Liberia: New Government Risks Making an Enemy Out of the Media

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President George Weah at the opening ceremony of a summit meeting at the African Union, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 28, 2018 (AP photo by Mulugeta Ayene).

By Robbie Corey-Boulet, Senior Editor (World Politics Review)

In February, former president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was awarded the prestigious $5 million Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, becoming the fifth winner since the prize was established in 2007.

It was the latest in a long line of honors acknowledging her efforts to rehabilitate Liberia’s democracy after more than a decade of civil conflict.

In the eyes of pro-democracy activists, however, Sirleaf’s record was far from perfect. One of the most commonly cited weak spots was her commitment to freedom of the press. Her time in office certainly represented an improvement over that of her predecessor, the warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, who had no tolerance for independent reporting.

But during Sirleaf’s 12 years in office, her government failed to reform libel laws that led to the jailing of journalists and the shuttering of publications. Moreover, Freedom House consistently rated the media environment under Sirleaf as only “partly free,” citing frequent cases of intimidation and arbitrary arrests.

Yet three months into the term of her successor, the soccer star-turned-politician George Weah, Liberian journalists could be forgiven for wondering if Sirleaf’s presidency will represent a high-water mark in terms of the space they’re given to do their work. That’s because, in recent weeks, two high-profile confrontations have highlighted hostility toward the press on the part of the new administration, including from Weah himself—an especially worrying development, given that the country’s United Nations peacekeeping mission recently closed its doors, depriving journalists of a powerful ally.

The first incident involves the newspaper FrontPage Africa, which was founded in 2005 and consistently publishes the most aggressive reporting in the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ, the paper was recently slapped with a $1.8 million lawsuit over an allegedly defamatory advertisement concerning land administration. Moreover, on April 9, while delivering a summons related to the case, authorities “briefly detained at least seven journalists” and temporarily closed the newsroom, CPJ said.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is a man with ties to Weah’s political party, the Coalition for Democratic Change, or CDC. The CPJ also noted that Jefferson Koijee, the mayor of Monrovia, the capital, and a member of the CDC, publicly criticized FrontPage Africa for “unprofessional attacks on the presidency” before the summons was issued. Rodney Sieh, FrontPage Africa’s publisher, has said he suspects the paper is being targeted because of its critical coverage, noting that other papers that ran the same advertisement have yet to face any repercussions. The case has echoes of one that unfolded in 2013 when Sieh was jailed for nearly three months over a libel judgment stemming from FrontPage Africa’s reporting about a government minister.

The government has denied any involvement in this new case, saying it relates to a private matter. But there’s no question about the state’s involvement in the second incident that has raised alarm in Liberian media circles, as it was initiated by the president himself.

On March 22, during a joint press conference with U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed at Liberia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Weah fielded a question from Jonathan Paye-Layleh, the longtime Liberian correspondent for the BBC and Associated Press, about efforts to prosecute those who committed wartime atrocities. Weah’s response began with a boilerplate, if faltering, endorsement of the rule of law before taking an unexpectedly confrontational turn. Addressing Paye-Layleh directly, Weah said, “When I was advocating for human rights in the country, you were one person that was against me.” He offered no explanation.
There were signs early on in George Weah’s political career that he might try to exert undue influence over what journalists publish.

According to Paye-Layleh, a former colleague of mine at the AP in West Africa, the episode did not end there. He says that when he sought clarification from the government, he “came under verbal attacks from the president’s supporters.” Three days after the press conference, Weah’s office issued a statement featuring the bizarre claim that while Weah, who spent most of the war years playing soccer for European teams, was trying to bring attention to human rights abuses committed in his home country, Paye-Layleh was “bent on undermining his efforts by depicting a positive image of the carnage.”

The Press Union of Liberia responded with a statement accusing Weah of “tearing down one of Liberia’s revered journalists in the eye of the world.” More broadly, the statement lamented “the speed at which the Executive Mansion is fast leading the reverse of gains made on journalists’ safety.”

Taken together, these incidents do raise legitimate questions about Weah’s willingness to allow journalists to report freely. Given that he’s spent most of his life in the public eye, including more than a decade as a politician, his antagonistic stance toward Paye-Layleh is particularly odd. “One would have thought that after 12 years of being in opposition, with some of the negative press that Weah received, he would have been prepared to engage more maturely with the media,” says Aaron Weah, a Liberian political analyst who is not related to the president. “I’m a little surprised that Weah has not understood the orientation of the Liberian media. Historically, the media is always regime critical.”

There were signs earlier in George Weah’s political career that he might try to exert undue influence over what journalists publish. During the 2011 election, for example, when Weah was running for vice president on the CDC’s ticket, the BBC covered a campaign rally in the northern city of Ganta during which a CDC vehicle struck a bystander, leaving him “covered in blood.” Apparently worried about how the story would play out, Weah called a local journalist over and, according to the BBC, forced him to delete photos of the victim—“or else deal with his security men.”

The worry now is that, with Weah installed at the Executive Mansion, there are few checks on this type of behavior. For his part, Weah has pushed back against claims that he wants to stifle freedom of expression in the country. In a statement about the FrontPage Africa case, the Ministry of Information said the president would work to “decriminalize speech offenses” to give media outlets “protection against closures and arrests.” His government has also vowed to investigate the recent killing of Tyron Brown, a video editor with a private broadcasting company who was found stabbed to death in a suburb of Monrovia; there were no immediate indications that Brown had been targeted for his work.

Yet in a recent meeting with Liberian media executives, Weah also offered clues that tensions between his government and the media are likely to persist, in no small part because, in his mind, it is the job of journalists to publicize his good works. “While it is true the media and journalists are at liberty to write and criticize in whatever way they see,” he said, “it is also incumbent of the media to mention the achievements of the government.”

Souce: World Politics Review

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