Two former leaders of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) have condemned the growing wave of violence against journalists in Liberia and have called on President George M. Weah to reconstitute the five-member media investigation committee headed by Dr. Laurence K. Bropleh, former Minister of Information. President Weah recently set up the committee to probe a petition presented to the government by members of the PUL on March 12, 2020, on allegations of harassment and violence meted out against journalists by state security apparatus.
The PUL petition states: “In recent months, attacks, detention, intimidation, and brutality meted against media practitioners have become unprecedented, with seven journalists being attacked in just two weeks and ten attacked in three months across the country.” The petition recounted numerous acts of violence journalists have suffered since President Weah came to power a little over two years ago. One journalist has already died under questionable circumstances amid the growing wave of anti-press violence.
In the petition, the PUL called on the Weah government to “commission a transparent and broad-based investigation of the accused agencies and their officers complicit in these wanton human rights violations, with the view to penalize those who will be found guilty.”
According to a press statement from the United States, the former PUL leaders, Messrs Isaac D.E. Bantu and Gabriel I.H. Williams called for Dr. Bropleh to be replaced as head of the investigation committee because he lacks the credibility and public confidence to preside over a transparent investigation.
Mr. Bantu served as President of the PUL during the final years of the brutal Samuel Doe regime to the early period of the Liberian civil war, while Mr. Williams, also served as Secretary-General and acting President during the same era, which was also the beginning of Charles Taylor’s reign of terror.
In the joint press statement, the former PUL leaders cited the following three reasons why the Reverend Dr. Bropleh is not deemed credible to head the media investigation committee:
The Reverend Dr. Bropleh currently serves as Special Envoy and Advisor to President Weah. Putting a government functionary in charge of such a critical investigation, especially someone who works in the office of the President clearly undermines the integrity of the process in the eyes of the public
In 2010, the Reverend Dr. Bropleh was forced to resign as Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism in the wake of a major financial scandal after a government audit report found him culpable of economic crimes, for which he was forwarded to court for prosecution. Even though the judge presiding over the case – who was accused of sympathy towards the defendant – dismissed the case because state prosecutors reported to court late, an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court of Liberia. We have not found any evidence or report that the Supreme Court has adjudicated the said case.
In 2007, the Reverend Dr. Bropleh, in his capacity as Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, instituted extrajudicial actions against the media when he arbitrarily shut the Independent newspaper without due process of law after the paper published pornography photos. Even though the newspaper was in breach of the law by publishing the photos, Bropleh violated the Liberian Constitution by denying the newspaper a due process of law when he arbitrarily shut down the newspaper and sent police in riot gear to forcefully evict the staff and padlock the entrance of the newspaper’s offices. The illegal ban imposed on The Independent was lifted by then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf after Mr. Gabriel Williams, then Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs requested an audience with Madam President to express serious reservations regarding the arbitrary closure of the paper. During that meeting, attended by some presidential aides, including then Presidential Press Secretary Cyrus W. Badio, Mr. Williams told the President that while he was not opposed to the government taking action against the newspaper for violating the law, he was strongly opposed to the arbitrary manner in which the newspaper was shut down, which he felt was unconstitutional, and therefore illegal. Moved by the merits of Mr. Williams’ argument, President Sirleaf ordered a reversal of the decision to proscribe the newspaper with immediate effect. Minister Bropleh had refused to heed the counsel of Mr. Williams and other Information Ministry officials who were opposed to the extrajudicial action against the Independent newspaper. Mr. Williams pressed ahead for his meeting with the President despite concerns that he might be fired by the President for questioning a decision of the government of which he was a part.
In view of the foregoing, it is our considered opinion that President Weah must reconstitute the committee by appointing a credible and respectable individual to head the media investigation committee. We also call on the Reverend Dr. Bropleh to recuse himself from the process because he has questionable integrity and is not seen to be a credible person to head the investigation committee.
The former PUL leaders recalled that during those dark days in Liberian history under the respective barbaric regimes of Doe and Taylor, journalists, rights activists, and opposition politicians suffered extreme violence and many were killed in the advocacy for free speech, human rights and democratic governance in Liberia. An example is the prominent television journalist Charles Gbenyon, who was arrested at work, taken to the Executive Mansion – official presidential residence – and butchered to death at Doe’s command, for his role as a journalist.
It is alarming to note that the gains Liberia have made since the civil war towards free speech, human rights and democratic governance are fast eroding under the Weah government, as the country turns back to the dark days of dictatorship, when journalists, rights activists, and opposition politicians were routinely terrorized and many of them murdered.
As Liberians witness the rise of yet another brutal dictatorship, there are questionable characters masquerading as presidential aides and confidants who are feeding off public resources to have the regime entrenched to the detriment of the people. This bogus committee is part of that shameless attempt to cover up the truth. This is why we believe that it is wrong and unacceptable to use public money to fund activities of the bogus investigation committee at a time of the Coronavirus pandemic when medical facilities across Liberia are desperately in need of funds to purchase fuel to remain in operation to treat the sick and save lives.
Let it be made absolutely clear to the Reverend Bropleh and his likes that well-meaning Liberians will not sit idly by and allow corruption-tainted individuals to be used to undermine press freedom and Liberia’s nascent democracy, for which hundreds of thousands of Liberians have paid with their blood.
In the fullness of time, those that are culpable of corruption and human rights abuses in Liberia will be made to account for their actions. In this regard, we will intensify our efforts in drawing international attention to the rampant corruption and growing abuse of human rights in Liberia. We intend to engage international organizations that have been a strong support to the Liberian media, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Amnesty International, regarding the need for international actions to ensure respect for free speech, fundamental human rights, and democratic governance in Liberia. We will also lobby the United States Congress for the possible imposition of sanctions against the Weah government under the Global Magnitsky Act, which was passed into law in 2016 by the US Congress to apply sanctions on human rights abusers and corrupt officials around the globe.