Eight journalists in Liberia were assaulted, threatened or detained in separate incidents, three of them related to COVID-19 in the month of May 2020.
This is according to a report by the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) the umbrella body of media professionals in that country. The PUL’s 13th Quarterly Report covered the period April-June, 2020, but all the violations occurred in May.
A statement by Liberia’s Solicitor General, Cllr. Sayma Syrenius Cephus threatening to prosecute, shut down media institutions or seize the equipment of media institutions who publish false news about the COVID-19 set the tone for a series of confrontations between journalists and state actors.
Following the statement which was made on April 30, the Press Union of Liberia warned the state prosecutor’s threat was illegal, as only the court can order the shutdown of media institutions.
On May 1, Deputy Minister for Public Affairs, Eugene Fahngon, also provoked the media with an announcement that media professionals working beyond the COVID-19 curfew hours must carry his approved pass issued by the Ministry of Information, warning that whoever flouted the order would be dealt with by the security agencies.
The first victim of the infamous “Fahngon Pass” was Christopher Walker of FrontPageAfrica. The journalist was on his way home from work on May 7, when the security officers accosted him at the Slip Way Check point in Monrovia. Although Walker produced his professional card, the police insisted on the controversial card approved by the Deputy Minister, nullifying a previous pass that exempted journalists from the COVID-19 lockdown and curfew. The officers assaulted the journalist and detained him.
On May 20, the head of the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency (LDEA), Jerry Blamo, accused journalist Sunny Blar of breaking the COVID-19 curfew and attacked him. Sunny Blar, who works for the Development Communication Network (DCN) FM 91.3 in Cestos, River Cess County, had come out of the premises of the radio station to buy drinking water just across the street. The officer flogged Blar despite the journalist displaying his press card.
The third and final violation related to the COVID-19 occurred on May 23, when Trojan Kaizolu, a journalist with Fabric Radio was beaten and taken into detention by the police for not wearing a face mask. Deputy Inspector General of Police (IGP) for Operations, Melvin Sackor, ordered his men to flog the journalist who was on his way home from a late-night shift. On the orders of the senior officer, the beaten journalist was bundled into a police pickup vehicle and taken to a nearby police station where he was detained.
The Deputy IGP Marvin Sackor later apologised to Trojan Kiazolu after the PUL brokered a mediation between the two parties.
In other incidents, police officers of the Red-light Zone 9 Depot No.2 assaulted David K. Yango of Strong FM 98.3 / TV while the journalist was on duty on May 7, 2020. Yango and other reporters were interviewing market women whose goods had been seized by the police officers for allegedly selling at unapproved spots.
Yango gave the MFWA further details when contacted through a messaging app. He said a scuffle broke out among two women and he and his colleague Morris Cisse, decided to cover it. It was during the coverage that the police officers assaulted them. Yango added that he was taken to the police station and detained on the orders of one Elijah Baysah, whom he described as the commander of the Red Light Zone 9 detachment. “I lost my recorder during the assault and the police deleted my videos before returning my seized phone,” Yango told the MFWA.
On May 9, the Mayor of Pleebo in Maryland, Wellington Kyne, attacked and insulted David Kpanie, a journalist with Voice of Pleebo. The mayor had taken offense at some of the remarks made by the journalist’s guests on his talk show on Voice of Pleebo.
On May 22, the family and the local community of a fifteen-year-old rape victim assaulted Abraham Saah, a journalist with Foya District Kissi TV Radio (FDKTV) an online media platform. The assailants were angry with the journalist for reporting the scandal in which a man raped and impregnated his step daughter.
On May 7, Ansu Sheikh Sonii, Station Manager of Top FM reported that he had been harassed and threatened by Ambrose Brown of Grand Cape Mount County Police Detachment and one Papa Nynabu. The police officer made phone calls to threaten the journalist after his station had reported that he (Officer Brown) unlawfully discharged fire-arm in the town of Kinjor, Gola Konneh District, which had created fear among the residents.
Meanwhile, media stakeholders have expressed concern about the attacks and called on the police in particular to refrain from abusing journalists.
“Documenting attacks and threats on the press is laudable and must be sustained to voice out our revulsion over such anti-press freedom posturing, especially by the security forces. However, we must ensure that such acts are investigated to get the full details and, where necessary, apply sanctions. It could even be possible to see where the journalists erred to have aroused the angst of those involved in the attacks. Whatever the case might be, we are saying that no situation justifies brutality towards any journalist.” Malcolm Josephs, Executive Director the Centre for Media Studies and Peacebuilding, protested.
Garblah Othelo, publisher of the New Dawn newspaper, said the unfortunate incidents recorded in the quarter under review were avoidable.
“The report seems to have captured incidents within the reporting period that could have been avoided because these, to a large extent, are not state-sponsored incidents but rather individuals or a group of individuals acting on their own” Othelo told the MFWA.
While the perpetrators of the above violations are overzealous police officers and vindictive individuals, their action is certainly encouraged by the atmosphere of hostility against the media which government officials are perceived to have created. Following a series of hostile remarks by government officials in 2018, the Press Union of Liberia was forced to issue a distress statement. The umbrella journalists’ organisation said that “it has followed with total dismay rabble-rousing comments from different sections of the Weah Administration directed towards the media in Liberia.”
On March 12, the media organised a march in Monrovia to protest a wave of attacks on journalists after Zenu Miller, a journalist with Monrovia-based OK FM, died on February 15, 2020, exactly three weeks after he was assaulted by President Weah’s security guards.
As part of the protest, a few newspapers darkened their homepages and some radio stations suspended normal programming to dedicate the day to discussing violence against journalists. At the end of the march, PUL handed the government a petition urging it to stop the “attacks, detention, intimidation and brutality against media practitioners” which it described as “unprecedented.”
The violations recorded by the PUL in its latest press freedom report, therefore, follows a disturbing pattern of impunity that the government must take steps to curb. It is unfortunate that, journalists are being abused during this critical time of the COVID-19 outbreak when their crucial work as providers of information, education and sensitization is most needed. The Media Foundation for West Africa considers it a sad contradiction that a country with such a liberal and progressive legal framework for the media sector should, in practice, be found wanting in terms of safety of journalists. We therefore urge all stakeholders in Liberia to work together to reverse the trend to enable the media function optimally and play its role fully in the nation-building effort.