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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 159-168

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Field Reports

Pushing for Press Freedom in Liberia

Suah S. Deddeh

It had not dawned on Liberia's journalists that they were operating under dangerous circumstances, even though the autocratic regime of the True Whig Party forbade opposition parties. Little did they know that they were vulnerable and stood to lose in the game of "might makes right." They needed a rude awakening, and it soon came. A member of their fold got caught in the web of power and was sent to jail. His crime? He had referred to some legislators as radicals. He had to be taught a lesson in order to deter others. And so, on 24 September 1964, reporter Stanton B. Peabody, alias Bob Stan, went to jail for the first time in his career as a journalist.

The episode involving Bob Stan sent shivers down the spines of journalists throughout Liberia. When no one raised a finger or a cry about what had happened to an innocent journalist, his colleagues immediately came to realize how exposed and unprotected they were. What was worse, there was not even a journalists' association that could take up the matter with the authorities. Consequently, Bob Stan's fate remained in the hands of his captors, who turned out to be [End Page 159] his employers at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism.

Something urgently had to be done. Thus when Bob Stan's captors released him from jail a day later, concerned journalists, most of them in the employ of the government, decided to establish an organization that would serve the needs of journalists and provide them with protection. Finally, on 30 September 1964, a new organization for Liberian journalists, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), came into being.

Since its establishment, the PUL has committed itself to the task of championing the rights of reporters and journalists to speak and write freely about events occurring in Liberia and abroad. Political developments have put it to the test.

Under the brutally repressive regime of President Samuel K. Doe (1980-90), journalists' rights were repeatedly violated. Some journalists were imprisoned at the notorious Camp Belle Yallah prison, others at the infamous Post Stockade, a military prison. The jailed included the late Rufus M. Darpoh, managing editor of the Sun Times; Isaac Bantu of the Daily Observer (who later became president of the PUL); J. Siaka Konneh (who also became president of the PUL); Arthur Massaquoi and Andrew Robinson of Foot Prints; and Thomas N. Nimely of the Sun Times. (Nimely is now a senator representing Grand Kru County and a member of the ruling National Patriotic Party.) Broadcast journalist Charles Gbeyon met his death at the hands of government security forces in 1985, when, following the presidential and general elections, he refused to surrender a cassette said to contain an interview he had conducted with the former chairman of the Special Elections Commission, the late Emmet Harmon. The interview is believed to have focused on Harmon's admission that the elections were rigged, even though he had publicly announced that the election results were "ordained by God." The government did not want the interview to be aired on the state-owned Liberian Broadcast System (LBS), where Gbeyon worked, so it made sure that Gbeyon did not live to tell his story. As far as we know, he never did turn over the cassette. Instead, he met his death standing up in defense of press freedom.

The fight for press freedom resulted in the closure (on two occasions) and the burning down of the Daily Observer, the closure of the ELCM Community Radio (now known as Radio Veritas, and operated by the Catholic Church), and the closure of such newspapers as Foot Prints and the Sun Times, to name but a few.

Then, on 24 December 1989, all hell broke loose in Liberia when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), headed by Charles Taylor (now president of Liberia), led a massive civil uprising aimed at unseating the government of President Doe. Taylor...


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