By Hannah N. Geterminah & William Q. Harmon
Smith Toby, deputy press secretary to the President of Liberia, may have had a day to remember as he was on Thursday, March 12, 2020, booed by scores of disenchanted media practitioners who had gone to present their petition to the President against mistreatments they receive at the hands of state security, including the Liberia National Police and the Executive Protection Service (EPS).
“Boo, boo, we don’t want you. You are a liar, you are a coward,” the disenchanted crowd of journalists shouted.
Booing and rejecting Deputy Press Secretary Toby was predicated upon two concerns; first, the journalists accused him of being a liar and coward against journalism—a profession that brought him to prominence. They claimed that Toby, since taking over as a Deputy Press Secretary at the Executive Mansion, has been fond of lying to the public in defense of the President and going as far as insulting former and current public officials including former Vice President Joseph Boakai and current Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor.
The journalists claimed that Toby, without regard for journalists, had gone ahead to make demeaning statements against female journalists that they are after ‘selfies’ when they go to international programs with less attention to the coverage they were designated to do. Journalists said they feel disenchanted with Toby that, without regard for the profession he left before taking a post at the Executive Mansion, he goes on to provide falsehood to the public –something they said is even against the true meaning and applications of Public Relations.
Secondly, on Thursday, March 12, Toby had emerged from the grounds of the Foreign Ministry, which currently houses the Ministry of State — the office of the President of Liberia, to receive a petition from the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) on behalf of President George Weah — but sadly, he met the wrath of his former colleagues, who had throughout the morning and afternoon hours endured the scorching sun.
According to them, there were officials of government including the Minister of Information and Minister of State for Presidential Affairs at the Executive Mansion and one of them could receive the petition, instead of Smith Toby who is of low rank. The journalists contended that sending a Deputy Press Secretary meant the Ministry of State was ‘ignoring’ them and therefore did not give their petition to Mr. Toby. In the end, Minister of State Nathaniel McGill received the petition, to the satisfaction of the crowd, which then marched on to the United Nations country office for another presentation and subsequently to the British Embassy.
The whole affair was a demonstration by Liberian journalists, headed by the leadership of the PUL and Reporters Association of Liberia (RAL), who sought to register their frustration over acts of brutality and other mistreatments being meted against them by state security across the country. They gathered in their numbers to present a petition to the government and the international community over the continued brutality.
From the onset, The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and its entire membership expected that their planned protest action would claim the attention of those at the highest echelons of political authority. The decision to have a street protest instead of a media blackout as may be appropriate came from the background of an assumption that media operators may not cooperate with the blackout for fear of losing advertisements from government. In the US State Department’s 2019 Human Rights Report about Liberia, some media houses are said to not be critical on the government for fear of losing government adverts; a supporting statement to the assumption that led the journalists to prefer street protest.
Below is the full text of the PUL’s petition delivered yesterday.
Whereas, the Press Union of Liberia is an umbrella organization of Journalists in Liberia founded on September 30, 1964 primarily for the protection and the provision of a safe working environment for Journalists and media workers.
Whereas, since the foundation of the Union, there continue to be attacks, detention, intimidation and suppression of the media and media workers with several colleagues losing their lives to tyrannical and brutal security officers with impunity.
Whereas, these brutal attitudes towards journalists remain a major challenge for the Press Union of Liberia with successive governments doing little or nothing to advert this maltreatment of Journalists simply for doing their Jobs.
Whereas, the protection of free speech, freedom of the press and protection for media workers are fundamental rights under the Constitution of Liberia, the United Nations Convention on people and Human rights and the African Union convention on Human Rights.
Whereas, in recent months, the attacks, detention, intimidation and brutality meted against media practitioners have become unprecedented with seven Journalists being attacked just in two weeks and ten attacked in three months across the country.
Whereas, PUL considers these attacks, detentions, intimidations and brutality against media personnel as deliberate attempts to force journalists into self-censorship and deny the public of credible, balanced and accurate reports of the operations of the government.
Whereas in January 2020,the Late, Journalist Zenu K. Miller complained of being whipped by some officers of the Executive Protection Service while trying to leave the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex where he was providing radio commentary for Okay FM at the finals of the National County Sports Meet.
Whereas, the Government of Liberia failed to launch an investigation into his flogging long before his death.
Whereas the Government of Liberia only apologized for its failure to promptly investigate and offered to conduct an autopsy after the journalist`s death which was refused by the family.
Whereas, another Journalists Christopher Walker, reporter at FrontPage Africa was brutally flogged by some officers of the Liberia National Police at a semi-final game of the National County Sports Meet and the LNP yet to investigate and penalize the officers who whipped the journalist.
Whereas, a Journalist in the Southeastern County of Maryland, Bryant Duo, was assaulted by officers of the Liberia National Police at a checkpoint in Rivercess County, while travelling to Harper from Monrovia. Duo had sought to board another vehicle after going through the security check since the check of the vehicle and other occupants was prolonged.
Whereas in February 2020, Journalist Kennedy Koloh, Manager at the Rivercess Broadcasting System was attacked by officers of the Liberia National Police and briefly detained in Yarpah Town, Rivercess County while travelling to Buchanan, Grand Bassa County.
Police alleged that Journalist Koloh was arrested on a commercial motorbike for crossing a police checkpoint without regards for a stop order. Journalist Koloh denied the claims, insisting he was arrested after refusing to pay bribes to the police at the Checkpoint. He`s been critical of police operations in the county.
Whereas a week earlier, Methuselah Technocrat Gaye, a Fabric Radio Correspondent in Rivercess County was arrested and detained at the Yarpah Town Police Detachment after being accused of allegedly posting on his Face Book page unverified information concerning the police commander of the region, Fasu Sheriff.
Whereas, Josephine Seekey, a female reporter was pulled off a motorcycle by a police officer on her way from work. Seekey was badly injured. Motorcycle is a fastest means of commuting in Monrovia.
Whereas this month , freelance Journalist Kolubah Akoi was arrested and incarcerated by the Liberia National Police Criminal Investigation Unit in Voinjama, Lofa County, in the north of Liberia. Journalist Akoi was charged with criminal malevolence, criminal solicitation and publication of classified sensitive financial documents about the Lofa Community College.
Whereas a reporter of Cyclone Newspaper, Benjamin Toby Johnson spent a night in police custody in Gardnersville, a Monrovia suburb, for simply inquiring about a report of a police officer discharging fire arm during a land dispute in the community.
Whereas Journalist Salam Kaloko of Maggie Online TV was attacked by an agent of the Executive Protection Service (EPS) while covering a protest of War & Economic Crimes Court advocates. Kaloko was beaten, his camera, cash, telephone and other broadcast equipment forcefully taken away.
Whereas the Liberia National Police (LNP) also detained Aryee Davies, a journalist with Truth FM for attempting to interview a War Crimes Court Advocate, Emmanuel Service.
Whereas Journalist James K Kadi of the New Newspaper was wounded after being attacked by an officer of the Liberia National Police while in route to central Monrovia on a commercial vehicle.
And whereas, the Press Union of Liberia has communicated with the relevant security agencies whose officers perpetrated these attacks against Journalists with no action or investigation undertaken to address these complaints of maltreatment.
Now therefore, the Press Union of Liberia calls on the President of the Republic of Liberia, His Excellency, George Manneh Weah to commission a transparent and broad-based investigation of the accused security agencies and their officers, complicit in these wonton human rights violations with the view to penalize those who will be found guilty.
The Press Union of Liberia also calls on members of the international community, including ECOWAS, African Union, European Union, United Nations, United States of America, United Kingdom, and other nations that believe in the principle of a free press to bring pressure to bear on the Weah administration to immediately commission the investigation and bring the perpetrators to justice.
PUL also makes a clarion call to international media advocacy and human rights organizations, including the Center for the Protection of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch to pressure their partners and governments to insist that the Weah Administration sets up this probe to bring the alleged perpetrators to justice and stop the intimidation of the press.
Done this 12th Day of March 2020 in the City of Monrovia, Liberia.