By Melissa Chea-Annan
Chilling remarks about press freedom in Liberia have led to a standoff between the government and the media.
At a ceremony on May 3 marking World Press Freedom Day, Othello Daniel Warrick, the chief security aide to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, referred to journalists as "terrorists." The threatening remarks by Warrick, the head of Liberia's presidential guard, the Executive Protection Service (EPS), also included a vow to arrest journalists if they continue to report negative stories on the president and her administration.
"Any press member that surpasses his/her responsibility to get involved in presidential intelligence; trust me, we will restrict you," Warrick said. "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. ... The EPS has the right to arrest you without warrant."
The celebration of press freedom, with the theme "Media-Security Relations: An Imperative for Consolidating Peace in Liberia," was organized by the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), an umbrella group representing about 400 newspaper, radio, and television journalists in the country.
Some of the journalists responded to Warrick with boos. More officially, the PUL called on the president to apologize for Warrick's remarks, sanction him, and reaffirm the government's commitment to press freedom.
When the president remained silent, as she has on previous press-freedom issues, the journalists began boycotting coverage of the administration. Government aides have called the blackout "unjustifiable" and an "overreaction."
Nevertheless, Peter Quaqua, president of PUL, stated last week that the protest will remain in force until Johnson-Sirleaf addresses the journalists' concerns. "She continues to remain silent on this grave issue that has questioned her promise for democracy through press freedom," Quaqua said. "Silence means consent."
If Liberia is to adopt a more democratic style of government, it must allow freedom of speech. This basic right creates an opportunity for everyone in Liberia to speak without fear, and helps the government focus on its obligations to the people without threatening, harming, or raining insults on those who speak the truth.