Freedom of the Press
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Despite a small improvement in press-government relations brought about by the election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the relationship between the press and the government soured in 2006 amid a series of incidents in which authorities accused the press of writing intentionally misleading stories, while the press complained about a lack of government transparency. Liberia’s 1986 constitution guarantees that citizens enjoy freedom of expression, “being fully responsible for the abuse thereof.” This opaque clause helped the Charles Taylor regime harass the media with a semblance of legitimacy during his presidency. Under the transitional government and the newly elected administration of Johnson-Sirleaf, respect for freedom of the press has improved noticeably. Nonetheless, strict libel laws are still in place, and in March 2006 the private biweekly Independent newspaper was banned for two days by the government in response to the publication of compromising photos of the ex–presidential affairs minister. In April, the directors of three separate newspapers were required to appear before the Senate on accusations of publishing “false and misleading” information in response to allegedly defamatory articles claiming that senators received exorbitant salaries. Constitutional guarantees for access to information are vague; access to budgetary and financial information, in particular, remains difficult owing to bureaucratic inefficiencies and frequent requests for additional payment from civil servants involved. Decades of civil war and mismanagement also mean that there are very few public records to access. A media reform bill and a more progressive freedom of information bill are currently being debated in the legislature; although this is a promising improvement from years past, in the last year little progress has been made in passing or implementing these bills.
Journalists frequently reported unfavorably on government behavior, and 2006 saw a noticeable deterioration in the relationship between the government and the media from the improvements made in 2005. A number of journalists were harassed, beaten, or detained while covering the news. Upon returning from a trip in June, President Johnson-Sirleaf announced that she would talk to only three reporters of her choosing. The rest of the press corps became angry, and a number of journalists were harassed by the president’s security personnel. A week later, four journalists were hassled and briefly detained by security personnel at the president’s executive mansion while attempting to authenticate reports of the dismissal of five senior security officers. Nevertheless, for these and other incidents the government has often made visible efforts to investigate the perpetrators; even so, many journalists claim that these investigations are often more image than substance. On a number of occasions, government representatives accused the media of acting unprofessionally. The most high-profile of these instances was when, while speaking at a university graduation, President Johnson-Sirleaf accused many journalists of sensationalizing the news and often replacing accuracy and truth with lies and exaggerations.
There are now approximately a dozen newspapers publishing in Monrovia with varying degrees of regularity. However, newspaper distribution is limited to the capital, and most Liberians rely on radio broadcasts to receive news owing to low literacy rates. There are now 15 different independent radio stations in Monrovia, 24 local radio stations outside of the capital, 1 radio station run by the government, and 1 run by the United Nations Mission in Liberia—all of which generally operate without excessive government influence. However, in May 2006 the Liberian Broadcasting System announced that all journalists working for state-run outlets would be required to obtain clearance before publishing articles accusing government officials of corruption. The independent media have grown significantly since the removal of Taylor, though the number of outlets has decreased over the last year, typically because of financial difficulties. Such financial constraints, inevitable in the operation of a news outlet in such a poor country recovering from war, cause some of the largest impediments to unbiased accurate journalism. Reporters commonly accept payment from individuals they file stories about, and even the placement of a story in a paper or a radio show can often be bought and influenced by outside interests. Access to foreign broadcasts and the internet is unrestricted by the government but is severely limited by the dire financial situation of most Liberians to less than 0.5 percent of the population.