The grounds of the Capitol Building, the seat of the National Legislature, was a scene of agitation mixed with chanting of pro-Alex Tyler slogans when protesters led by talk show host Henry Costa converged en mass to draw the first branch of government’s attention to the recent move by the Executive Branch to shutdown media institutions.
Last weekend, the Government of Liberia through the LTA closed the offices of LIB24 radio and TV as well as Shatta FM due to the institutions’ alleged failure to pay taxes. Presenting the petition on Tuesday at the Capitol Building, Mr. Henry Costa, on behalf of the group, said the action of the government is the work of some senior officials who are implementing a long term agenda to stifle the independence of the free press, silence critical voices and crumble the fundamental pillars of democratic governance. According to Costa, the “unjustified closure” of Voice FM and LIB 24 is not only a return to the dark scaring past but signifies early warnings of a defined agenda to undermine the free and fair conduct of democratic elections expected in a year’s time. He noted that they are equally determined to stand against the rising tide of injustices against the poor and powerless. Receiving the petition on behalf of the House of Representatives, Maryland County Representative Bhofal Chambers thanked the citizens for peacefully assembling. He assured that the Legislature will discuss the matter in plenary and appropriate actions will be taken. The Press Union of Liberia, the parent body of journalists in Liberia, says it is appalled by the closure of Radio LIB24. “This is an unacceptably intimidating tactic meant to muzzle the Liberian media into silence, and must be condemned by all sectors of Liberia,” the PUL said in a press statement Monday. The PUL pointed out that lest we forget, “the closure of LIB 24 is the second action against a media house within a few weeks, and has presented media space as an endangered environment. In the long term, this will lead to a censored and frightened media.” Given LIB 24’s known partisan bent, “by this action, the government has presented itself as an undemocratic and intolerant regime, pursuing schemes that are inimical to the principles of free expression and respect for divergent ideologies,” PUL President K. Abdullai Kamara intoned. Furthermore, the government’s claim of pursuing tax and regulatory delinquency in this latest clamp down is at most double standard, when the same government is the largest player in the economy and the biggest debtor of media services. “By continuously foot dragging in the payment of media bills, the Liberian Government has basically strangulated the media, effectively leaving the press largely unable to pay taxes,” Kamara maintained. In this case, this government has lost out the moral high ground to demand compliance from the same media, which is unable to act due to government inaction. This scenario therefore places the government under a moral and legal obligation to evaluate its relations with the media more in terms of resuscitating the difficult economic and operating environment in which media is struggling to survive. On the other hand, and in line with strengthening democracy and stability in Liberia, the government must be seen enabling divergent views as opposed to exacting punishments, especially for known dissenters, the PUL stated. “This episode simply reminds us that the fight for a free press regime in Liberia has always considered successive regimes using so call judicial actions to silence opposing or divergent views. For once this must stop, if we need to push our peace and democracy to the realm of progress,” Kamara warned! If the government is truly sincere about ensuring compliance with laws and regulations, the Press Union is available to join this conversation. However, it must be clear that the Press Union of Liberia cannot be a part of any arrangement that is designed to limit the number and diversity of voices in Liberian society, the PUL further affirmed. We therefore call upon the Government of Liberia to forthwith reopen the affected media houses and introduce measures that will ensure individual and institutional respect for and compliance with regulations, the Union said. “the closure of the station is predicated upon the fact that Sarafina Ventures and Communication Inc. (Love FM 105.1) has not regularized its status nor paid its license and other fees for over 5 years in keeping with relevant provisions of the Telecommunications Licensing Authorization Regulations.” According to the MICAT press release, the LTA regulations also require that any use of radio frequencies must be in accordance with a valid radio spectrum license or radio frequency authorization. MICAT further states that in addition to the station’s failure to regularize its status in keeping with law, Sarafina Ventures and Communications Inc. (Love FM 105.1 and Love TV Channel 7) unilaterally and without prior written consent of the LTA, transferred the frequency 105.1 to another corporation, LIB-24 Incorporated which operated LIB 24 Radio prior to the closure. The government said that prior to resorting to court action, there had been series of discussions and exchange of communications over several years with the management of Sarafina Ventures & Communications Inc. during which it implored the corporation to accede to the requirements, pay the required fees and legitimize its operations. Several invoices were delivered to Sarafina Ventures & Communication requesting payment over a number of years, but it failed to do so. Nevertheless, Sarafina Ventures and Communications Inc. proceeded to transfer the license and or frequency to LIB 24 Incorporated even though it was no longer legitimately assigned the frequency nor received authorization to do so in keeping with law.