Liberian journalists targeted, physically and in court
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a wave of abuses against journalists in Liberia since late June in which an investigative reporter has received a one-month jail sentence and three journalists were attacked – either by police or a politician – in the space of two days. The authorities must protect journalists, especially in a pre-election year, RSF says.
The latest victim is investigative reporter Bettie K. Johnson Mbayo, who was sentenced to a month in prison on 5 July by a court in Paynesville, an eastern suburb of the capital, Monrovia, on a charge of “disorderly conduct” in an incident involving a politician, Marvin Cole.
“The charges are meant to silence me from the critical work I have done as a journalist,” Mbayo said.
“Whether physical attacks, arbitrary arrests or convictions based on spurious pretexts, violations against journalists have been on the rise of late in Liberia,” said Sadibou Marong, the head of RSF’s West Africa bureau. “Bettie K. Johnson Mbayo's conviction is disproportionate and must be overturned on appeal. It sends a disastrous signal in a country where press freedom has already been undermined in recent weeks. The authorities must do everything to put a stop to attacks, threats and intimidation against journalists as Liberia advances towards decisive elections next year.”
A well-known, award-winning investigative journalist whose reporting has exposed major scandals involving leading security entities, Mbayo told RSF she regarded the case as “scare tactics by the ruling establishment with the hope that I would remain silent.” She added that, when the sentence was read out, Cole said he hoped she would spend a long time in prison “so that I wouldn't have the time to report on lawmakers or his party anymore.”
The case dates back to 15 January, when Mbayo and her husband parked their car in front of Cole’s home while visiting a friend and ended up being physically attacked by Cole and his employees, who wanted them to move their car.
Mbayo’s left leg was kicked and she sustained several contusions. Cole, who is a parliamentary representative, nonetheless sued Mbayo and her husband with the result that both received jail sentences at the end of the trial held on 5 July. They remain free pending the outcome of their appeal to Liberia’s supreme court.
Threats to journalists’ safety
Meanwhile, physical attacks against journalists, especially those covering politics, have highlighted the dangers to their safety in Liberia.
Emmanuel Kollie, a reporter and presenter for the state-owned Liberian Broadcasting System (LBS), and Amos Korzawu, a reporter for the Fortune TV Liberia news website, were threatened and physically attacked by security personnel when they went to cover an election-related clash on 29 June, a day after the election of the governor of northwestern Liberia’s Lofa County.
“We were assaulted, intimidated and flogged by state security actors in Lofa County,” Kollie told RSF. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t identify the officers involved because they were well geared with helmets.”
Kollie and his colleague reported this attack to the police, who have so far taken no action.
R. Joyclyn Wea, a reporter for the New Republic newspaper, was attacked by presidential protocol chief Cleopatra Cummings on 28 June for taking her photo in a Monrovia court where she was charged with aggression. Accompanied by her daughter, Cummings stormed into a room reserved for journalists and, threatening and insulting Wea, insisted that she delete the photo.
Liberia is ranked 75th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2022 World Press Freedom Index.