Some topics are still taboo in Liberia. Anything related to the army, the war against the rebels and diamond mining are thorny issues - to such an extent that a local journalist considers that the press can no longer investigate certain affairs concerning senior government levels. "Anywhere else it would be investigative journalism, in Liberia it’s espionage", he noted.
In April 2001 the government complained about "large-scale negative propaganda" conveyed by certain foreign media against the state president, Charles Taylor. The government accused the Washington Post and the magazine West Africa, amongst others, of publishing "libellous" articles likely to "set the country ablaze". These articles supported sanctions taken by the United Nationals Security Council against some of the country’s leaders.
In late April the information minister announced his intention to "clarify" all information concerning fighting in the northern region of Lofa, before its disclosure, as well as everything concerning state security. Journalists of the independent press were worried about this measure, considered to be "a way of gagging the press". A few days later, on International Press Freedom Day, some 100 journalists demonstrated in the streets of Monrovia with banners marked "Press Freedom: the bedrock of democracy".
The European Commission called for consultations with Liberia on 26 June following the worsening of the human rights situation in the country. This request was connected to the Cotonou Agreements signed between the European Union (EU) and countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. According to the commission, "press freedom is seriously undermined and human rights activists have been the victims of acts of intimidation". The next day the information minister Reginald Goodridge dismissed the EU accusations and said that "Liberia currently has one of the most democratic governmental systems in the world".
The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) asked the government over a year ago for a permit to set up a printing press in the country. The union received printing equipment from the US in November 2000 but still did not have the necessary authorisation to be able to use it. According to the organisation, this printing press would help to reduce production costs. At the moment there is only one privately-owned printing press in the country.
The Internet is still one of the authorities’ prime targets. President Charles Taylor regularly denounces the "cyberwar" waged by journalists in exile who use the network to spread their news and views. Data Tech, the only access provider in the country, is accused of deliberately closing servers when too much criticism of the government is published on the websites of Liberians living abroad. As part of its counter-attack the government launched an information site called allaboutliberia.com.
Five journalists jailed
Joseph Bartuah, managing editor, Abdulai Dukuly, editor-in-chief, Jerome Dalieh, head of the politics desk, and Bobby Tapson, journalist, all with the privately-owned daily The News, were arrested on 21 February 2001, a few hours after that day’s issue of the daily had gone on sale. In that issue The News revealed that the Liberian government had spent 50,000 Liberian dollars (about 55,000 euros) on repairing three helicopters, whereas "the civil servants have not been paid for over four months". The four men were charged with espionage and jailed. They were accused of having "the intention to reveal information concerning national defence to foreign countries, with the aim of harming Liberia". On 23 February the newspaper published an apology to the justice ministry, saying that the editorial staff had had no intention of revealing military secrets. On 13 March a Monrovia court refused to release them on bail. The daily received an anonymous letter a few days later, threatening all the staff with death. A student demonstration on 21 March to support the four journalists was severely repressed by the police but the government eventually dropped the charges and the journalists were released on 30 March.
Police without a warrant went to the premises of The News on 20 November and told all the staff to leave. According to a police officer, the publication had not paid its taxes. On the same day the police arrested Wilson Tarpeh, chairman of the board of the same newspaper. The Monrovia Guardian was treated likewise. The finance minister explained that the two publications had not paid taxes due to the state. Wilson Tarpeh was released on 24 November and the two newspapers reappeared on 3 December. On the same day Philip Moore, news editor at The News, was dismissed by his management. A few days before the suspension of the newspaper, the journalist had published a list of Liberian officials who had allegedly contravened United Nations sanctions against them by travelling outside the country.
Two journalists arrested
The managing editor of the Monrovia Guardian, Sam O. Dean, was arrested by Monrovia police on 20 August 2001 and taken to police headquarters. He was charged with "criminal malevolence" because of an article claiming that the chief of police, Paul Mulbah, had been summoned by parliament for "explanations". A member of parliament had accused Paul Mulbah of having "flayed" him. Mr. Mulbah complained to the PUL about the newspaper’s "sensationalism" and "deceit". Sam O. Dean spent two nights in detention without a bed to sleep on. His colleagues were not allowed to visit him.
Monrovia police occupied the premises of the privately-owned radio station DC 101.1 on 17 September. They immediately stopped the broadcasting of programmes, told the staff to leave, and arrested the host of the programme "DC Talk", T-max Jlateh. The station was accused of broadcasting "anti-American" views on that programme. A listener reacting to the 11 September attacks in the US had said on the air that it was "time for that country to suffer for what it had done to other peoples". Another listener added: "If we are to condemn acts of terrorism, we must also condemn the United States which supports most of the terrorists in the world today". The police chief, Paul Mulbah, said that "only Islamist fundamentalists can say things like that". He added that the government would not tolerate that "anyone tries to destroy good relations between the United States and Liberia". A government communiqué noted that this decision had been taken for "state security" reasons. Following an agreement between the manager of DC 101.1 and the justice minister on 18 September, the radio station was allowed to resume its broadcasts. T-max Jlateh was released after 30 hours in a cell at the justice ministry where he was not allowed any visits.
Pressure and obstruction
The government ordered the closure of four private sector dailies (The News, The New National, The Analyst and The Monrovia Guardian) on 23 February 2001, until they paid overdue taxes. The information minister claimed that this measure had no relation to the arrest of the four journalists from The News. On 3 March The Monrovian Guardian was allowed to appear again after paying overdue taxes of 60,000 Liberian dollars (about 67,500 euros). The information minister ordered the suspension of the weekly The Journalist on 30 April, without any explanation. All these publications reopened within weeks of their closure.
The information minister announced on 28 May that restrictive "new rules" had been established concerning visits to Liberia by foreign journalists. This measure was intended to "minimise the impact of anti-governmental propaganda orchestrated by certain foreign journalists". Henceforth, the minister would demand a "letter of intent" from the managing editors of media wanting to send journalists to Liberia. Moreover, a period of at least 72 hours would be imposed before journalists would be allowed into the country. The minister also reserved the right to "do checks" on these journalists and to "reject an application for accreditation if the documents presented are not reliable".
Radio Veritas was informed on 2 July by the post and telecommunications minister that it was no longer authorised to broadcast on short wave. The catholic radio station had temporarily stopped broadcasting due to a breakdown, and the minister specified that "only stations broadcasting at the moment will be allowed to operate". According to Ledger Hood Rennie, the station manager, the station had continued to pay its short wave transmission dues despite the breakdown. He noted that "no law stipulates that a radio station regularly authorised but suffering a technical breakdown must request authorisation from the ministry before resuming its broadcasts". The radio station Kiss FM, owned by President Charles Taylor, has since been the only privately-owned radio station broadcasting news on short wave, in other words, news that could be received throughout the country. Radio Veritas, which broadcasts on FM, is received only in the capital. In March 2000 the government had ordered the closure of Radio Veritas and Star Radio. The catholic radio station had resumed its programmes after intense negotiations but Star Radio was forced to close down definitively in July 2000, causing a public opinion outcry. The station was considered as one of the main sources of independent news in Liberia. On 20 August the catholic church lodged a complaint against the Liberian government but, according to the prosecutor, this was a constitutional issue not in the ambit of civil jurisdiction, and the case was closed. The state president said on 24 August that no new short wave radio station would be allowed permission to broadcast. He considered that the existing three stations - Kiss FM, the state-controlled radio station and a religious station - sufficed. The information minister noted that the creation of a short wave radio station "was a privilege and not a right". Radio Veritas was the first member of the Liberian media to lodge a complaint against the government.
Reuters correspondent Alphonso Toweh was beaten with a baton by policemen on 25 June at the entrance to Monrovia harbour. The journalist had just done a report on a boat that had sunk in the harbour but he was blocked by the guards who threw away his press card and hit him.
Todd Pitman and Winston Monboe, correspondents for the US media Associated Press and Voice of America, respectively, were briefly detained on 8 September by the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU), near the president’s residence. They were accused of being among those who "write negative things about the Taylor government" and of wanting to take photos without authorisation. The two men had slowed down as they drove past a sign indicating a right-of-way near the president’s residence.
The editorial staff of The Inquirer revealed on 12 September that the deputy minister for presidential affairs had gone to the country’s only printing press to change the newspaper’s headlines. According to The Inquirer, the deputy minister switched around two sentences to put the president’s name first.
On 21 September the police prevented journalists from entering Monrovia airport to cover the return of opponent Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The airport security chief explained that due to the "terrorist attacks in the United States", precautions had been taken and that "the new measures prohibit
journalists from holding interviews and taking photos" in the area. Some journalists were held for several hours in the airport manager’s office. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the runner-up in the 1997 presidential election, had been accused by Charles Taylor of supporting rebel movements.
Crispin Tulay, reporter for the magazine The Journalist, was pushed about and insulted by soldiers at the entrance to the defence ministry on 29 September. The journalist wanted to investigate the detention of a civilian in military buildings.