Internet providers blocked the access to social media platforms such as Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as a planned anti-government protest on 7th June 2019 was about to take place in Liberia's capital, Monrovia. According to digital rights CSO NetBlocks, based on network measurement data, the leading provider Lonestar also restricted Gmail and access to AP News, a news agency that reportedly published a critical article on events in the morning of 7th June, besides restrictions on the access to social media.
Confirmed: #Liberia has blocked Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat to suppress #Monrovia protests; network data collected w. @cipesaug provide conclusive evidence of blocking by mobile ISP Orange #KeepItOn #SaveTheState 📉https://t.co/wlvTPHjK3Z pic.twitter.com/6PDpwwxOSU— NetBlocks @ RightsCon (@netblocks) June 7, 2019
Access to social media blocked on day of anti-government protests
Internet providers blocked access to social media platforms such as Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as a planned anti-government protest on 7th June 2019 was about to take place in Liberia's capital, Monrovia. According to digital rights CSO NetBlocks, using network measurement data, the leading provider Lonestar also restricted Gmail and access to AP News, a news agency that reportedly published a critical article on events in the morning of 7th June, besides restrictions on the access to social media. Mobile internet provider Orange Liberia also implemented the restrictions to the access to social media. NetBlocks further said:
"The disruptions affecting ordinary operation of the social media platforms have raised concerns of a state order to restrict the Save The State protests in Liberian capital Monrovia, although no official statement has been made and the blocks are not in place with all providers."
Crippling civil defamation lawsuit
On 15th April 2019, Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Nathaniel McGill, filed a civil defamation lawsuit against radio station Roots FM and two of its hosts, Fidel Saydee and Henry Costa, who is also the owner of the privately-owned radio station, demanding 500,000 USD in damages and the shutdown of the radio station. In its lawsuit, Roots FM is accused of being 'a platform to blackmail and extort, extremely proficient in profanities rather than speaking the truth', while the Henry Costa Show is described as 'a very divisive program that rivals the pre-1994 Radio Rwanda style of broadcasting'. McGill further alleges that Roots FM, Costa, and Saydee 'slandered, badmouthed, vandalized and vilified' people for political gain by alleging financial improprieties surrounding the 2017 Liberian elections. Angela Quintal of the Committee to Protect Journalists said:
"Civil defamation lawsuits involving massive claims for damages remain a major challenge to press freedom in Liberia. Nathaniel McGill should stop trying to harass or bankrupt Roots FM and its journalists, and the government of President George Weah should build on its successful repeal of criminal defamation and sedition from Liberia's penal code by reforming civil defamation laws."
McGill previously threatened, in December 2018, the publisher of the investigative newspaper FrontPageAfrica, Rodney Sieh, with jail following the paper's publication of a report on the government's questionable expenditure of millions of dollars in 'corruption, fiscal mismanagement, kickbacks and waste', including a case of the authorisation for a payment of 180,000 dollars to a construction company that had been inactive since 2003.
Several current and former members of the House of Representatives filed a civil libel lawsuit against journalist Philbert Browne and his newspaper, Hot Pepper, demanding 2 million USD in damages. The lawsuit followed Browne's allegations, during a radio show on 14th November 2018, that several lawmakers received bribes to approve the government's printing of 15 billion Liberian dollars banknotes. On 3rd January 2019, Browne appeared in a civil law court in Monrovia where he submitted a 125,000 USD bond avoiding possible detention. Previously, on 27th November 2018, the House of Representatives voted to have Browne arrested, after Browne failed to appear in front of the House after being summoned to substantiate his allegations.
Accreditation of several reporters to Liberia's Parliament revoked
In a notice of 21st February 2019, the Parliament's press office announced the parliamentary decision to withdraw the accreditation of several journalists to its institution, and called media houses to take note of the decision and to send replacements. The notice explained the move by saying that they 'have adopted a policy to infuse new reporters and remove those who are redundant and repetitive in their coverages'. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), it concerns the accreditation of journalists Musa Kenneh of Truth FM, Jackson Foyofayiah of Focus and Meme Simoke and Edward Palmer of Corruption Watch.
Attacks on radio stations
At least three private radio stations have been subject to attacks between the end of January 2019 and end of March 2019. The attacks forced the radio stations to temporarily suspend their broadcasting. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), the three radio stations have reported on embezzlement scandals and had been critical of the government under president Weah.
In the early hours of 5th March 2019, unidentified men tried to enter the premises of radio station Joy FM in Monrovia, and failing to do so, cut the cable linking the transmitter to the radio's antenna. On 4th March 2019, presenter of the Kakata-based radio station Margibi FM, Nula Binda, was assaulted by a labour inspector after he stormed into the premises of the radio station. The assault followed the broadcasting of a recording in which the inspector is heard asking for a bribe from a businessman.
Three unidentified armed men attacked radio station Roots FM on 31st January 2019, cutting cables and destroying broadcasting equipment. According to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), the attack followed the broadcasting of a series of programmes critical of the government. On 10th February 2019, the radio station was again attacked by unidentified gunmen, who reportedly broke into the radio station's studio, held the security guards at gunpoint, and stole equipment, including two broadcast transmitters and a receiver. Many believe that the attack was carried out by supporters of the government. Costa said to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that prior to the attacks the station had received several threats, through social media, from supporters of the ruling party Coalition for Democratic Change.
Anti-government protest decry economic crisis and corruption
Thousands of Liberians gathered in an anti-government protest on 7th June, dubbed Save the State, to condemn the economic crisis, inflation and alleged high-level corruption, such as the reported disappearance of 16 billion of newly printed Liberian dollars (104 million USD), which had gone missing since its arrival in containers at two Liberian ports between November 2017 and August 2018. The organisers of the protest, Council of Patriots (COP), a coalition of civil society groups and opposition parties, handed over a petition with their demands to the vice-president. The protest follows efforts of president Weah to avoid the demonstration through dialogue. As mentioned above (Expression), the day of the protest saw the access to social media blocked.
On 28th January 2019, students gathered at the entrance to the University of Liberia's Capitol Hill campus to protest against the university's decision to suspend classes that day, due to traffic and security restrictions imposed by the Liberia National Police in light of president Weah's delivery of his State of the Nation address. Clashes ensued when the student protesters were confronted by a pro-government group, with beatings and the throwing of stones reported.
In response to a decision by authorities of the University of Liberia on 11th January 2019 to ban all political activities on the university's campuses, the student political group Student Unification Party (SUP) immediately held a protest to denounce the decision. The ban includes "the holding of political/solidarity marches, political gatherings, wearing of symbols and emblems depicting or promoting campus-based political groups as well as student protests".