Government Shuts Down News, Arrests Board Chairman
For the second time in less than a year, The News newspaper has been shutdown for alleged tax arrears due government. The Chairman of the Board of Directors of the paper, Mr. Wilson Tarpeh, is reported arrested by the police for interrogation on what police Director Paul Mulbah called "sensitive matters". According to news report from Monrovia, the Assistant Minister for Revenue, Mr. George Howe, said "the decision was taken for the failure of the two media houses to settle their tax obligations to government ." A second paper, the Monrovia Guardian, was also ordered closed.
Known for its persistent investigative reporting style, The News newspaper has often clashed with the government in the past. On February 21, 2001, four of its senior editors (Joseph G. Bartuah, Abdullah Dukuly, Jerome Dalieh, and Bobby Tapson) were arrested and imprisoned on the charge of espionage because the paper had revealed that the Liberian government was engaged in extra-budgeting expenditure by spending about $50,000.00 on the repair of helicopters which many believed are owned by Mr. Taylor and used for gunrunning and arms trafficking. The paper argued that the money could have been used to address the countrys neglected and aging infrastructure such as water, electricity, etc.
But Liberian news watchers, however, believe that this recent closure appears not only selective and targeted, but seemed motivated by a desire on the part of the government to clampdown on the paper because of its aggressiveness in exposing the mockery and the public relations disaster, when President Taylor attempted to portray himself as a disciplinarian by publicly flogging his 13-year old daughter, Edena, in front of her fellow schoolmates at the J. J. Roberts United Methodist school in Sinkor a few weeks ago. The news watchers also opined that a recent article published by The News in which the paper highlighted the portion of the UN Panel report that deals with the Liberian government extra budgetary spending is not "palatable to the Taylor regime".
"Tax arrears is simply a pretext the government is using to close down the paper", a Liberian journalist observed.
Meanwhile, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), has registered its concern about the closure of the paper. According to local news reports, the PUL said "these developments have the potential to negatively impact on the government and media relations." The statement further added that, "while the Union has no intention to support any attempt by anyone to deny government of its legitimate tax, tax enforcement must be channeled through the tax court."
Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) - Reporters Without Borders - has also sent a letter to Liberias Minister of Finance, Mr. Nathaniel Barnes urging the Liberian government to reopen the two papers.
General Secretary of RSF, Robert Menard, said, "These newspapers are trying to survive and they cannot pay their taxes to the government. The authorities know it and we fear it is a pretext to shut down two independent and very critical newspapers."