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Reporters Without Borders Criticizes Liberia Over Press Censorship - 2001-11-22

The government of Liberia has closed down two newspapers critical of the administration of President Charles Taylor. The international press freedom advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, condemned the closure as politically motivated.

The Liberian government says it shut down the newspapers, The News and the Monrovia Guardian, due to nonpayment of taxes.

Both newspapers, but especially The News, have run articles critical of the government. Earlier this year, the government jailed four journalists with The News after they ran pieces accusing Charles Taylor's government of misappropriating funds.

The government this week raided The News offices, shut them down, and arrested the chairman of the newspaper's board of directors, Wilson Tarpeh.

The chief editor of The News, Jerome Dalreh, told VOA he believes the government's move to shut down his newspaper was politically motivated. Fearful of retribution by Mr. Taylor's security forces, Mr. Dalreh declined to elaborate on the record.

Liberia's Assistant Finance Minister George Howe said, "This is not a human rights violation," and that the closure was not linked to what the newspapers had written.

The Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia, Malcolm Joseph, denounced the shutdown of the newspapers as illegal, even if the papers did - as the government claims - owe delinquent taxes.

"For the Finance Minister to go up and close [the newspaper], we think it is arbitrary. The revenue law does not permit the Minister of Finance to go in and just close up an institution because of tax liability," he said.

In a forceful condemnation, the Paris-based international group Reporters Without Borders called the Liberian government's allegation of delinquent taxes a pretext. The group's Jeff Julliard, accuses the Taylor administration of using the tax issue as a weapon to silence criticism.

"The government knows very well that this newspaper cannot pay this tax because newspapers are very poor in Liberia. So, we think it is a pretext and this tax is used by the government to try to muzzle the press and to shut down the independent press in Liberia," Mr. Julliard said.

Mr. Julliard says the closure of the newspapers is the latest example of what he describes as the Taylor government's systematic harassment of journalists. He says Mr. Taylor's security forces last year arrested four foreign journalists and held them for one week, accusing them of espionage.

Earlier this year, the Liberian government banned independent radio station Radio Veritas from broadcasting on short-wave in areas outside the capital, Monrovia. The government cited a licensing technicality. But journalists' groups said the restriction was part of an attempt by the Taylor administration to consolidate its control over the Liberian media.