’ salary remained in arrears for several months. Instead, the US $23,000.00 Christmas cards in question bored the photograph of President Charles, which was sent out to relatives and friends of the first family. Anxious to exhibit its usual flamboyancy, the Christmas card in question became a mockery. Some of those who received the cards could not help to pass it onto others. President Charles Taylor's photo is placed on the cover of the card, and on top of the photo were the engraved words: "MARRY Christmas" instead of "MERRY Christmas".
And after the arrest of the four, including their managing editor Joseph G. Bartuah, The NEWS and three other newspapers closed for alleged unpaid taxes. Media institutions described the Taylor government's tax actions as unrealistic and a further attempt to muzzle the press and free speech.
Recently, the Chairman of the Board of The NEWS, Mr. Wilson Tarpeh was detained for five days by state security officers for unspecified reasons. When Tarpeh was detained on November 20, 2001, The NEWS and Guardian newspapers were shut on tax claims by government.
While the ruling NPP government is muzzling and weakening the independent press, it continues to establish and fund its own media establishments. These Government funded media establishments are not only flooding the market place, but are also used as propaganda tools portraying to the outside world that freedom of speech and other virtues of democracy are upheld and respected in Liberia. President Taylor's personal media empire the Liberia Communications Network (LCN) - established out of media institutions he seized during his rebel days, are presently operating with public funds, which includes short wave, FM radio stations and televisions. It is from LCN the people around the country, get their news. The short wave licenses for both Radio Veritas and Star Radio's having been withdrawn by the government, Taylor's LCN is the only broadcasting outfit with countrywide coverage.
To further muzzle the independent media, the president has bought more than 50% shares of the only newspaper printing press in Liberia, Sabannoh Printing Press. As a result, Sabannoh dictates to publishers and editors (what to be published and not to be published).
On the other hand, the government is reluctant to allow the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) to operate its own printing press - a printing press donated by the Carter Center in 1999. The print press was intended to enhance the independence of media institutions in Liberia, but the government considers that an unaffordable luxury. Recently, the PUL threathened to return the printing press since the organization was not allowed to operate the press.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, the press, and respect for human rights - also contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments to which Liberia is a signatory; the Liberian government views press freedom and free expression as a privilege that could be withdrawn anytime.
The arrest of the four journalists from British Television, Channel 4, in August (2000) on espionage charge, brought international attention on the Liberian government's excessive human rights violations. Ironically, these were the same prevailing human rights abuses among the major reasons highlighted by Charles Taylor for which in 1989, he announced that he was rebelling against the late President Samuel Doe.
Unfortunately, as the rebellion progressed, media practitioners and institutions became victims of the deliberate insanity carried out by the NPFL rebels. Journalists including two Nigerian journalists, media workers, prominent politicians and opinion leaders were killed and several were subjected to all forms of cruelty by Charles Taylor’s NPFL.
Journalists in the NPFL controlled areas were used for propaganda purposes. Alternative views were unthinkable for Journalists, media practitioners, prominent politicians and opinion leaders who lived in NPFL controlled territories.
Attacks on the media, journalists and voices of opinion have made it almost impossible to investigate and comment on human rights violations carried out by government within the country and the sub-region. The violations, which include political oppression, incarceration of political oppositions, social-culture and religious discriminations, extra judicial killings, abuse of individuals and groups are limitless. Fearing further attacks and reprisals, the independent press and other voices of opinion have become increasingly selective and moderate in speaking out on the widespread and brutal human rights abuses by the Taylor government. Using spurious laws and other subtle methods, it is evident that President Taylor is keen on effectively silencing the independent media and freedom of speech.
While international visibility is crucial to freedom of the press and speech and other human rights issues, the Liberian society desires solidarity and support to curb the severe impediments it suffers. It is imperative to see beyond the presidential pronouncements and campaigns aimed at blinding the world to the consistent and barbaric human rights violations the NPP government carries out within the sub-region and engages in other parts of the world.
However, the independent press is not the only victim of Mr. Taylor's ruthlessness. In his August 2, 1997, inaugural address, the former leader of the largest rebel group during the Liberian civil war, vowed that there would be no "witch-hunting" in his administration. But in less than four months after those assurances, a leading opposition politician and former deputy speaker of the Legislature, Samuel Saye Dokie, his wife, sister and cousin were abducted by Taylor's bodyguards and murdered. The killers are yet to be brought to justice.
The fear that followed the Samuel Dokie, his wife, sister and cousin, made members of the press to realize that they too were in danger. This became a reality, when Alex Redd, a broadcast journalist investigating the murder was abducted and tortured. And on July 10, 1998, Nowai Flomo, an outspoken market woman was abducted on the outskirts of Monrovia by nine members of the Presidential Guard.
Unlike the Dokies, whose mutilated and burnt bodies were found and subsequently buried by family members, Nowai Flomo’s body was never found.. Although her abductors are known, they are yet to be brought to justice. But following an outcry from civil groups and human rights organizations, the president appeared on his private television and argued that because the woman's body has not been found, the state lacks evidence to prosecute the accused. The police immediately abandoned the case and let the suspects go free.
On December 9, 1999, addressing students in Monrovia, James Torh, a human rights advocate, criticized the economic performance of the Taylor government. Although Torh's comment was as a review of President Taylor's statements and activities, he was charged with sedition. The government claimed that Torh was inciting the people to rebel against the Taylor government. Rather than face a judiciary, whose proceedings are directly influenced by the Executive, Torh fled the country.
In another case, when the University of Liberia students issued a press statement on the "on-going fighting in the northern part of Liberia - Lofa County," heavily armed police stormed the campus. The students were manhandled before being taken to the police station, where, " according to the police director, they were placed in ‘protective custody’". However, the students said while in detention, they were tortured.
The government’s attacks on students, however, did not begin with the statement questioning the "Lofa war". In an attempt to support the Press Union of Liberia in its campaign to secure the release of detained journalists, the University of Liberia Student Unification Party held a solidarity rally on its campus on March 21, 2001. While the rally was being held, officers of Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) known as Another Terrorist Unit, and members of the Liberian National Police in combat gear stormed the meeting and brutalized not only students, but also staff of the university and those persons in the vicinity. As a result, the entire University student leadership fled the country and are presently exiled in Ghana.
Moreover, during the attack on the campus, the ATU, a security group established without Legislature approval and with a secret training base near the NPFL stronghold of Gbarnga, was led by its commander General Momo Geebah and the police contingent by its director Paul Mulbah. The number of casualties from that raid remains unknown. Fear of reprisal attacks compels family members and victims to remain silent on the human rights violations they suffer.
The Taylor government's grudging intolerance of the media and free expression has shifted to an increased campaign of direct attacks on individual journalists, media institutions and other groups who speak of ills in the society or question government policies and activities within the sub-region.
Due to these various violations, the world must begin to see beyond the gimmick created to shield the destituteness of the Liberian society; the voices that have been strangulated to tiny whispers if not completely choked off, the forced and organized demonstrations/protest against the imposition of sanctions and lifting of arms embargo; the killings and massacres of innocent persons in Lofa County as a propaganda tool to hopefully get international sympathy that the government is a victim in these matters. Yet, the government’s restrictions of independent and international journalists to visit the Lofa war, makes it difficult for independent investigations of the prevailing situations in the country to be carried out. These are just few of the countless strategies used by Taylor and his cronies in sowing the seeds through which the Liberian society is illegitimately criminalized.