Endangered Liberian media mark Press Freedom Day

Monrovia- Liberia (PANA) -- More than 100 Liberian journalists Thursday marched through principal streets in the capital, Monrovia, with a zest that epitomises their ardent desire to stay alive as independent practitioners.
The banner-carrying journalists clad in white T-shirts with the inscription "Press Freedom: The Bedrock of Democracy," drew public attention to the observance of World Press Freedom Day as they filed past with melodious tones from a military band.
To the public, it was a show of "freedom," but inwardly, the Liberian media are conscious that as "imperilled watchdogs" they are under constant watch by the powers that be.
Some 48 hours before the Day, police stormed the offices of the private The Analyst newspaper, with a search warrant and took away two computers, diskettes and a staff member.
The paper's Editors could not be reached Thursday as they were said to be in hiding, while the fate of the arrested staff remained uncertain.
Early in the week, the Information Ministry ordered the country's only commercial newspaper printer to halt the publication of another private journal, The Journalist, at the behest of a human rights lawyer claiming chairmanship of the paper.
Many journalists believe the Ministry exceeded its purview since the matter between lawyer Benedict Sannoh and the paper's Editor Vennie Hodges was purely a case for the courts to settle.
Two weeks ago, the Ministry created a "media advisory committee" made up of heads of media institutions in the country, with President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), James Kiazolu, named as its Co-chairman.
Kiazolu, however, declined the nomination in keeping with the wish of the majority of the Union members, who saw the committee as a ploy to break media solidarity and compromise the independence of the private media.
Memories are still fresh about the detention in March of four journalists from the private media, accused of "espionage" based on their newspaper report concerning accountability and transparency in government.
The government claimed the story was intended to "divulge defence information to enemies of the State," since it touched on the repair of a government helicopter at a time when dissidents were attacking the north of the country.
While the journalists were in detention, the government moved to shut down their newspaper and three others for tax arrears, although some of the papers claimed the arrears were largely overstated.
The catalogue of unsavoury government-private media relations, particularly since the coming to power in 1997 of President Charles Taylor's government, is growing by the day, even as journalists continue to champion the fight for democracy, human rights, the rule of law and good governance.
But the struggle has been at a great cost.
Newspapers and private radio stations barely enjoy any advertisement, while the readership of the press has declined in the face of mass unemployment estimated at 85 percent in the formal sector and prevalent under-employment.
Nonetheless, the people still have implicit trust in the private media, and are able to differentiate between facts and propaganda.
For their part, the journalists continue to denounce the government actions as repression, which has induced a measure of self-censorship, putting press freedom in Liberia in jeopardy.

03 may 2001 22:01:00




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