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The Mass Media


I have been traveling to Liberia and working with human rights activists there since 1998. The thing that has always impressed me the most is the level of risk that Liberian human rights workers endure and the high likelihood that they will be jailed, forced into exile or killed. In order to understand the type of bravery required to stand up to the forces of violence in Liberia, a quick review of the country’s history since the start of its civil war is in order.

The war started in December 1989, when Charles Taylor, a Bentley-educated former student leader, led a small group of rebels and mercenaries in an invasion of Liberia. They were seeking to overthrow Samuel Doe, a United States-backed dictator who had ruled since a military coup in 1980. The fighting spawned several factions, all of whom recruited child soldiers, looted voraciously and committed unspeakable atrocities against the civilian population. The war continued until early 1997, killing at least 150,000 people, including Samuel Doe, destroying the country’s infrastructure and driving well over a million people from their homes.

Taylor proved himself to be the smartest and most ruthless of the Liberian warlords. He controlled the most territory and won an overwhelming victory in 1997 elections by convincing Liberians that he would return the country to war if he was not made president.

Since the elections, Taylor has continued in this mode, methodically crushing any dissent. He has killed, jailed or forced into exile many of his opponents, real or perceived, including politicians, journalists, human rights activists and former colleagues who dared to turn against him. At the same time, he has done little to alleviate the poverty in which most of his fellow Liberians are trapped. Liberia is still largely without electricity, running water and all-weather roads. Unemployment, infant mortality and illiteracy are rampant.

Taylor has also made Liberia a haven for pirate capitalists, who, in exchange for lavish payoffs to the president and his cronies, strip the country of its natural resources, such as timber, and leave nothing for the people whose environment is being decimated. To top it all off, Liberia is under UN sanctions for destabilizing neighboring Sierra Leone by supporting the ruthless Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in return for diamonds.

In 1999, a new group of rebels emerged in northern Liberia, including some of Taylor’s rivals from the 1989-1997 war. They are backed by Guinea, which saw what Taylor was capable of in Sierra Leone. Currently, about a quarter of the country is considered a war zone, with both sides guilty of massive human rights abuses, including murder, rape, torture, looting, forced conscription and use of child soldiers.

Unfortunately, Liberia’s problems don’t offer any easy solutions. Given the oppressive nature of the Taylor regime, the fractiousness of Liberian politics and the fact that so many opposition leaders are in exile, it is unlikely that a viable and realistic alternative to Taylor will emerge through the realm of party politics in the near future.

One positive effect of the turmoil in Liberia is that it has spawned an active network of human rights, peace and pro-democracy groups in recent years. Despite a severe lack of money, regular police harassment, and the constant threat of violence by pro-government enforcers, they have committed themselves to bringing peaceful change to Liberia.

Since my involvement with Liberia began, I have met many activists, lawyers and journalists who have been forced out of the country by Taylor’s thugs. A good example is that of Pius Sonpon, one of my oldest Liberian friends.

When I met Pius in 1998, he was the prison and judicial monitor for the Justice and Peace Commission, a human rights group under the Catholic Church. In August 2000, he agreed to assist a film crew, which was doing a documentary about Liberia. Despite obtaining all the necessary permits, the crew was arrested on espionage charges and jailed for several days. Because the crew consisted of foreigners and were working for a mainstream British television station, their arrest generated considerable publicity, which eventually resulted in their release.

Shortly after the crew was arrested, one of Pius’ contacts in the security services got word to him that he was to be arrested. Because he knew that, as a Liberian, his arrest wouldn’t generate the kind of attention that the detention of the foreign journalists did and that he was therefore much more likely to be tortured and killed, he quickly made plans to leave town. He slipped out of Monrovia, the capital city, in the middle of the night and made his way to Ivory Coast, where his friends in the United States made arrangements to bring him here.

Unfortunately, he was forced to leave his wife and children behind in Liberia. His wife was subsequently arrested by the security services and beaten when she wouldn’t reveal Pius’ whereabouts. She was released only after she managed to get word of her ordeal to one of her relatives in the police.

Since arriving in the United States, Pius has obtained political asylum and has joined with another Liberian exile and me in starting a human rights group, called The Liberian National Reform Organization, which is currently operating in eastern Liberia. He supports his wife and children in Liberia and is trying to bring them to the United States to join him.

By Thomas Pierce