Africa

Liberia's heated election and fears of media crackdown

CDC supporters in Monrovia Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Supporters for the Congress for Democratic Change are hopeful for change

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf faces a run-off in her bid for re-election with challenger Winston Tubman, and after six years in which Liberia has experienced its first taste of press freedom after decades of censorship and intimidation, there are signs that could be changing.

People are in the streets singing and dancing. 

Motorbike drivers, sometimes carrying as many as four passengers, are racing up and down the roads, horns blaring. 

Street sellers, taking advantage of the crowds, are plying their wares - bananas, groundnuts and pouches of cold water. 

They have been waiting for hours for their hero - the world football legend George Weah. He is the vice-presidential candidate for the main opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Winston Tubman is running for president on the same ticket. 

Today, they are on their way here to Ganta in the north-east of Liberia to campaign and the excitement is mounting.

"They're coming," someone shouts suddenly. 

Everyone rushes to see the convoy arrive. But in the mayhem, a man gets knocked down by one of the CDC cars. 

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Winston Tubman is the nephew of Liberia's longest serving president, William Tubman

A Liberian journalist starts taking pictures of him lying on the ground covered in blood. This will be the story in all the papers tomorrow. 

I join other journalists by the podium where the visitors will speak, and it is here where I see, at first hand, attempts to stifle the press. 

Mr Weah beckons the journalist with the camera over and with Mr Tubman's nodding approval, threatens him, forcing him to delete the photos - or else deal with his security men.

This incident may seem small when taking into account Liberia's history of clamping down on the press, but it is a worrying sign of what a possible future president of the country thinks is appropriate. 

Under former leaders, for decades, media houses were not only shut down, they were burned and their staff were flogged or killed. Journalists were forced to go under cover or into exile. 

While there have still been incidents involving threats and beatings under President Sirleaf ("Ma Ellen"), Liberia has enjoyed its first taste of press freedom in its history. 

Front-page stories involving official corruption or allegations of wrongdoing are commonplace. Radio stations hold phone-ins, no longer afraid to be critical of their president. 

Image copyright AP
Image caption President Sirleaf fell short of the 50% needed for re-election in the first vote

While some people in positions of power still feel they have the authority to order reporters what to write and what not to write, the level of press freedom in this West African nation is unprecedented.

So when I had a chance to interview Mr Tubman a few weeks later on what this "incident" I witnessed in Ganta could mean for the future of press freedom in Liberia, I along with a few other reporters jumped at the chance. 

We waited for hours for the presidential candidate at his hotel at another campaign trail spot in the south-east of the country, in the town of Zwedru. It was midnight when he finally arrived - the potholed dusty roads around here would cause delays to anyone's schedule.

His answer, when we finally got to interview him? 

After initially denying the incident ever took place, he went on to say how civil liberties were not what the guys on the street were calling for. He said they wanted better roads, healthcare and education and after that they would focus on press freedom. 

Can they not be achieved at the same time? Maybe not under a CDC government.

So the issues of press freedom and civil liberties were thrust into the public debate. 

Radio stations aired the interview, newspapers ran editorials in response. Even the president was asked to comment on what she thought of Mr Tubman's statement. But all of this has not stopped further attacks and threats on journalists. 

A radio station, thought to be pro-CDC was petrol bombed. 

The home of a prominent radio presenter who works at a media house supported by the ruling Unity Party was robbed at gunpoint.

At least one Liberian journalist is now too afraid to sleep in the same place every night, after receiving threatening calls from unrecognised numbers. And some voice concerns that Liberia is slipping back into the days when reporters were controlled and too terrified to report the truth.

While the most recent incidents have involved the opposition party, Liberian journalists have reason to view both run-off contestants warily. 

The director general of the National Public Broadcaster was sacked after broadcasting a press conference where Mr Weah made derogatory comments about President Sirleaf. 

As tension in Liberia increases and the run-off date looms, it seems both political parties are petrified at the thought of negative attention in the media. 

But for democracy and transparency to flourish in this post-conflict country surely press freedom and civil liberties are exactly what Liberians need right now.

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