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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Liberia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Liberia, February 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566ac22.html [accessed 22 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

With rebel forces overring the capital, Monrovia, and the international community clamoring for his departure, Liberian President Charles Taylor resigned and accepted exile in Nigeria on August 11. Taylor's departure paved the way for a transitional national government – comprised, in part, of representatives from two rebel groups, as well as members of Taylor's government – to lead the country to elections planned for 2005.

During his six-year rule, Taylor ruthlessly cracked down on the political opposition and civil society activists to consolidate his power. As the last remaining openly critical sector of society, the Liberian private media, which Taylor regarded with a mix of suspicion and contempt, was continually subject to government repression.

The Taylor government's tactics for silencing critics were varied. Police banned independent radio stations perceived to have an "antigovernment" editorial line, and, using pretexts such as tax evasion, they closed newspapers that exposed government corruption or rights abuses. As the war between government forces and the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) intensified, the Taylor regime tightened its grip on information, imposing censorship policies that required all news stories on the rebellion to receive approval from the Information Ministry before publication or broadcast.

When formal censorship policies were insufficient, journalists were co-opted with bribes, driven into exile, or cowed into self-censorship with threats of imprisonment or physical assault. The tactics of intimidation culminated in brutal attacks against two journalists in 2002. Hassan Bility, editor-in-chief of the independent Analyst, was held for six months incommunicado and repeatedly tortured for alleged ties to LURD. In December 2002, Inquirer reporter Throble Suah was viciously attacked by agents of Taylor's notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit after he covered LURD activities and the refugee crisis in the north of the country. Suah had to be flown out of Liberia for medical treatment; he did not return to Monrovia until after Taylor's departure.

In mid-January 2003, Taylor accused the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) of politicizing the attack on Suah and of blowing it out of proportion. The PUL issued a release in response saying it had no political interest and was merely concerned for the welfare of the ailing journalist. In the following weeks, PUL members reported that they had received threats and were under surveillance by suspected members of Taylor's security forces.

An indictment for "crimes against humanity" issued by the U.N.-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone followed Taylor into exile in Nigeria. His adversarial relationship with journalists followed him as well. The Nigerian Union of Journalists mounted a legal challenge to Taylor's asylum, but the suit was dropped after Taylor arrived in Nigeria. The journalists' union is still seeking redress for the death of two Nigerian journalists: Krees Imodibe of the Nigerian Daily Champion, and Tayo Awotusin of The Guardian. While fighting to depose then President Samuel Doe, Taylor's rebel forces murdered the two journalists, who were working in Liberia in the early 1990s, said Liberian sources.

As the war between Taylor's government forces and LURD rebels approached Monrovia in the spring of 2003, it became increasingly difficult for journalists to do their jobs. The fighting hit a fever pitch in July, and almost all of the Liberian media shut down. Journalists went into hiding for fear of being targeted by either side or hit in the crossfire. The only independent news source still operating in the capital in late July was the Catholic Church-owned Radio Veritas. The broadcaster was finally forced off the air on July 21, when a mortar shell hit its transmitter.

Foreign journalists flocked to the war-torn capital after U.S. President George W. Bush ordered U.S. warships to the region and Taylor's departure drew near. French photographer Patrick Robert, on assignment for the U.S.-based weekly Time magazine, was seriously injured in crossfire between government and rebel soldiers, and he was flown out of the country for medical treatment.

Several media companies were attacked and looted during the war, and tens of thousands of dollars in equipment was lost or damaged. Radio Veritas was unable to resume broadcasting until the end of August, and then only on the FM band, since the station did not have the funds to repair its shortwave transmitter. Talking Drum Studios, a broadcaster funded by the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Search for Common Ground, lost an estimated $150,000 of equipment. The Liberia Institute of Journalism, a nonprofit journalism-training center, was stripped bare of its computers and broadcasting equipment.

Good news for Liberian journalists seemed to arrive with the October 14 inauguration of Gyude Bryant as chairman of the new transitional government. In his inauguration speech, the former Monrovia businessman and activist for democratic reform declared, "This government will encourage and exercise the freedom of speech and of the press which constitutes one of the basic tenets of good governance. It is only when people are free to speak, write, and print that they can help keep the government accountable and transparent."

Though Liberian journalists were used to similar-sounding empty promises from former presidents Taylor and Doe, Bryant took an early step toward reinforcing his remarks by lifting the 3-year-old ban on Star Radio in the beginning of November. Star Radio, an initiative of the Switzerland-based Hirondelle Foundation, was established in the run-up to Liberian elections in 1997 to promote democracy and provide a forum for different views. The immensely popular station was banned in March 2000 by the Taylor government for broadcasting what authorities claimed were "hate messages against the Liberian government" that threatened national security. Bryant said that the station would play a key role in the "development of communication and enhancing the integrity of our media industry."

With Liberia's literacy rate just over 50 percent, radio is the country's most important medium of mass communication. Previously, Taylor had a virtual monopoly on the airwaves beyond Monrovia. Though some "amateur" and community stations existed outside the capital, authorities banned at least five of them in the spring, according to journalists in Monrovia, because of fears that they were mobilizing the rural population against the government. Taylor allowed the state media service, the Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS), to deteriorate, preferring to disseminate propaganda through his private media empire – the Liberian Communications Network – which comprised several radio stations.

After Taylor's departure, journalists continued to fear reprisals from Taylor loyalists who remained in Monrovia. Their fears seemed warranted when, in early October, the United Nations found that Taylor was still meddling in Liberian internal affairs from exile. Meanwhile, LBS journalists protested the reappointment of J. Allison Barco as director-general of the state broadcaster, accusing Barco of corruption and partisanship toward Taylor and his National Patriotic Party (NPP). NPP members of the transitional government had been tasked with appointing the LBS director. Barco was later replaced, local sources said.

But journalists were more sanguine about the press's prospects once the transitional administration took over; U.N. peacekeepers had firm control over the capital, and disarmament of the warring factions had begun. Sources in Monrovia said the biggest obstacle to the media was no longer government repression but finding the funding to surmount the damage caused by the war and to sustain the press in a shattered economy. Nonetheless, by year's end, several new publications had appeared on Monrovia newsstands – a sign, journalists said, of the population's eagerness to engage in the country's future.

LURD forces, still armed, control the vast majority of Liberia outside the capital, and it is unsafe for journalists to work in the countryside. Journalists in Monrovia were unaware of any independent media operating in the interior at year's end.


2003 Documented Cases – Liberia

MAY 27, 2003

Stanley McGill, The News
ATTACKED

McGill, a reporter for independent, Monrovia-based daily The News, was attacked near his home by three armed men wearing uniforms of the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU), the elite presidential guard. According to McGill, the men, who had apparently followed him home, robbed him of personal effects at gunpoint and promised to return to deal with him further.

ATU soldiers came back to McGill's home on June 6 and this time took his laptop computer. McGill said that his neighbors heard the men outside his house talking about attacking the journalist, who wrote stories that criticized the government of President Charles Taylor.

Following the attack, McGill went into hiding outside the capital, Monrovia. He returned and went back to work at the end of July, following intense fighting between government and rebel forces in the capital.

JUNE 2003

Y-FM
Bright FM
Jet 89.9
The Voice of Kakata
Voice of YMCA
CENSORED

Sometime in early June, the Liberian government closed at least five "amateur" radio stations operating in central Bong County and in Margibi County, just outside the capital, Monrovia.

Liberian authorities did not charge the stations with any offense. According to the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa, an official at the Ministry of Communication alleged that all of the stations had problems with their registration, and that "the motives and scope of operations of [the] stations were not clear to the government."

But journalists in Monrovia said the government more likely shuttered the stations because it feared that they were mobilizing the rural population against the regime of President Charles Taylor.

Journalists said that amateur and community radio stations, most of which are unlicensed and are not operated by professional journalists, are the only source of independent news for Liberians outside Monrovia, a result of years of brutal fighting under the Taylor regime. Some of the stations broadcast BBC or VOA programs with content about Liberia.

At that time, rebel forces based in the countryside had recently intensified their military campaign, and the Taylor government had become more concerned with controlling the airwaves and projecting an image of control throughout the country, local sources said.

JULY 19, 2003

Patrick Robert, Time
ATTACKED

Robert, a French photographer on assignment for the U.S.-based weekly magazine Time, was hit by bullets in his back and arm while covering fighting between forces loyal to President Charles Taylor's government and rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) forces. Though LURD and the Taylor government signed a cease-fire agreement on June 17, fighting in and around the capital, Monrovia, escalated in July.

According to sources at Time, Robert and three other photographers were with government forces when he was caught in the crossfire. None of the other photographers were hit. Robert was taken to a Monrovia hospital, where doctors from the International Committee of the Red Cross operated on him, removing his spleen and a kidney.

On July 23, Robert was flown from Monrovia to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on a French military plane. Later in the day, the plane left for Paris, where Robert continued to receive medical attention.

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