The National Patriotic Force of Liberia (NPFL) — the rebel forces in the country’s brutal civil war — left their mark on news organization buildings they destroyed. Photo by Gregory Stemn.
Journalists report out of a sense of responsibility to inform and to educate the public. But it takes courage for journalists to take on reporting assignments that they can anticipate will have dangerous consequences, including the possibility of imprisonment, torture and even death. Conditions of press freedom differ in countries with repressive regimes, but all journalists who report under these circumstances share a sense of what it means to try to do this work while being always mindful of what might happen.
Even though journalists in the West African nation of Liberia now enjoy a high level of freedom in this fledgling democracy, reporting under past dictatorial regimes required courage given the violent manner in which government officials reacted to reports that they considered unfavorable. The recent history of the Liberian press is replete with stories of abuse against journalists who were harassed, intimidated, jailed and murdered, while news organizations were banned or vandalized. These actions were sanctioned by government officials, directly or indirectly.
The worst example of this treatment occurred in November 1985, when my Liberian colleague Charles Gbenyon, a young enterprising television journalist, was arrested and butchered to death upon orders of then military ruler Samuel Kanyon Doe, reportedly for his antigovernment reporting. Gbenyon was arrested in the wake of a failed military coup to depose Doe, which turned very violent and bloody as Doe’s regime unleashed a brutal wave of reprisal against real and perceived enemies. It was an act of courage that Gbenyon chose to go out into the field and report unfolding developments amid the mass chaos that was dangerously life threatening.
Several journalists were arrested in the wake of that failed coup, and I was among them. I was arrested primarily for reports I’d filed to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s African Service in London about the chaotic state of affairs in Liberia when Doe stole the presidential elections of October 15, 1985. Like other members of the press in Liberia, I was mindful that if what I reported did not please the regime, then I faced danger. Nevertheless, my reporting reflected the reality on the ground, not necessarily what the regime wanted the Liberian public and the world to be told. For these reports, I was arrested at my home — brutalized and stripped to my underpants — and then my house was set ablaze and reduced to ashes. I was incarcerated for nearly four months. It was not the last time I would be arrested and treated abusively.
During these difficult times, even at the peril of their lives, journalists had to decide whether to impose self-censorship or rely on the courage required to publish and report "sensitive" stories and suffer the consequences. In May 1991, Gabriel Williams, the managing editor of the independent daily The Inquirer, along with the paper’s news editor and a reporter, were detained by commanders of the West African peacekeeping force commonly called Ecomog. These journalists were accused of smearing the image of the peacekeeping force and undermining security because of a report in The Inquirer linking a top brass of Ecomog to gunrunning and smuggling of raw materials.
Deployed in Liberia to bring an end to that country’s senseless and bloody civil war, the peacekeeping force, dominated by regional power Nigeria, providedfull security in and around the Liberian capital of Monrovia against rebel forces then led by Charles Taylor. Nigerian forces were stationed at the air and seaports, where some of them were found to be involved in illegal activities with the customs service, including facilitating the importation of drugs into Liberia. Nigerian warships under Ecomog patrolled Liberia’s territorial waters to prevent the smuggling of arms and raw materials into and from the country, but there were allegations that some smuggling was taking place.
The Inquirer was tipped off about a ship that was involved in the smuggling of arms and raw materials with the collusion of some top brass of the peacekeeping force. After The Inquirer concluded an investigation establishing that some of the peacekeepers were involved in illegal activities, Williams convened some editorial meetings to discuss whether to publish the report. Part of the discussion revolved around consideration of the potential risk involved in publishing the story.
Some editorial staff members urged that the report not be published, citing security reasons and potentially dangerous repercussions. Others favored publishing the report as a way of drawing public attention to such illegal activities, irrespective of consequences. Williams sided with those supporting publication of the report, though he was aware that doing so could endanger him and the news organization.
Hours after the paper appeared on the newsstands, Ecomog soldiers arrived in the paper’s offices to pick up Williams. Two staff members decided to accompany him to the headquarters of the peacekeeping force. After many hours of interrogation and days of harassment, in which the top brass of Ecomog unsuccessfully tried to force him to retract the report, peacekeeper officials finally acknowledged their problems. Faced with a serious international embarrassment, they were forced to institute some operational reforms in their Liberian operations.
Government Bans Reporting
During 1989, in the early months of the senseless and bloody civil war, as rebel forces marched from the interior to Monrovia to depose Samuel Doe’s regime, independent journalists and news organizations were among those targeted by the regime as enemies, real or perceived. As security conditions deteriorated, government officials announced a ban on all press coverage relating to the war. The regime said that reporting of the war was creating more fear, tension and chaos among the public. The government warned that any journalist or news organization that violated the ban would be considered and treated as "rebels." Such threats had resulted in the past with journalists being jailed, tortured and killed, and newsrooms were vandalized.
Immediately after the government ban was announced, journalists of the independent media convened a meeting under the auspices of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). This national journalist organization, of which I once served as president, was formed to build stronger solidarity in the face of danger. At this meeting, the union announced that its members would not abide by the government’s directive; they continued to report on the war at great risk to themselves and their news organizations and did so out of conviction and courage to keep the public informed.
A few weeks before this meeting took place, the offices of the independent Daily Observer, one of the leading daily newspapers in West Africa, had been set ablaze in retribution for an article the paper published relating to the war. The regime deemed it to be unfavorable coverage. The fire destroyed the Observer’s photo processing room and library, which had one of the best collections of resource materials in the country.
As rebels attacked the city and Monrovia descended into chaos, independent news outlets were vandalized or burned to the ground. Most independent journalists also went into hiding during this period; many were forced into exile simply to stay alive.
The history of the Liberian press has long been characterized by the struggle to keep the public adequately informed in the face of repression by regimes determined to keep the people subservient to their will as they operate with impunity. Principally through acts of courage independent journalists and news organizations refused to allow this to happen during all of those years of repression.
Isaac Bantu, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, is president and director of Mano River Media Forum/MARIFO, a Boston-based news network that monitors issues concerning press freedom, human rights abuse, political, social and economic issues in the Mano River Basin countries that include Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which are bordered by the Mano River.