May 3 is marked worldwide as International Press Freedom Day but Liberian President Sirleaf's Chief of Security, Othello Warrick, chose that same day to issue a strongly-worded threat to journalists to be careful when reporting about the president.
“To require information about presidential movements, presidential activities, we consider that as intrusion to the safety of the president," Warrick said.
He went on to say that the police have the right to arrest without a warrant anyone who queries presidential movements.
"Be careful questioning the integrity of Liberians. Because you have your pens and if you incriminate the character and integrity of Liberians like myself, we will come after you,” Warrick added.
While Warrick's statement triggered concern and fury among journalists, no official statement came out of President Sirleaf's office. Radio journalists are continuing their protests by imposing a two hour media blackout daily and local newspapers are printing black front pages as well as pictures of a gun pointing at a pen.
Peter Quaqua is the president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). He described the situation as "risky and troubling."
“We fear that the lack of response to such a condescending and threatening statement by a security functionary points to approval by the President and threatens freedom of expression,” Quaqua said.
He said journalists now felt unsafe in the presence of guards outside the presidential Executive Mansion in Monrovia.
Attempt to calm fears
A few days after making his threat, Security Chief Warrick released a statement saying he has no intention of endangering the lives of any journalists.
Tthe Ministry of Information has also given an assurance on the safety of journalists, and has called for the media blackout to be lifted. Isaac Jackson is Liberia's Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs. He called on journalists to reconsider their action "especially when the Government has demonstrated regret and [has dissociated itself] from the statement Mr. Warrick made."
The Warrick statement is not a policy decision of the government, Jackson stressed.
Despite such assurances, international condemnation has been pouring in. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists have condemned the security chief's statement and expressed support for the Liberian media for their blackout.
"This is an open and serious threat against the media and journalists and we are particularly shocked because they come from senior security personnel," IFJ said in a statement.
"We therefore re-echo our call on government to dialogue with the media in order to create the enabling environment for the media to flourish."