The Pursuit of Press Freedom in Liberia

This article was originally published in June 2010

Smile FM. The once-charming name for a community radio station in southeastern Liberia is now, at best, ironic.

At worst, it’s a mocking reminder of how tarnished this symbol of grassroots media and freedom of expression has become.

Today, reporters at Smile FM in Zwedru, speaking only with anonymity, admit: “We work in fear.”

Journalists in Liberia demand less political interference and more government accountability.

Smile FM’s troubles began two years ago, when the County Police Commander and two Liberia National Police officers marched into the studio, ordered staff to leave, and took control of the the radio station. They were acting on orders of the County Superintendent, Chris Bailey, appointed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to manage Grand Gedeh County.

“[The police] said we needed to leave the compound by order of the Superintendent, and the radio should be shut down for carrying anti-government slogans,” describes former station manager Garley Marh, who has been banned from the premises ever since.

This is one of the radio stations for which Journalists for Human Rights is trying to provide training for reporters. So, as you can imagine, as I stand in front of Smile FM’s reporters, giving my best inspirational speech about them being “courageous watchdogs” and “holding those in public office accountable”…well, it’s just not that simple.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasizes universal right to publicly held information.

Critical Reporting

“This all started with criticisms of the regime,” declares Marh.

The takeover at Smile FM is an example of the kind of political censorship that earned Liberia a poor grade in Freedom House’s 2009 Freedom of the Press report. It categorized Liberia as “Not Free” after measuring three factors: legal environment in which media outlets operate; political influences on reporting and access to information and economic pressures (such as bribery and advertising dollars) on content and the dissemination of news.

These are not violent crimes, as were once regularly inflicted on Liberian journalists and editors, but they are still pressing issues that inspired Liberia’s Press Union to march through the streets of Monrovia on World Press Freedom Day in May.

Liberia Press Union parades through downtown Monrovia.

Media Responsibility

To be frank, I see the tensions and clashes between government and media as partly the media’s fault. Many editors and journalists unethically report libelous and sensational stories that unfairly indict officials in the public arena. The media outlets in Liberia need to raise their professional standards and become responsible for their reporting. But by no means is this an excuse for the government to violate its Constitutional guarantee of freedom of information, expression and media.

In Zwedru, the “criticisms of the regime” on Smile FM were actually raised by several civil society organizations that were questioning the local authorities’ unilateral use of County Development Funds. They accused the Superintendent of mismanaging the money and failing to implement the County’s Development Agenda, which lays out plans for improvements in health, education, justice, roads, economic development and reconstruction.

“The Development Agenda is what the citizens want, so if you leave the agenda then, definitely, you need to be quizzed,” says Marh.

He’s quick to point out that his radio reporters were careful to balance the story.

Nonetheless, Smile FM was accused of running “anti-government slogans.”

The Superintendent dissolved the board of community members and instituted his own board of cronies, who then set up their own management team. The radio station is now, essentially, a government lip-service.

A young reporter at Smile FM describes how the Superintendent phones the radio station to dictate what stories should be covered.

As for anything critical of government?

“Nobody has every tried to report that….We don’t venture to report those issues,” admits the reporter (who I won’t identify to protect his job).

Several hours from Zwedru, in Salala District, Bong County, a similar incident took place at another community radio station when a manager and board of directors were dismissed shortly after reports on air about alleged corruption in the Mayor’s office.

Better than Before

The Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP) in Monrovia tracks incidents of harassment and intimidation of journalists in Liberia on its website CEMESP Chairman, Abdullai Kamara, recognizes that today’s offenses are a far cry from the more violent days when journalists were regularly arrested, beaten and charged with espionage and criminal libel.

jhr media trainer Bonnie Allen advocates for press freedom with Liberian colleagues.

“Today is different from when newspaper offices were not only ordered shut, but were also burnt down, and staff flogged and killed,” says Kamara.

In fact, the burgeoning number of newspapers peddled on the streets of Monrovia, with front-page stories and sensational headlines about government figures, and the ever-increasing radio stations that air lively talk-shows with passionate shouting matches, would lead many to believe that Liberia’s press are strong and free.

But CEMESP recently published a report titled, “Intimidation: The renewal of censorship in Liberia, Attacks on Freedom of Expression 2009.” It outlines physical intimidation of journalists, seizure of cameras, slapstick lawsuits against media outlets, and the shutdown of printing presses to censor newspaper stories.

The media in Liberia are also trying to push a Freedom of Information bill through the Legislature, because government officials frequently refuse to release public information. The Press Union wants a criminal libel law removed from the books, as well.

Right to Free Speech

Back in Zwedru, a ten-hour drive from Monrovia, Garley Marh’s troubles show that state actors continue to violate free speech rights.

In March, when the President was scheduled to visit his city, Marh stood waiting on the street with a placard that read, “We want positive change.”

Before Ellen Johnson Sirleaf rolled into town, he says that police officers grabbed him, ripped his poster and threw him in jail. After two nights in a cell, he was released.

The Zwedru Magisterial Court acquitted Marh on charges of disorderly conduct.

Today, he can only shake his head.

At least, despite everything, he still feels free enough to share his story.

2 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Press Freedom in Liberia

  1. Sadia

    From glancing at several African newspapers, sensationalism and tabloid-ism are common threads that seem to run through most papers. What do you think is the reason for this: media houses just responding to what they believe the readers want?

  2. Bonnie Allen

    The readers’ appetite is definitely a driving factor. There are a lot of newspapers in Monrovia and people buy the ones with the most sensational headlines or pictures. There isn’t a lot of advertising money here, so you can almost understand why editors do what they do to sell papers (about 40 cents each) just to stay in business. But, there is definitely a lack of journalism training and a recklessness for libelous comments. Recent lawsuits against some Liberian media outlets, although sometimes politically motivated, may change that.

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