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Liberia's contradictory attitude to a free press

October 17, 2019

Liberia has cracked down on critical media over the past year. At the same time, the government has repealed harsh media laws that saw journalists suffer excessive jail sentences and fines.

A man listens to a small red radio set
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Jallanzo

Listeners of the wildly popular Liberian radio program, The Costa Morning Show, were startled last week to hear muffled banging during a live broadcast. It was the sound of dozens of heavily armed police breaking down the station compound's iron gates early in the morning.

When one of the hosts announced on air that officers had started seizing the station's equipment, a crowd quickly gathered outside the offices of Roots FM in Monrovia, leading to clashes with police.

The morning show host, Henry Costa, who is also the station owner, is a tough-talking critic of President George Weah and his administration. His listeners see the closure of Roots FM as another example of the government's lack of tolerance for opposition voices.

The government, however, said it shut the station down because Roots FM was broadcasting on frequencies that it didn't have a license for. It also accused the station of inciting violence.

"FM 102.7 was engaged in broadcasting specifically hate messages at peaceful Liberian citizens and other forms of extortion and blackmail," Solicitor General Sayma Syrenius Cephus was quoted by the Liberian paper, The New Dawn, as saying at a press briefing.

Human rights lawyer Tiawon Gongoloe, though, views the Roots FM closure as clearly "unlawful" because it violates people's rights to free speech, which are protected in Liberian constitution.

"It's not good for our democracy," Gongoloe told DW. 

Jefferson Massa, Journalist von Radio Gbarnga/ Liberia
Liberia ranks 93 out of 180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, down from 89 the year beforeImage: DW/S. Duckstein

Gongoloe also believes that the seizure of the station's equipment such as microphones, mixers, headphones and computers is illegal.

"If anybody uses weapons, or uses instruments that harm other people, the government has the right [to seize them], but communication gadgets are not [weapons] and so there's no legal basis for seizing communication equipment," Gongoloe said. 

Ten days before the incident, the Press Union of Liberia  had recommended closing down Roots FM for ethical breaches. But it also asked for Freedom FM, a pro-government station, to be shut down for the same reason – Freedom FM is still on air, however.

Spate of attacks on radio stations

It's not the first time Roots FM has been forced off air. In January 2019, masked gunmen burst into the building and smashed much of the station's equipment. Les than weeks later, gunmen again attacked the station, stealing equipment and briefly forcing it off air.

Other stations have also been attacked. In March, the Monrovia-based Joy FM was off air after someone severed the transmitter cables in the middle of the night.

Joy FM manager Emmanuel Dahn said he assumed the vandalism was a deliberate attempt to take the station off air.

"It was not a criminal who came to look for cables, because they didn't take the cable away after cutting it. The intention was to damage the institution," Dahn told online news site FrontPage Africa. 

"Joy FM is one independent radio station and sometimes … we are vocal and critical on national issues… those who are involved, apparently they don't want us to be here and they are looking for a way to silence the institution," he is quoted as saying.

Official intolerance for independent journalism

In 2018, the Press Union of Liberia was so alarmed by the hostile anti-press sentiment that sent an open letter to the United Nations warning of the "pace at which official intolerance for independent journalism and dissent is escalating in Liberia."

Liberian President George Weah stands at a microphone speaking to a large crowd
At his inauguration, George Weah promised to support free speechImage: picture-alliance/A.Dulleh

However, at the same time, President Weah has repeatedly talked of his support for free speech and free press.

When he was sworn in as Liberia's new president in January 2018, he affirmed his commitment to freedom of expression, saying: "We could not have arrived at this day without our voices been heard loudly, and all our views, no matter how critical, being freely expressed in an atmosphere void of intimidation and arrest."

Read more: Liberia's frustration with President Weah spills onto the streets

Weah has also made good on his promise to pass a new freedom of press act which came into law in March 2019. The new act decriminalizes defamation and insult, voiding a law that had previously resulted in the rampant arrest of journalists and excessive prison sentences and fines for media houses.

Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh in Monrovia contributed to this article. 

Kate Hairsine Senior Editor & Reporter