IPI Condemns Journalists Arrest, Reminds Taylor of Rights Violations
August 22, 2000

The Vienna-based network of editors and media executives, the International Press Institute (IPI), has strongly condemned the arrest of 4 international journalists currently held by the Liberian Government on allegations of spying and called for their immediate release. IPI also reminded President Charles Taylor of Liberia's signing of the African Charter of Human Rights, along with other international human rights conventions which guarantee the freedom of speech and o the press.

IPI appeal is amongst the series of appeals sent to President Taylor for the immediate release of the journalists. US President Clinton's Special Democracy Envoy to Africa, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, told CNN news that no one believes the journalists were on spying mission, although the Liberian Government maintains it has evidence the journalists were collecting information to implicate President Taylor in diamond smuggling and gunrunning. He called on President Taylor, with whom he special ties, to release the journalists.

IPI emphasized that it "regards the arrests of the four TV journalists as a violation of everyone's right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" as guaranteed by Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. May I also respectfully remind Your Excellency that Liberia is a signatory of the African Charter on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression. Therefore, IPI urges you to ensure the immediate release of the journalists. IPI also urges Your Excellency to do everything in your power to ensure that journalists working in Liberia are allowed to report freely and without fear of intimidation and harassment.

The media organization continued, "as IPI pointed out in a 17 July letter to Your Excellency, several persons suspected of being critical of the government have in the past disappeared. In addition, security officials have reportedly been using arrests and interrogations as a way to silence critical voices. Following the 1997 elections, The New Democrat newspaper, whose offices were burned down in 1996, was refused a permit to re-start publication. In July 2000, the government effectively stopped production of the paper again by barring all advertising in its pages".

IPI recalled that, "According to [its] information, Britons David Barrie and Timothy Lambon, South African Gugulakhe Radebe and Sierra Leonean Somoura Sorious were arrested in their hotel rooms in Monrovia on 18 August. In a statement released on 19 August, Justice Minister Eddington Varmah said the four were arrested for carrying out "acts against the security of the state." In addition, he claimed that their "clandestine activity" was aimed at "providing assistance to foreign powers," but did not provide details of the charges. We understand that they are to appear before a court on Monday, 21 August.

The journalists, all with Insight News Television, had been in Liberia for three weeks shooting a documentary series for the London-based Channel 4. A spokesperson for Channel 4 said the four had been engaged in legitimate journalistic activities and that the crew had obtained written permission to film from the Ministry of Information".

Press freedom in Liberia since the July 1997 elections has suffered serious setbacks. In 1996 President Taylor spearheaded the destruction of media institutions in the country in preparation for the 1997 elections which he won. The President owns a series of radio stations along with a number of newspapers in the country. Many of the radio stations are equipped with parts looted from state and private stations. In recent times, the Government has embarked on secretly subsidizing private and "friendly" newspapers while banning advertisements in critical ones such as The New Democrat, whose offices and equipment were burnt down in 1996 upon the orders of President Taylor, then a member of a transitional government. Star Radio, brought into the country by aid donors, was ordered closed down, with the President vowing that it would not open as long as he is power because, he claimed, it was geared to undermining his regime.

Meanwhile, according to BBC, "a Foreign Office minister Peter Hain warned that the detention of the journalists -- two Britons, a South African and a Sierra Leonean -- had put Liberia on a collision course with the international community."