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Liberia: Hostile environment for journalists

Ajit Niranjan
April 17, 2018

A local reporter dead, a BBC correspondent fleeing the country and a six-figure lawsuit against a government-critical paper — journalists in Liberia fear an atmosphere of intimidation.

Liberia Präsidentschaftswahl
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

Press freedom in Liberia has become increasingly vulnerable, local journalists claim, following a spate of attacks on the media that have stepped up security concerns and fears of self-censorship.

The body of journalist Tyron Brown turned up in front of his house in Monrovia in the early hours of Monday, according to local media, sparking fears from mourning colleagues that they can no longer operate "fearlessly".

Emmanuel David, who worked with Brown at Super FM radio station, said the situation was scary for young journalists such as himself.

Police have not yet arrested any suspects or released details of the death. The government has said it will leave no stone unturned in bringing the killers to justice.

"We are calling on the international journalists to actually come and stand along with us in this fight to ensure this matter comes to a logical conclusion," said Tarlue Tay, another colleague of Brown. "In Liberia our code is '007' — when an issue comes around, after seven days it comes to an end. This time around, we at Super FM are not let this issue rest."

The Press Union of Liberia has demanded a swift investigation and autopsy.

Growing concern

Brown's death comes just weeks after BBC correspondent Jonathan Paye-Layleh fled to the US on security grounds, following a public spat with newly-elected Liberian president George Weah.

Expectations that 51-year-old Weah's government would signal a move towards a more tolerant media environment do not appear to be on track. The former football star alarmed press bosses last month by accusing Paye-Layleh of being against him, which many read as an indirect threat to the BBC stringer.

Liberia Journalisten Proteste
A threat by the Liberian security chief to hunt down journalists questioning the previous President's integrity led to media blackouts across the country in 2013Image: DW/Julius Kanuba

Liberia is one of the West African countries whose governments muzzled press freedom during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Its press is only "partly free", according to watchdog Freedom House, and the country has a troubled history with its media.

A Freedom House report in 2016 found that critical Liberian journalists faced harassment by law enforcement officials, with alleged offenses including defamation, immigration or curfew violations, and bank theft. Violence against journalists has decreased in recent years, but threats and intimidation still persist.

Trouble with the law

Not all threats to free speech are physical.

A recent $1.8 million (€1.46 million) lawsuit brought against Front Page Africa, a Liberian newspaper often critical of the government, has been condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The government rejects involvement, but watchdogs worry its lack of action contributes to a climate of reprisals against journalists.

"Liberia has a troubling history of libel lawsuits where applicants ask for exorbitant damages simply to harass and intimidate journalists, resulting in their imprisonment or the closure of news outlets," Angela Quintal, CPJ Africa coordinator told the news agency afp. "The government should move swiftly to reform Liberia's libel laws to guard against their abuse in this way."

Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh contributed to this report.

Ajit Niranjan Climate reporter and data journalist@NiranjanAjit