Reporters Without Borders wrote to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf today voicing concern about the fact that the second round of the presidential election a week ago was marred by the suspension of four opposition media and by violence against journalists covering clashes between police and demonstrators.
Despite the current uncertainty in Liberia, with the announcement of President Sirleaf’s reelection on the one hand and opposition candidate Winston Tubman’s call for a fresh election on the other, the letter urges Sirleaf to demonstrate a commitment to establish conditions that favour freedom of the press and opinion, and to ensure that those responsible for the violence against the journalists are punished.
The text of the letter follows:
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Paris, 15 November 2011
Dear President Sirleaf,
Reporters Without Borders, an organization that defends media freedom worldwide, is very worried about the poor climate in which the media have had to work in Liberia since the start of the presidential election campaign and which has had very negative consequences for journalists’ freedom and safety.
The media have suffered as a result of the tension between the two main rival parties, which came to head when the opposition candidate, Winston Tubman, withdrew from the 8 November run-off. We deplore the serious violations of media freedom and acts of violence against journalists that took place during the second round of the elections.
Between the two rounds, several journalists had already reported being manhandled or attacked while covering the dispersal of demonstrations by the security forces, in which at least one person was killed and many were wounded. On 8 November, a fire gutted the premises of radio Eternal Love Winning (ELWA). No suspect has so far been arrested. Regardless of whether the media were the direct target of this violence, it has created a climate of fear for journalists who are now unable to work normally.
Aside from the violence against journalists, we deplore last week’s decision to close several news media. As you know, four media were closed on the orders of Judge James Zota of the Montserrado County first circuit criminal court in response to complaints filed by justice minister Christianah Tah and information minister Cletus Sieh.
The premises of Kings FM/Clar TV (owned by opposition vice-presidential candidate George M. Weah), Love FM/TV (owned by opposition politician Benoni Urey) and Shattle FM were closed by police officers on 7 November on the official grounds that they had been broadcasting “hate” messages against the government and deliberately inciting violence.
Power FM/TV suffered the same fate the next day only this time there was no court order, which seems to indicate the purely arbitrary nature of the closure. The owners of the four media, which are all regarded as favouring the opposition, appeared in court on 10 November.
On 15 November, the judge found the four media guilty of inciting hatred but allowed them back on air.
The current situation is delicate and marked by uncertainty, with the announcement of your reelection on the one hand and Winston Tubman’s call for a fresh election on the other. We are convinced that the closure of media is liable to exacerbate the situation and we therefore welcome today’s ruling and we hope that the recently closed radio stations will be able to reopen without delay. They must be allowed to resume operating and to contribute to the diversity of opinion in Liberia.
The violence against journalists and media premises must not go unpunished and we urge you to ensure that light is shed on these incidents. The presidential election is already liable to be marred by the violence and other problems that accompanied it. It would be marred even more if those responsible for the violence against the media were not identified and appropriately punished.
A month before you are due to collect the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, the international community expects you to demonstrate a commitment to establish conditions that favour freedom of the media and opinion in your country.
We trust you will give this matter all the necessary attention.
Mr. Cletus A. Sieh, Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism
Mr. Harrisson S. Karnwea, Minister of Internal Affairs
Ms. Christianah Tah, Minister of Justice
Picture : Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (AFP / Glenna Gordon)