Red Flags for Press Freedom in Liberia

Liberian newspapers protest government threats to press freedom. (Wade Williams/Front Page Africa)

Liberian newspapers protest government threats to press freedom. (Wade Williams/Front Page Africa)

In Liberia, hard-won press freedom is being eroded.

Government threats to the media in the aftermath of World Press Freedom Day have sparked a two-week blackout of that country’s front pages.

On May 16, two JHR-trained journalists from two of the most independent newspapers in the country were briefly arrested, along with their driver and trainer, for seeking information on court proceedings in Bong County.

The journalists were charged with “attempted blackmail and for trying to make Liberia look bad.”

Liberia Media Center and JHR representative and lawyer Lamii Kpargoi, who was travelling with the group, worked with Deputy Information Minister Isaac Jackson to secure the group’s release. This comes a few days after government representative Mr. Othello Warrick threatened to go after journalists who “impugned” others.

The President of Liberia is the Nobel Peace laureate and Harvard graduate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The government has since apologized for Mr. Warrick’s statement. However, though made a “Friend of the Media” in Liberia earlier this year, Sirleaf’s voice has been noticeably absent from the press freedom debate.

These incidents come as red flags to show just how vigilant the sector and the international community needs to remain in order to safeguard the right to free expression in what up till recently has been one of West Africa’s strongest success stories. At a time when Liberia has made extraordinary strides, both in press freedom and in governance and transparency, it is essential that both the international community and leadership of the local media sector work in concert to ensure the Liberian media hold the line on those gains.

In the words of departing Liberia Media Center executive director and JHR partner Lawrence Randall: “The progress we have made should not and will not be reversed. It is time the media unite and assert the required pressure in demanding assurances from government for the protection of journalists and freedom of expression. An isolated threat to media freedom anywhere is a potential threat to the sector as a whole.”