Freedom of the Press
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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 government relations with the press following the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president in late 2005, the press freedom environment remained stagnant in 2007, as journalists continued to face harsh libel laws and harassment by the government and security forces. Liberia’s 1986 constitution guarantees citizens the right of free expression but makes them “fully responsible for the abuse thereof,” a clause that helped the regime of former president Charles Taylor harass the media with a semblance of legitimacy. Under the transitional government and the administration of Johnson-Sirleaf, respect for freedom of the press improved noticeably. Nonetheless, hopes have dwindled for a freedom of information bill and a media reform bill that would improve legal protections for media practitioners, both of which have been discussed for several years but which have made little progress in the parliament. Constitutional guarantees for access to information are currently vague; budgetary and financial information in particular is difficult to obtain owing to bureaucratic inefficiency and civil servants’ frequent requests for additional payment. Strict libel laws remain in place, and in October, the general manager of Renaissance Communication, Ambrose Nmah, sued six journalists from different media houses for libel. This followed their publication of a statement calling on the Liberian Press Union to investigate a comment, allegedly made by Nmah during his radio program, justifying the use of force by the police against journalists. Nmah was demanding US$10,000 in damages.
Throughout 2007, the media faced threats from a number of sources. Journalists were frequently harassed, beaten, and detained, and the outlets for which they worked were occasionally censored, banned, or accused of broadcasting hate messages. The government played a role in this repression, most notably through its announcement in October that the president’s press secretary and the Ministry of Information would subsequently select the reporters who would be permitted to cover the president. In February, the government had banned the private biweekly newspaper the Independent for a full year after it published sexually explicit photographs of the minister of presidential affairs. The paper’s editor, Sam Dean, went into hiding following death threats, but he took the issue to court and eventually won; the paper resumed publishing in May. A number of domestic and international journalists were harassed or beaten by police, UN peacekeepers, and the president’s security force in 2007. In September, reporters attempting to cover the arrival of Sierra Leone’s president for the signing of a nonaggression treaty were beaten and harassed by security forces. Included were correspondents for the British Broadcasting Corporation, Radio France Internationale, and Reuters, as well as local journalists. Similarly, in August, a journalist with the private Daily Observer newspaper was beaten and detained by police while trying to cover a counternarcotics operation, and three others were detained in December for photographing the removal of decomposed bodies from a police cell. Also in December, police shut down a radio station for two days after it was accused of siding with striking workers at a rubber plantation. These and other incidents occurring throughout 2007 seriously threatened the progress that has been achieved over the last few years.
Despite such attacks, Liberian journalists regularly report critically about the government and other politicians, and media outlets offer a diversity of views. In 2007, about a dozen newspapers were published in the capital, Monrovia, with varying degrees of regularity. However, newspaper distribution is limited to the capital and literacy rates remain low, meaning most Liberians rely on radio broadcasts. There were 15 independent radio stations in Monrovia and 24 local stations outside of the capital. The government runs one radio station, as does the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). Though the independent media have grown significantly since the removal of Taylor, the number of outlets has decreased in recent years owing to financial constraints. Such difficulties, which are inevitable in an impoverished country recovering from war, continue to cause some of the largest impediments to unbiased journalism. Reporters commonly accept payment from individuals covered in their stories, and the placement of a story in a paper or radio show can often be bought and influenced by outside interests. Access to foreign broadcasts and the internet is not restricted by the government, though internet usage is limited to less than 1 percent of the population owing to the dire financial situation of most Liberians.