COVID-19 pandemic: journalists attacked and intimidated while official threatens media

On 21st March 2020, the government declared a national health emergency, and instituted measures to help to curb the spread of COVID-19, such as the closure of schools, bars, cinemas, places of worship and large gatherings, in two counties: Montserrado and Margibi. On 8th April 2020, president Weah declared a 21-day national State of Emergency, including a lockdown in four counties (Montserrado, Margibi, Nimba and Grand Kru), starting on 10th April 2020. On 19th April 2020, the National Assembly adopted a joint resolution approving the state of emergency and extending the 21 days to 60 days. With these measures put in place, press freedom organisations have raised concern at freedom of expression violations that have occurred in Liberia in the context of COVID-19, in particular intimidation of and physical attacks against journalists, while a government official has issued threats against the media and attempted to revise journalists’ press passes, creating obstacles for them to move around freely to carry out their work.


COVID-19 pandemic: intimidation and physical attacks against journalists

At least four journalists have been attacked or intimidated by security forces between 19th March 2020 and 15th April 2020 while they were covering the COVID-19 pandemic, said press freedom organisation Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and according to a report by the Press Union of Liberia (PUL).

Authorities summoned publisher of Integrity Watch newspaper and presenter for radio station Super FM Charles Bioma Yates for questioning by the National Security Agency (NSA) in Monrovia on 19th, 20th and 21st March 2020. The interrogations relate to a Facebook post Bioma Yates posted on his personal account, accusing the government of being ‘corrupt and biased’ in its application of health regulations that mandate travellers coming from countries with more than 200 cases of COVID-19 to undergo a mandatory 14-day long quarantine. Bioma Yates told CPJ that the interrogations lasted about five hours on each visit and that he was told by NSA officials to stay in the country while the investigation lasts.

A NSA official reportedly called Joel Cholo Brooks on 29th March 2020, a journalist for the independent news website GNN Liberia, to ask for his sources for a recent story he published saying that sources revealed that a lockdown was imminent and to be announced. Brooks told CPJ that he refused to reveal his sources, and they did not contact him again, but the action left him concerned about his safety.

Officials of the Drug Enforcement Agency physically attacked Frank Wornbers Payne, a reporter and producer for the radio station Magic FM on 27th March 2020. The attack occurred when the journalist approached the officials to express his concern about a crowd of about 50 people who were dancing. Payne was reporting on the adherence to physical distancing regulations, set by the government to combat the spread of COVID-19, at a wake in the community of Peachuzon. Payne was admitted to hospital due to the injuries he sustained during the attack.

Security officers reportedly sprayed hand sanitiser in the face of journalist Molley Trojan Kiazolu and seized his mobile phone on 30th March 2020 in Monrovia after they noticed he was live streaming the officers attempting to enforce physical distancing. Kiazolu, the director of radio for the broadcaster Fabrick FM, told CPJ that the security officers first asked him why he was recording, and to delete the footage. The attack occurred after the journalist said that he was live streaming.

COVID-19 pandemic: solicitor general threatens media and journalists; attempt to revise journalists’ passes

On 29th April 2020, solicitor general Sayma Syrenius Cephas threatened during a press conference to confiscate equipment and to revoke the licenses of media outlets ‘until the end of the pandemic’ for publishing and spreading ‘false news’ during the state of emergency. Individuals would also be subject to prosecution for ‘spreading lies’. Cephas said during the press conference that under the state of emergency declared under article 87 of the Constitution basic fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are restricted.

According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), these verbal threats followed rumours on Facebook that president Weah had tested positive for COVID-19, a few days after it became public that several high-level government officials had tested positive. Assane Diagne of RSF commented:

“A public health crisis does not justify any restriction on the right to information. On the contrary, combatting an epidemic requires providing the public with accurate and extensive information. Vague threats about ‘fake news’ are also worrying. Who decides what is and what is not ‘fake news’? The need to combat disinformation must not be used as a pretext for persecuting journalists and censoring media outlets that annoy the authorities.”

The same day, the deputy Minister of Information, Eugene Fahngon reportedly announced that the passes of journalists, which allow them to move freely during the state of emergency and outside the curfew imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19, would no longer be valid and that new passes would be issued. According to CPJ, this created confusion and concrete challenges for journalists. Several journalists, including Tetee Karneh of Spoon FM and Rita Jlogbe of Sky FM and TV, have been stopped by security officers. After an outcry from media organisations, Liberia’s Senate adopted a recommendation of its sub-committee on Information, Broadcasting, Culture Affairs and Tourism that says that journalists should be allowed to report freely on COVID-19 with the use of existing accreditation and press cards. 

Several sports journalists assaulted by security officers

On 26th January 2020, Okay FM journalist Zenu Miller claimed on social media that he had been assaulted by officers of the Executive Protective Services (EPS), the elite security forces unit that provides security for president Weah, in ‘full view of the EPS director’ at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex during the final of the 2020 National County Meet. Miller passed away on 15th February 2020, 21 days after the alleged assault, according to his family due to hypertension, as outlined in the medical report by the hospital where Miller died. Calls for an independent autopsy to determine if the death of the journalist was related to the alleged attack went unanswered due to the family’s wish to bury Miller in peace. Later, on 27th February 2020, the government of Liberia, through its Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, officially apologised to Miller’s family and the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), for failing to investigate the alleged incident. PUL had previously sent a written petition to EPS to investigate the incident.

A few days earlier, during the semi-final of the same tournament on 23rd January 2020, several police officers assaulted sports editor for news outlet FrontPage Africa Christopher Walker at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex. Several police officers, assisted by members of the Police Support Unit in helmets and body armour, shoved and grabbed the sports journalists. The incident, which was filmed and shared on social media, occurred after two police officers approached the journalist in the media area and demanded that he leave, to which Walker responded by saying that he had proper media accreditation, and asked the police officers the reasons for their demand. Walker’s clothes were torn, while his cell phone and camera were reportedly damaged during the altercation. CPJ, who spoke with Walker, said that the journalist believes that the attack was in relation to an article he published that morning alleging interference of the Ministry of Sports and Youth in the match that day, giving an advantage to the team representing president Weah’s home county. The attack was condemned by the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and the Sports Writers Association of Liberia (SWAL).

According to regional press freedom organisation Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), other sports journalists had been attacked by security officers before these incidents. On 10th June 2019, police officers reportedly shoved and arrested sports journalist for the newspaper Inquirer Webster Cassell while he was reporting on a soccer match at Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia. The police officers reportedly told the journalist they were acting on a complaint from the vice-president of the Liberian Football Association in relation to an article published that morning alleging that the vice-president attacked a referee. According to MFWA, Prime FM journalist Michael Solomon, who took pictures of the incident, was allegedly also assaulted by police officers, and compelled to delete the pictures. 

Closure of radio station, another radio station attacked

On 10th October 2019, armed police officers closed radio station Roots FM. The action occurred during the broadcast of The Costa Show presented by the radio station’s owner and political commentator Henry Costa. As Costa announced live on the show that the radio station was under attack, supporters started to gather outside the station’s premises, leading to clashes with the police. According to media reports, the police officers used tear gas against the crowd. Broadcasting equipment, such as microphones, headphones, cable antennae and computers, were seized. After the shutdown of Roots FM, protesters gathered in front of the offices of Freedom FM, a radio station owned by Sam Siryon, the deputy director of the National Security Agency, to demand its closure. 

According to RSF, police started carrying out arrests after protesters threw stones at Freedom FM vehicles. According to news reports, authorities said that the radio station was shut down as they were broadcasting on a frequency for which the station had no licence, and for inciting violence. The Monrovia City Court reportedly issued a search and seizure warrant the day prior to the police action, on request of the Minster of Justice. A week before the incidents, the Press Union of Liberia accused both Roots FM and Freedom FM of ‘constant ethical breaches’ and ‘hate speech and insults’ and asked the government to take action against them.

As documented previously on the Monitor, Roots FM has been attacked twice – on 31st January and 10th February 2019 - by unidentified armed men, and its owner, Henry Costa has been subject to threats and crippling defamation lawsuits. On 15th April 2019, the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs filed a defamation lawsuit against Costa, demanding 500,000 USD in damages and the shutdown of the station. Henry Costa has played a key role in the anti-government protests organised by the Council of Patriots (COP) (see under Peaceful Assembly).

Detention of journalists

On 13th February 2020, police officers detained journalist Methuselah Gaye in Yarpah Town, Rivercess County for 12 hours, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). Gaye, who works for Fabric Radio Broadcaster, told the CPJ that he was arrested after he told another journalist that he believes that police officers were trying to cover up a murder via Facebook Messenger. Officers reportedly said that his arrest was the result of a complaint by a senior police officer, who claimed that Gaye had spread lies about him on Facebook. Gaye was released without charge.

On 28th February 2020, police officers in Voinjama, in Lofa County, detained freelance journalist and reporter for Kintoma Radio FM Kolubah Bobo Akoi for four hours, according to CPJ. Akoi was summoned to the police station over a complaint filed by the president of the county’s community college. The complaint accuses Akoi of ‘criminal conspiracy, criminal malevolence and illegal disclosure of documents’ due to the journalist’s Facebook posts on alleged fraud at the community college. The journalist told CPJ that he was hit against the wall and was dragged by his trousers when he was arrested. Akoi was released but remains under police investigation. Angela Quintal of CPJ said:

“Kolubah Bobo Akoi should never have been arrested or detained, and the ongoing investigation into his work should be dropped. Authorities intimidating and harassing journalists for reporting on matters of public interest is inconsistent with Liberia’s basic standards of press freedom.”

Journalists Salam Kaloko and Aryee Davis were beaten and the latter detained by security officers while covering a protest supporting the establishment of a war crimes court in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia on 3rd March 2020 (see also under Peaceful Assembly). Kaloko, reporter for Magic TV, was manhandled by officers of the Executive Protection Services (EPS), the presidential guard, and his bag containing equipment such as his phone and tripod was confiscated after he photographed clashes between officers and protesters. According to CPJ, the journalist said he sustained injuries to his hand. Ayree Davis, a reporter for Truth FM, was punched in her back and neck by police and was subsequently detained for two hours before being released without charge.

Cyclone Newspaper journalist Benjamin Quaye Toby Johnson was reportedly detained and held overnight on 4th March 2020 in Gardnersville, a suburb of Monrovia, when he tried to get comments from the Executive Protection Services on allegations of a shooting of a woman by an EPS officers. He was reportedly first asked to leave and to present more evidence, and when Johnson returned he was asked to take off his shirt, relinquish his equipment and write a statement, and was subsequently locked in a prison cell before being released the next morning. In addition, according to the journalist, who spoke with CPJ, officers broke his phone when he tried to alert the Press Union of Liberia. 

Police disrupt live broadcast media outlet, seize phones

On 12th May 2020, police officers searched the home of Lennart Dodoo, editor of the online news outlet FrontPage Africa, and confiscated some of his equipment. According to the Centre for Media Studies and Peacebuilding, Dodoo was broadcasting live on the outlet’s Facebook page when about 20 armed officers, equipped with a search and seizure warrant, disrupted the live broadcast and demanded that Dodoo delete the 42 minute live broadcast from the Facebook page. When the journalist refused, saying they needed to contact the managing editor of FrontPage Africa for such an act, the officers ordered Dodoo to hand over his phone. His other phone was reportedly seized when the journalist tried to contact the newspaper to intervene. 

Peaceful Assembly

Police use tear gas and water cannon against anti-government protesters

On 6th January 2020, about three thousand people gathered at the Capitol building in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, to protest against the dire and deteriorating economic conditions in the country, which protesters say is due to mismanagement of public funds and corruption under President Weah. After hours of protest, security officers started to disperse the crowd with force, including by using tear gas and water cannon when some protesters started to cook evening meals ‘against police orders’. Dozens of people were injured in the action, including through the inhalation of tear gas, and three people were reportedly arrested. Dozens of riot police were deployed, according to news reports.

The protest, organised by the activist group Council of Patriots (COP) to demand the dismissal of President Weah’s economic team, was initially planned for 30th December 2019, but was postponed after the authorities said that they could not provide security for the demonstration, followed by mediation by international partners such as ECOWAS, UNOWAS and US and EU diplomatic missions in Liberia.

The excessive use of force by security forces on 6th January 2020 was condemned by the Independent National Human Rights Commission (INHRC) and the CSO Human Rights Platform in a press statement on 8th January 2020. The INHRC acting chairman Bartholomew B. Colleysaid:

“The excessive use of force by the LNP [Liberian National Police] against the protesters who had been peaceful all day on Monday, January 6, 2020 was totally disproportionate and unwarranted. Efforts by the INCHR and the CSO human rights platform leadership to dissuade the police action were ignored by the Police Deputy Director-General for Operation because he claimed he had received orders from above to totally disperse the crowd of protesters.”

After the protest, the COP denounced in a press statement the ‘continual harassments, intimidation and threats’ against its members, notably Henry Costa. Costa claims that he was forced to leave Liberia on 12th January due to threats he received. According to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), Costa was prevented from leaving the country on 10th January 2020 by immigration officers at the airport for being under investigation for allegedly having used a forged passport. On 12th January 2020, he was stopped by immigration officials at the Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone. The authorities denied a request from Liberian authorities to extradite Costa under ECOWAS regulations guaranteeing the freedom of movement for ECOWAS citizens, while several civil society groups in Sierra Leone called for the release Henry Costa. He was released on 16th January 2020.

As previously reported on the Monitor, COP organised #SavetheState protests on 7th June 2019 to condemn the economic crisis, inflation and alleged high-level corruption, and handed over a petition with demands to the vice-president. The protest in June 2019 saw the blocking of access to social media.

Protests to demand the establishment of a war crimes court

Under the banner ‘Liberians United for Justice and Accountability’, protesters gathered on 4th March 2020 at the Capitol where they handed a petition to the National Assembly demanding the establishment of the Economic and War Crimes Court to try those responsible for human rights abuses during Liberia’s two armed conflicts (1989-1996 and 1999-2003).

According to local media outlets, the protesters proceeded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the location of president Weah’s temporary office, but were stopped by officers of the Executive Protection Services (EPS) – the Liberian presidential guard – where they arrested several protesters, including campaigner and justice activist Emanuel Savice. According to Savice, he was beaten and kicked by EPS officers. Authorities accuse Savice and other protesters of breaching security protocol. Two journalists were beaten, one of whom was arrested (see Under Expression).

The establishment of a war crimes court was one of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Liberia (2006-2009) but it is yet to be implemented. To date, no one has been held accountable in Liberia for past abuses and war crimes, including massacres, summary executions, torture, mutilation, the use of child soldiers and the systematic use of sexual violence. The few cases of prosecutions that have taken place occurred in other jurisdictions outside of Liberia, mainly in the United States of America and Europe.

In a letter to the National Assembly on 12th September 2019, president Weah asked that it ‘advise and provide guidance on all legislative and other necessary measures towards the implementation of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] report, including the establishment of the Economic and War Crimes Court’, which was welcomed by several CSOs working on justice and accountability.