Augustine Nagbe, alias “General Power,” an ex-rebel general, on Thursday, October 10, 2019, led a heavily armed officers of the Liberia National Police (LNP) to the premises of Roots FM 102.7 to effect the closure of the radio station.
The station is owned and operated by Henry Pedro Costa, whose thought-provoking daily morning Talk Show, “The Costa Show” which has been very critical of the administration of President George Manneh Weah, has dominated the airwaves, attracting many listeners.
Gen. Power, who was then instructing the LNP to violently take the radio off air for “violating section 15 of the Telecommunication Act of 2007 and Chapter 11 section 11.2(d) of the criminal procedure law,” was himself reportedly removing some of the broadcast equipment, while ordering the police to arrest anyone in sight that would make attempt to defend the station.
He claimed that the station was operating without a valid license, as well as illegally using its broadcast equipment to tarnish the good character of the government and its officials.
The shutting down of the station caused a stir in central Monrovia as normal commercial activities were momentarily halted, including free movement of traffic. The police, acting on the orders of Gen. Power in the full glare of the many onlookers, arrested four individuals, who government supporters identified as “trouble makers.” One persons reportedly sustained injuries to the head.
Gen. Power said Henry P. Costa, manager of Roots F.M. cannot keep using the station to incite citizens against the government, while operating illegally.
He said if Costa keeps insulting the President, and preaching hate massages, “I, Gen. Power, will arrest him to bear the full weight of the law, because Liberia is not a lawless country.” Power’s statement was greeted with mixed reactions from the curious-looking crowd, some of them scolding him, while others, mainly government supporters, applauding him.
When the Daily Observer asked whether he would institute a similar measure against Freedom F.M. which the President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), Charles Coffey, has recommended to the government for closure due to violation of professional ethics by inciting the public, as was recommended for Roots FM, Gen. Power refused to comment.
Freedom FM is owned and operated by Deputy National Security Agency (NSA) Director Sam T. Siryon.
Costa supporters, who had earlier gathered to resist the station being taken off the air, wanted to resist the police shutting down the station for being critical of Liberia’s footballing president George Weah.
The police later extended their reach to protect Freedom FM from the supporters of Costa, who were throwing stones at the station, while equally requesting the closure of Freedom F.M., because its also preached the same messages, but in favor of the government.
Shortly after the police arrived at the Freedom FM, there were groups of youngsters, who claimed to be members of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), and supporters of the station. They had gathered there protect against those they perceived as Costa’s supporters from destroying the station’s broadcast equipment.
Costa supporters gathered at Freedom FM shortly after the closure of Roots FM, throwing stones and calling for Freedom FM’s immediate shutdown. In the near “free-for-all melee that ensued between the two forces, some by-standers, whose vehicles were parked for business suffered the effect as some of the vehicles’ windshields got smashed.
“Those guys arrested four men by the orders of the former rebel fighter (General Power), and thought we were throwing stones at Freedom FM. This is absolutely false and misleading the public,” some those who were there claiming to be in defense of Henry Costa were overheard saying.
The police, without further investigation, sent the four arrested persons to its headquarters, but the Solicitor General, Cllr. Sayma Syrenius Cephus, at the Ministry of Information’s regular Thursday press conference, said those arrested in connection with yesterday’s riot will face the full weight of the law.
Cllr. Cephus said the police were acting based on a search and seizure warrant, which Stipendiary Magistrate Ernest F. Bana, of the Monrovia City Court, had served the police.
The warrant states that the purpose is to request for the discovery and seizure of transmitters, keyboards and mixers; microphone, headphones, computer, stabilizers, cables, and antennas, which they believe to be on the premises.
But Cllr. Cephus said the closure of Roots FM is as the result of Henry Costa inciting the public to stage a protest recently on the grounds of the Catholic Hospital when Ms. Jestina Taylor was to be taken to the LNP headquarters for investigation.
He said the Roots FM was used by Costa to preach hate messages, rioting and public incitement against the government that is capable to bring instability to the country.
In the aftermath of the event, the officers broke a steel gate and stormed the offices of Roots FM, shortly after its breakfast program, The Costa Show, discussed alleged wasteful spending by President Weah, while “his people were suffering.”
Justice Minister Frank Musa Dean confirmed that riot police had been dispatched after his office had received a letter from the LTA, complaining that the station and two others were “operating illegally”, and without their respective licenses.
The justice minister did not say why the government did not turn to the courts to enforce the closure, as required by law.
As police hammered the gate to enter the station, Henry Costa, its US-based owner who hosts the show via the internet, called on his followers to come and “rescue” the station. However, the police were by then all over the place spraying tear gas in the air.
“We have to hold together; don’t let them take our equipment away,” Costa pleaded.
“I am watching the thing live as they break into our radio station,” he cried out in vain. As Costa spoke, the banging of hammers on the gate could be heard.
In response to his call, eyewitnesses say more than 400 people arrived at the station within minutes, but this did not stop the police from shutting the station down.
An eyewitness calling from a nearby building told the BBC he saw police loading the station’s broadcast equipment into a waiting vehicle after it had been forced off-air.
Roots FM has had a bad relationship with President Weah’s government since the former footballer assumed the presidency nearly two years ago.
Before Thursday’s action, the station said it was in compliance with all broadcast regulations, and had asked for a renewal of its licence.
PUL Probe Court Action
In the wake of the confusion, PUL president Charles Coffey, in a statement, said the institution will probe the Court action against Roots FM, and relevant state actors to find a way out in accordance with the law.
Coffey said the Union maintains that “the rule of law is the best recipe for good governance in sustaining the country’s growing democracy.”
UP condemns court action
For the erstwhile ruling Unity Party (UP) in a press release, condemned the closure of Roots FM, adding that press freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of Liberia, and any infringement on such rights is a “gross violation of the Constitution.”
The party in a statement signed by Mohammed Ali, national assistant secretary-general, publicity, and outreach, said in the unlikely event where a writ was served by a court of competent jurisdiction for the closure of Roots FM, “there is no law anywhere in Liberia that calls for the vandalism of any station or property.”
“Sadly, what we witnessed this morning (yesterday) was a state-sponsored act of vandalism carried out by heavily armed police force that has been turned into a partisan police force, and an institution that is now being used to clamp down on press freedom and freedom of speech,” Ali said.
He said private radio stations are one of the media through which ordinary citizens and members of the oppositions freely express themselves as the station (ELBC) is that sponsored by taxpayers’ money is a no go zone for oppositions and critical voices.
He said the closure of Roots FM by the government through the use of force by heavily armed police officers shows how serious the George Weah-led government is in clamping down on free speech and freedom of the press.
Ali continued: “As we edge closer to the 2020 Senatorial election, the government has designed a grand plan to ensure that the voices of the poor suffering masses, and the opposition community are silenced. Not only that the government intends to silence the voices of the people, but also to put ordinary Liberians out of job in an economy that is worsening on a daily basis due to poor leadership, unprecedented high level of corruption, and ineptness of the economic management team.
He said UP will work with members of the four Collaborating Political Parties to explore all legal and political means to ensure the reopening of Roots FM.
National Democratic Coalition Condemns Gov’t Action
Alaric Tokpa, National Chair of the National Democratic Coalition (NDC), also condemned the attacked on Roots FM and free speech in Liberia. He therefore called on all progressive social democrats in Liberia and abroad to step up the campaign for the democratization of Liberia.
Mr. Tokpa said the Weah government is incapable of sustaining the democratic culture of Liberia that is why they have emerged into a “dangerous dictatorship.”
He said the Weah’s administration had passed a “death sentence on democracy.”
“Today, those in and outside of government; the sycophants and very dangerous opportunists, as well as all keen observers of the ongoing drama in central Monrovia, bear witness to a reality that confirms our earlier statement,” Mr. Tokpa said.