Following the riots caused by incumbent Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's re-election victory on Tuesday, the administration recently shut down the studios of three Liberian broadcasters, accusing them of “broadcasting hate messages against the government and deliberately spreading misinformation and messages of violence, and instigating the people to rise up and take to the streets.” Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, claimed to be trying to prevent tensions from rising following the opposition’s boycott of the presidential election. Sirleaf's move is an unwise one as it further undercuts her recent win at the Liberian elections by fueling opposition accusations that her regime is unfairly suppressing opponent's campaigns.
Sirleaf was re-elected with 90.2% of the vote after the opposition decided to boycot the elections. The actions of the administration merely adds weight to the conspiracy theories advanced by the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC).
Under a court order, armed police shut down the operations of Liberian media outlets: King’s FM and Clar TV, Love FM and TV and Shiata Power FM and TV. The Liberian Justice Minister Christiana Tah and Information Minister Cletus Sieh complained that the stations’ inflammatory coverage of the state police crowd dispersal tactics against protesters. The stations had been actively reporting that the presidential elections would be fraudulent and the results illegitimate.
Commentators are worried that the election's record low voter turnout will re-ignite violent protests if the Sirleaf government is discredited in the eyes of the population.
The government's intentions should be questioned. King’s FM is a private radio company owned by Ambassador George M. Weah, CDC’s second-in-command, and Love FM is owned largely by former Bureau of Maritime Affairs Commissioner, Benoni Urey, an executive member of the National Patriotic Party of Liberia (NPP), which has expressed support for the CDC in recent elections.
On the other hand, Truth FM, the station is owned by a personal friend of Sirleaf, was not included under the court order. Some, like King’s FM and several government figures, have accused Truth FM of being sponsored and controlled by the governing Unity Party.
While the stations that have been shut down have been partisan in their reporting, Truth FM is often criticized for taking an overly favorable stance towards UP. As the Press Union President Peter Quaqua expressed in a recent conference on fair electoral reporting, “It has already and always been said that elections are critical. One thing we have not said is that we also must monitor people who are using the media. I am talking about the political parties. It's so easy in these times for political parties and politicians to manipulate the media.”
Quashing the press is not a wise move for Sirleaf. It could lead to more speculation and further undermine Sirleaf's legitimacy. Sirleaf did not have to shut down the stations, as the CDC was never a credible opposition for her Unity Party.
Photo Credit: Erik Cleves Kristensen