A private university in Liberia has suspended a journalist studying there for publishing a newspaper story critical of the institution's management.
On May 8, private Cuttington University in Suacoco in central Liberia suspended Selma Lomax, a reporter with independent newspaper FrontPage Africa and a third-year student in agriculture at the institution, for four months over an April 26 story analyzing the financial struggles of the university. FrontPage Africa had previously reported on constraints plaguing the university since its founder and leading donor, the Episcopal Church of the United States, withdrew a major portion of funding. Based on interviews with university employees, Lomax's story discussed controversy over university President Henrique Tokpa, who has been accused of mismanagement and nepotism.
On May 4, Lomax was summoned to the office of the dean of student services over publication of his article. In an official letter dated May 8 and signed on behalf of David Morris, the acting dean, Lomax was found "guilty of a major offense" for using his "profession in journalism to obliterate the good image of the institution." The letter, a copy of which CPJ obtained, said that according to the university's student handbook, the penalty for writing "defamatory statements" ranges from "50 hours of hard labor to suspension/expulsion." It said Lomax was suspended for one semester beginning May 10.
With the suspension, Lomax will not be allowed to take final exams.
The university's vice president for public relations, Joshua Giddings, told CPJ that "no student, regardless of his profession, is above the law," referring to the oath every student signs to obey the institution's rules and regulations.
The suspension has come under condemnation as a move against press freedom, running contrary to the Liberia's Freedom of Information Act. Two student groups, the Cuttington University Student Union and Bong Student Union, said that Lomax's responsibility as a journalist should not be subject to intimidation, the Independent Eye News reported. The president of the Press Union of Liberia, Peter Quaqua, told CPJ, "This is purely an abuse of power by the school authorities. The story in question is about the complaint of teachers. So I don't see how it is inciting anything as the suspension letter states."
Lomax said he feels vindicated because other media have taken up reporting the issues he raised about the university. This week, New Dawn reported that dissatisfied university employees, including professors, launched a strike to demand payment of salary arrears and Internet access. But he also worries that once back from suspension, the school authorities will be out to frustrate and further victimize him.
"Yes I am a student in the university. But I felt there were a lot of things going on which the public needs to know about. And as a journalist I have a responsibility to speak out," Lomax said.