Charles Taylor, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) faction leader, who was elected Liberia's president in 1997 after a bloody six-year civil war, once promised to "to destroy the country." His campaign promise to rebuild it may prove more difficult to fulfill. The country's infrastructure has been decimated, half the population was displaced in the conflict, and psychological trauma afflicts many Liberians, including the child-soldiers exploited in the war. The Taylor government's refusal to allow the press to function freely is a clear sign that Liberia remains a nation in need of extensive nation-building.|
Despite the fact that scores of journalists have fled into exile during the country's protracted civil war, Liberia's independent media have managed to survive years of harassment and attacks. Many independent newspapers and radio stations trying to rebuild must cope with ruined editorial offices, printing press equipment, and radio transmitters. Taylor owns KISS-FM, the only radio station currently broadcasting nationwide. There are two private radio broadcasters: a station owned by the Catholic Church, and the Swiss-based Fondation Hirondelle's news station, Star Radio, which is also funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). State-owned television broadcasts sporadically.
On January 7, the state launched a sustained campaign against Star Radio, using crushing fines and other methods to influence the station's news programming and extract more revenue from the station's management.
On October 14, the Ministry of Information ordered local media to immediately cease posting information on the Internet -- directive aimed at Star Radio which the Ministry of Justice reportedly called illegal. On October 23, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications revoked the short-wave frequencies assigned to the station, and on October 28, the Ministry of Labor fined Star Radio US$1,000 for the "illegal employment" of its news director and administrator, who were foreign nationals. On October 29, the station paid a US$2,000 broadcast registration fee and resumed its Internet postings. Star Radio's short-wave operations, however, remain suspended -- preventing the station from reaching much of the rural population for an upcoming polio eradication campaign -- until work permits for its foreign employees are granted by the Labor Ministry.
State security agents and police continue to violate journalists' rights with impunity. In January, police barred the only operating printing facility in Monrovia, Sabannoh Press, from publishing the independent newspaper Heritage, which one week earlier had printed an article critical of the Taylor government. When a group of former militia members stormed Sabannoh and attacked journalists, government security guards at the site did not intervene. Instead of preventing the crimes in progress, police who were called to the scene when security guards refused to assist the journalists detained the author of the offending article.
There have been numerous reports in the international press of Liberian soldiers fighting with Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone and engaged in arms trafficking. But the Liberian press has been treading softly around this explosive story of their government's involvement in the face of Taylor's vehement denials. Reporting on the controversy would result in severe reprisals -- a risk that no Liberian journalist has so far been willing to take.