Freedom of the Press 2010

Freedom Of The Press - Liberia (2010)

Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 17
Political Environment: 23
Economic Environment: 21
Total Score: 61

  • Liberia’s 1986 constitution guarantees citizens the right of free expression but makes them “fully responsible for the abuse thereof.”
  • After much campaigning and several years of discussion, a freedom of information bill was submitted to the legislature in 2008, but it had not been voted on by the end of 2009. Two other draft media laws were also introduced in 2008 and still awaited passage—one to establish an independent broadcasting regulator and the other to transform the state broadcaster into a public-service broadcaster.
  • While it was hoped that the government would reform Liberia’s criminal libel laws, there were a number of cases in 2009 in which government officials, including President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, sued members of the media. In September, the president filed a US$5 million lawsuit against the editor of the New Broom newspaper, which had published a story suggesting that Johnson-Sirleaf received a US$2 million bribe from a rubber plantation. Lawmaker James Biney also sued the paper in the same case. In December, the publisher and printer of the newspaper Plain Truth were questioned, charged with libel, and imprisoned by National Security Agency (NSA) officials for a story accusing Johnson-Sirleaf’s administration of supplying arms to Guinean dissidents, as alleged by Guinea’s military junta. The NSA is headed by the president’s son. While none of these cases have resulted in rulings that call into question the independence of the judiciary, the mere threat of legal repercussions can lead to self-censorship.
  • Two newspapers were closed in 2009 for allegedly failing to resister properly. Observers noted that registration requirements were unevenly applied, with the authorities appearing to target critical publications.
  • As in previous years, the incidence of harassment, intimidation, and physical attacks on journalists increased in 2009. Two sports journalists were assaulted by the police in January, though one of the officers responsible later apologized. In March, Nathaniel McClain of the Renaissance newspaper was handcuffed and beaten for photographing a group of police who were assaulting a customs officer. After reporter Solomon Ware of the Truth FM radio station was “elbowed” by the president pro tempore of the Senate in May, reporters refused to cover the chamber’s activities until the senator apologized later that month. In August, state security officers attacked a reporter from Public Agenda after he inquired about a car accident in which they were involved. In September, Monrovia mayor Mary Broh, accompanied by a group of police officers, stormed into the office of the News and threatened legal action over a story linking her to controversial US$50 fees allegedly paid to the city by street peddlers.
  • The media sector includes both state-owned and private outlets. Although a dozen newspapers publish regularly, distribution is limited to the capital and literacy rates remain low, meaning most Liberians rely on radio broadcasts for news. There were 15 independent radio stations in Monrovia and 24 community radio stations outside the capital, as well as three television stations.
  • 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.
  • According to the Liberia Media Center, most newspapers are owned and operated by journalists, who are rarely trained in business operations. However, broadcast outlets are typically owned by more experienced businesspeople, politicians, or partnerships.
  • 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 due to cost, literacy, and infrastructural barriers.