Professional Journalism in Liberia Beclouded

By: Musue N. Haddad

The Perspective
March 6, 2001

Almost two weeks ago, on February 21,2001, the Liberian government arrested and charged four journalists of The NEWS newspaper, Editor-in-Chief Joseph G. Bartuah, Associate Editor Abdullai Dukuly, Sub-Editor Jerome Dalieh and reporter Bobby Tapson with espionage for an article published in that day's paper. The NEWS, an independent national daily, in its article captioned: "US$50.000 Spent on Helicopters" challenged the government spending of US$50,000.00 on the repairs of helicopters and US$23,000.00 on Christmas cards and souvenirs, while basic social services continue to crumble. The paper also compared those expenditures with government's inability to rehabilitate and maintain the John F. Kennedy public hospital.

Following the detention of the four Liberian journalists on the charge of espionage, their indictment, and government's refusal to grant them bail, concerns have heightened both at the national and the international level as to the actual motive of the Liberian Government for carrying out such arrest.

Subsequent to the arrest and detention of the four journalists, four newspapers were also closed for what government said were unpaid tax arrears. Most of the institutions described the tax arrears as overstretched.

While the state is holding the journalists for publishing falsehood, the court has however, charged that the defendants intentionally published the article to expose state defense information to foreign power(s) and enemies of the state.

The key question looming is: what is the Government's real motive for the action against the press? Many media watchers here described the case of the four journalists as a "chain of action orchestrated" to further crush the already censored and suppressed independent media and freedom of speech in Liberia. The prevalent view expressed is that in the midst of the discussion of sanctions and scrutiny, the Liberian Government is paranoid about views emanating out of the country that could challenge its propaganda campaign.

A recent example is the criticism in the United Nations Panel of Experts report about the Liberian government's alleged fueling of the Sierra Leone's war. Immediately, the Liberian Government ordered the grounding of aircrafts registered under its flag. Contrary to the government's pronouncement, the independent media gathered and disseminated that out of the eleven aircraft registered under the Liberian flag, four of the aircrafts based in Liberia were not affected by the government's decision. Two of the domestic based aircraft were running regular flights between Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, the report highlighted.

"If the government after such pronouncement can not ground the home based aircraft, how then can we be sure that the three others said to be based in Belgium, two in the United Arab Emirates and the unknown others are grounded?" a Liberian businessman visiting the United States asked rhetorically.

The selective sanctions call for all Liberian registered flights to be grounded, a ban on the importation of diamond and timber from Liberia, travel restriction on officials of the Liberian government and a new arms embargo. The decision to have Liberian registered aircraft grounded was reached after a UN Panel of Experts incriminated senior Liberian government officials and some foreign businessmen of gunrunning and diamond smuggling in Sierra Leone. The UN report also indicated that Liberian Aircraft Registry has been criminalized by a cartel of dubious businessmen in illegal deals with the acquiescence of the Liberian government.

So, what role does the media have in this international issue? An exiled Liberian media expert describes the case of the detained journalists as the latest pawn in Mr. Taylor's regional power play against the gloomy background of the of United Nations sanctions dangling over him. "President Taylor would like to test the resolve of the community in and out of Liberia, thus the detention of the journalists. The charge of espionage is the most bogus on the books that the regime, totally bereft of ideas on how to deal with its opponents, uses all the time to keep people in detention" the media specialist pointed out.

Alphonso Nyenuh, formerly of the Liberia Justice and Peace Commission, described the detention of the journalists as the Liberian government's ploy to further silence the media and civil society. Mr. Nyenuh pointed out that with the independent media completely silenced, the Taylor government will then comfortably continue to carry out its clandestine activities while publicizing the opposite without any checks and balance.

"This is a traceable pattern by President Charles Taylor. Look back to the looting and destruction of media institutions. Those equipment were used to set up his private media empire for propaganda" an exiled Liberian communicator who refused to be identified fearing reprisal against family members in that country noted.

A Nigerian journalist, Andy Ezeani, remembers President Charles Taylor for "presiding" over the killing of two of his colleagues-Nigerian Journalists (Kris Imodibie of the Guardian Newspaper and Tayo Awotusin of the Champion Newspaper) who were in Liberia to cover the war.

"What Taylor is doing in Liberia is a challenge to the leadership of ECOWAS, OAU and the free world at large. He should be made to face not only sanctions but put on trial later on for crimes against humanity," Mr. Ezeani who is presently visiting the United States explained.

The Nigerian journalist reasoned that Taylor,s antagonism to journalists can be understood against the background of the fears and hatred of all tyrants to the free press.
"It is a fear which is borne out of their fear for exposure of all the evils they perpetrate. But it is unfortunate people like him find themselves in the position of leadership in the 21st century", Mr. Ezeani regretted.

More than anytime, since the leadership of President Charles Taylor, several media institutions have suffered setbacks while others have shut their doors. There have also been countless cases of physical attacks and detention of journalists in that country. Observers see the detention of the four journalists as another repressive tactic being applied to further manipulate and control national decisions, and further suppress freedom of the press and speech.

Regrettably, with the arrest and detention of the four journalists, fear is beclouding the journalism profession in Liberia. The culture of silence is becoming endemic.
Having effectively silenced the political class of Liberia, President Charles Taylor is anxious to see a miscarriage of democracy in Liberia unless there is an immediate international pressure.

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