The secret detention for several months of Hassan Bility, publisher of The Analyst, illustrates the degree of tension between the authorities and the press. President Charles Taylor and his information minister, Reginald Goodridge, continued to target the opposition and independent media. There were many taboo subjects and journalists were still unable to work freely and safely. Fearing reprisals, more journalists flee the country every year.
The war with the rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) was often used by the authorities as a pretext for silencing its most outspoken critics. News media were censored several times for publishing or trying to publish reports on the war with the LURD. The sanctions adopted by the United States against Liberia’s leaders because of human rights violations and Liberia’s support for armed movements elsewhere in Africa were also sensitive subjects for the authorities.
The state-owned news media remained under strict government control. The labour minister in January threatened to prosecute employees of the state Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS) who formed an association to press for the payment of 12 months of overdue salaries. After long negotiations, the information minister authorised the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) to set up its own printing press on 18 March. This press, which should start working in 2003, will reduce the cost of producing newspapers. Currently, Liberia’s only printing press is controlled by the government and regularly censors newspaper reports considered too critical.
Five journalists imprisoned
Police arrested five employees of the state-owned LBS on 24 March 2002, accusing them of deliberately damaging LBS transmitters several days earlier. The arrests came as 250 LBS employees began a strike to demand the payment of more than a year in salary arrears. On 28 March, Bockarie Musa, the president of the employees’ union, William Kesselle, a technician, and two journalists, Dennis Samukai and Kota Dogba, were charged with "sabotage" and freed on bail. Alfred Tagar, a guard, was held for another few days. The Monrovia court dismissed the charges on 3 September. The judge said the case should have been tried much earlier and attributed the delay to a desire on the part of the government to drag things out. It was a denial of justice, he said.
Emmanuel Mondaye, a journalist with The Independent Inquirer, was arrested in Suakoko (in the north of the county) on 11 May while investigating allegations of massacres and looting by LURD rebels. He was held a week and mistreated.
Hassan Bility, publisher of The Analyst, was detained on 24 June in Monrovia and accused of collaborating with the LURD. The information minister claimed that Bility was a key figure among those who supposedly ran cells in Monrovia for the LURD and its supporters in the United States. The authorities said they had e-mail messages sent and received by Bility that proved his links with the rebels. A LURD spokesperson abroad said Bility was "neither a member nor even a sympathiser" and had in fact been very critical of movement. President Charles Taylor announced in early September that a court martial would be set up to try war criminals including Bility. Human rights campaigner Dempster Brown was briefly detained on 29 October while preparing a demonstration to demand Bility’s release. The government finally handed Bility over to US diplomats on 7 December and he left the country immediately.
Ten journalists arrested
At least four members of the staff of The Analyst, including publisher Hassan Bility, editor in chief Stanley Seakor, reporter James Lloyd, and Ellis Togba and were arrested by police in Monrovia on 12 February 2002. Police chief Paul Mulbah accused them of poisoning the minds of the people and cited some of the newspaper’s headlines: "Liberians Drowning in Horror Again", "Emergency Power Pinches Businesses" and "What Rights and Freedoms Can the President Suspend?" The detainees were held in a cell at the Monrovia police station, and the offices of the newspaper were closed by the police. They were freed the next day after the information minister interceded with the police chief.
Jerome Dalieh, editor in chief of the independent daily The News, and Bill K. Jarkloh, a journalist with the newspaper, were detained by police on 26 March. The News had that morning run an article quoting one of the leaders of the opposition New Democratic Alternative for Liberia (New Deal) as saying, in an allusion to President Charles Taylor, that those who thought they must press on with the war were "idiots." The two journalists were freed at the end of the day.
Bobby Tapson and Sherrif Adams, both journalists with The News, were arrested by police on 4 July because of their presumed role in a story in that morning’s edition of the newspaper which spoke of "terror" in Monrovia and the discovery of corpses in the streets. The police freed them after one hour after realising they had nothing to do with the report and a few hours later detained editor in chief Jerome Dalieh and journalist George Bardue. They in turn were released after two hours of questioning.
Sam O. Dean, publisher of The Independent, was detained for several hours by police in Monrovia on 13 August after his newspaper reported the home of a senior government official had bee burgled. The official reason given for Dean’s detention was so that he could provide information about the burglary. The Independent said in a statement the same day that it was not a police agent nor an informer and that its sole duty as a newspaper was to inform the public. Several journalists said they felt threatened thereafter. The Press Union of Liberia said it was not the job of journalists to help police investigations.
A journalist physically attacked
Throble Suah, a reporter with The Inquirer, was arrested on the street by five members of the anti-terrorist unit who said they were looking for journalists with The Inquirer, Radio Veritas and The News. They kicked him and struck him with a gun butt. One of them aimed his automatic weapon at Suah’s head and threatened to shoot him. Suah was treated at the Saint Joseph hospital.
A journalist threatened
Two men, one claiming to be a member of the anti-terrorist unit, threatened Reuters correspondent Alphonso Toweh on 14 October. They said the president’s son, Chucky Taylor, wanted to see him at his home, and they asked for a copy of West Africa Magazine, which had an article about the murder of Chucky Taylor’s chauffeur. Toweh said the article was written by another journalist and refused to go with them. He later filed a complaint with the PUL.
Pressure and obstruction
Police searched the premises of The Analyst on 26 April 2002 and closed it down. The information minister said it was suspected of being in the pay of opposition politicians and using incendiary reports to cause chaos in a country under a state of emergency. The police chief said publication would cease. But it reappeared at the end of May after President Charles Taylor intervened. The president was said to be concerned that press freedom should flourish in Liberia.
On 3 May, the government banned a demonstration by journalists who wanted to mark World Press Freedom Day. Police dispersed a similar demonstration in 2000.
The head of the Catholic radio station Radio Veritas was summoned by the justice minister at the end of May and asked to provide a tape recording of the morning show in which Charles Walker Brumskine, one of the president’s leading political opponents, had taken part.
On 7 May, the authorities banned "DC Talk," a talk show carried by the independent radio station DC 101.1 in which listeners who called in were able to discuss President Taylor and his government on the air. The radio was said to have influenced a UN decision to maintain sanctions against Liberia when a commission visited the country earlier in the year. Previously, in 2001, police raided the station and briefly detained the presenter of "DC Talk."
John Kollie, a journalist with the radio and TV broadcaster Liberia Communications Network (LCN) was fired on 8 June on the orders of President Charles Taylor, who owns LCN. Kollie had run a report about unrest within the ruling party over the dismissal of the party’s chairman by President Taylor.
Vice-President Moses Blah publicly threatened to take sanctions against the management of The News on 10 August if it continued to publish "false and libellous information without prior verification." The threat was made after the newspaper ran two articles accusing Blah of instigating the mistreatment that led to the death of his former assistant.
Sabannoh Printing Press (SPP), the country’s only commercial press, refused on 18 September to print that day’s issue of The News containing an investigative report on the death of the chauffeur of President Taylor’s son. The information minister had told the press not to print the issue after it alerted him to its contents.
Two weeks later, the information minister ordered the SPP not to print The Analyst, which contained a report on how the LURD would govern if it came to power.
On 1 November, the information minister ordered the closure of all the amateur radio stations in Nimba county, in the north of the country. He said many of the radio stations wee operating illegally, without authorisation or licence, and threatened "national security." The stations were Victory FM, Ganta Broadcasting System (GBS), YMCA-Royal FM and Ganta Power GG FM. The government asked the police to make sure the ban was enforced.