Liberia closes biggest independent media network just months before elections
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arbitrary closure of Spoon Network, Liberia’s biggest independent privately-owned radio and TV broadcaster, just months ahead of presidential and general elections. The authorities must reopen the premises of the network’s TV channel and three radio stations so that they can resume broadcasting, RSF says.
The journalists at Spoon FM/Live TV, Fabric FM/Live TV, Super FM/Live TV and Super TV have been denied access to their offices for the past three weeks, ever since dozens of court officers arrived at the Spoon Network compound on 14 July, while Spoon FM/Live TV was broadcasting live, and said they had to stop working under an order isssued by the Montserrado County civil law court closing Stanton Witherspoon’s Spoon Communication Network.
The order depriving the journalists of their jobs and media had been issued in response to a defamation suit by Wilmot Smith, the former acting director-general of the Liberia Institute for Statistics and Geo-Information Service (LISGIS), in connection with their coverage of the accusations of corruption that the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) had brought against Smith and other senior government officials in June 2022. A few months after these accusations, President George Weah dismissed Smith for “administrative reasons.”
When the order was being carried out on 14 July, some of the journalists and members of the management allegedly insulted and attacked the court officers and judge in charge of the operation. The judge issued a summons to the Spoon Network management and 19 members of its staff on the evening of 17 July and, the next day, the Montserrado County civil law court imposed fines on them ranging from 300 to 1,000 dollars for contempt of court. The court is now due to set a date to begin hearing the various parties.
The severity of the sanctions imposed on Spoon Network and its employees is astonishing. The fines imposed on its personnel are the equivalent of around three months' salary. And issuing an order closing its premises without saying when they would be allowed to reopen is completely arbitrary. Spoon Network’s journalists just did their job when they covered the LACC’s accusations. We condemn the disproportionate and abrupt nature of these decisions putting journalists in danger and depriving the public of news sources, and we call on the authorities to reopen Spoon Network’s premises. This independent media network’s closure is a worrying signal in the run-up to October’s presidential and general elections.
With four sizable outlets, Spoon Network is Liberia’s biggest independent media network. In late June, the CDC-Council of Patriots – a group that supports the ruling Coalition of Democratic Change (CDC) – called on the government to shut it down immediately for “airing misinformation.” They subsequently threatened to shut it down themselves if the government did not.
Liberia’s courts have repeatedly supported the CDC’s attempts to silence persons and entities regarded as overly critical of its policies. Bettie K. Johnson Mbayo, a respected, award-winning investigative reporter, was sentenced to a month in prison in July 2022. In 2019, a court in the capital, Monrovia, closed the Roots FM radio station after the Liberia Telecommunications Authority said it was broadcasting illegally. It had submitted a licence renewal request but the regulator rejected it.