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Liberian president's media freedom assurances at variance with actions

Discrepancies between Liberian President George Weah's rhetoric and recent events beg the question: Is he playing to the gallery, or does he really embrace the independence and freedom of the media?

President George Weah addresses journalists during a press conference at the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) Party's headquarters in Monrovia, Liberia, 30 December 2017
President George Weah addresses journalists during a press conference at the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) Party's headquarters in Monrovia, Liberia, 30 December 2017

Chongyoon Nah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

With more than half of Liberians living in poverty, the hopes of many citizens are pinned on President George Weah's promises to economically transform the country. Similarly high expectations extend to those in the media sector.

In his inauguration speech, on 24 January 2018, Weah confirmed his commitment to enhance freedom of expression in his country: "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. . . . Now, in my turn, I will go further to encourage and reinforce not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of political assembly".

He reiterated this commitment to the strengthening of freedom of expression again in March, during the visit by David Kaye, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

On 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, glossy greeting cards bearing his portrait were hand-delivered to media institutions, lauding them for the "tireless roles you continue to play in the promotion of peace, security, and democracy. In this regard; it is my desire to form a stronger partnership with the media as we work towards strengthening our democracy and building a prosperous Liberia."

However, on the ground there is growing mistrust between the presidency and the media. Discrepancies between rhetoric and actions beg the question: Is Weah playing to the gallery, or does he embrace the independence and freedom of the media?

During a joint press conference with UN Deputy Secretary-General Amin Mohammed, in March, in response to a question by BBC stringer Jonathan Paye-layleh, President Weah called him out: "….when I was advocating for human rights in the country, you were one of those that were against me."

The remark was perceived as a veiled threat against Paye-Layleh, free speech and the media. More disturbingly, President Weah's condemnation may also have been considered giving licence to those in the establishment to admonish the media for perceived transgressions.

A month later, the mayor of Monrovia, Jefferson Koijee, reprimanded Rodney Sieh, managing editor of Front Page Africa (FPA), for "unprofessional attacks on the presidency and the denigration of initiatives by the government…"

Just days later, the paper was slapped with a US$1.8 million civil defamation lawsuit for publishing an allegedly defamatory advertisement. The lawsuit was reportedly triggered by a family feud over a deceased politician's estate. The court ordered the closure of FPA's office on 5 April, and four days later, seven of the newspaper's staff were arrested and the office was sealed off. Detained staff were released the same day, and the office reopened after the newspaper paid a USD $5,000 bond. Although a number of other publications carried the same advertisement, only FPA is being sued.

According to Angela Quintal of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): "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." A theory being put forward by some quarters is that Konah - one of the petitioners, is an influential member of the ruling Congress for Democratic Change party (CDC) and the lawsuit is the instrument being used to attack the newspaper, in retaliation for its critical reporting about the government.

With this climate of growing mistrust as a backdrop, the murder of journalist Tyron Browne raised an outcry by the journalism fraternity, press freedom advocates, and organisations - including the Press Union of Liberia. On 16 April, a black Jeep reportedly drove up to Browne's house in Paynesville, Monrovia, and dumped his body outside. FPA reported the Information Minister's guarantee that the police had begun a full-scale investigation, and his assurance that the "government will leave no stone unturned in bringing the perpetrator(s) to justice". Several days later, the police arrested a man who confessed that he had stabbed Browne during an altercation. On 24 April it was reported "that six of the seven suspects linked to the death of Super FM/TV journalist Tyron Browne are behind bars at the Monrovia Central Prison pending court trial." Questions continue to circulate about his murder, but no further information was available at the time of writing this report.

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