Liberian independent journalists have ended a nearly two-week long freeze on coverage of the country's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a media blackout they placed on the leader for failing to condemn her security director's comments calling journalists “terrorists”.
The standoff between the media and Sirleaf began when Liberian journalists joined other journalists worldwide to celebrate World Press Day in the Liberian port city of Buchanan on May 3, 2013. However, participants were shocked when Othello Warric, director of presidential security unit Executive Protective Service (EPS), said that his office will not hesitate to go after journalists who “intrude the intelligence of the presidency”.
“Be careful in questioning the integrity of Liberians. Be careful, because you have your pen and we have our guns. And if you incriminate the character or integrity of Liberians, like myself, we will come after you,” Warrick was reported to have said at the event.
The threat by the head of the presidential guard and the media blackout prompted online debate particularly on Discussing Liberia Facebook group [Editor's note: Discussing Liberia is a closed group. Content used with permission]. The debate revolved around, among other things, issues of freedom of the press and the relationship between the state and private media in Liberia.
Peter Bemah, a Liberian research analyst at the Liberian Senate, expressed his frustration over the president's silence on the matter:
The silence of the presidency in this matter is troubling and worrisome. It is my hope that this president will take the necessary disciplinary action in this matter.
Tom Winston Monboe explained the president's stance on the matter:
The presidency has a position on the issue bro. The President was quoted as saying the media blackout could remain in place for as long as the media wanted. As shocking as that statement was, it so far remains the President position on the matter.
Tamba Siaffa defended security director Warrick:
If the press in Liberia has the right and freedom to report all kinds of stories with 50% of them lies without any harassment and intimidation, why can a citizen also have that same right and freedom to express the way they feel about the press. The press Union has taken this too far. The president is the president and must be given the respect as the president of the republic. She has people that speak for her most of the time. The Ministry of Information and the President press secretary speak for her. They have spoken but the press wants the president as an individual to speak first. This is not fare [sic]
In solidarity with their colleagues and the principle of freedom of speech, the West African Journalist Association formally wrote the Liberian president and summed up their condemnation of Warrick's threat:
These statements further signal a worrying state orchestrated interference with the free flow of information, willingness to illegally interfere with the processing of news and ideas without recourse to or respect for any form of legal procedure.
It would accordingly imply that your Government does not intend to promote the free flow of ideas and divergent views. As a public figure and head of state and government, under international law, you are expected to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny and criticism from the press than other ordinary citizens and that you are in fact expected to tolerate such higher level of scrutiny and criticism
We also wish to bring to your attention our unflinching support to the Press Union of Liberia, independent journalists and all media partners in Liberia. WAJA stands by each and every position that the PUL has so far taken in protest and looks forward to the resolution of this crisis
Phillip Blamo, a Liberian priest, posted what he said were the president's words when quizzed about the media blackout:
I’M ENJOYING this benign neglect, I wish they will continue it for a long time
James Blackie did not think that the media blackout on the president was the solution:
will block out on our prezo solve [the] problems? Let's seek some other means cuz we as ordinary citizen need to know [what the] president does on a dialy basis so as critic or praise her. Please let seek another punishment 4 them
In an effort to counter Blackie's argument and stress the need for an independent press, Siezie Siefa opined:
LISTEN TO LBS [the state's Liberian Broadcasting Service] IF U ARE HUNGRY FOR NEWS FROM THE CLOWN….BUT YOU CANNOT PLAY LIP SERVICE TO PRESS FREEDOM AND MANIFEST CONDESCENDING BEHAVIOR AT THE SAME TIME…. the JOURNALISTS ARE NOT YOUR PLAY TOYS TO SPEAK TRASH TO. accordingly THE REGIME MUST BE SANCTIONED BY NOT GIVING THEM ANY RELEVANCE. psychologists WILL TELL U THAT IS THE APPROPRIATE RESPONSE FOR A REGIME THAT LACKS DOMESTIC LEGITIMACY.