Threats and Attempt to Arrest Critical Journalist – A Dent on Liberia’s Democracy

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) has been following with increasing concern the threats and intimidation targeted at journalist and outspoken critic of the Liberian government, Henry Pedro Costa, and calls on the Liberian authorities to ensure that the journalist’s rights are not further abused.

The broadcaster, who played a key role in the organisation of a mass demonstration against President George Weah’s government on January 6, 2020, claimed he was prevented from leaving the country on January 10, 2020 by immigration officers who said they had received instruction to that effect. Media reports said Costa was stopped from boarding a plane for allegedly possessing forged travel documents. The journalist has however denied the allegation, stating that he was being harassed for his outspoken criticism of the Weah administration.

The journalist and activist eventually left for neighbouring Sierra Leone on January 12, 2020, only to be stopped by officials at the Lungi International Airport in Freetown at the request of the Liberian Immigration authorities who claim he was under investigation for using forged travel documents. However, the Sierra Leonean authorities declined a request from Liberia to extradite the journalist. As a State Party to the 1979 ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement and Trans-border Security, Liberia indulged in an illegality by seeking the extradition of Costa from Sierra Leone. The Protocol states that “unless or until charges have been filed, every ECOWAS citizen is free to travel to any member State as he or she pleases. Moreover, even if charges have been filed, and THE ACCUSED or DEFENDANT is not aware, he or she has every right to freedom of movement and to travel.”

The attempt to arrest Costa is the latest in a series of attacks on the vocal broadcaster and his media organisation, Roots FM.
On October 10, 2019, police officers stormed Roots FM, shut it down, and carried away some equipment belonging to the station.

Earlier on April 15, 2019, a Minister of State, Nathaniel McGill, filed a court action against Henry Costa and Roots FM, seeking US$500,000 dollars in damages and the closure of the radio station. The Minister alleged in his writ that the Costa Show was “a very divisive program that rivals the pre-1994 Radio Rwanda style of broadcasting.” The station was also the target of attacks on January 31 and February 10, 2019 in which unidentified persons broke into the premises and destroyed or carried away equipment including transmitters, an amplifier and a mixer.

The MFWA views these developments as a deliberate attempt to intimidate Costa and settle scores with him for his critical opinions about the government, with the latest case directly linked to the broadcaster’s role in the organisation of the recent anti-government demonstration.

We therefore call on the authorities in Liberia to desist from further abusing the rights of the journalist and to ensure that he is safe from threats and attacks from members and militants of the ruling party. To this end, we urge the authorities to investigate claims by the Council of Patriots, a political pressure group of which Costa is a leading member, that Deputy Information Minister, Eugene Fahngon has issued death threats against the broadcaster.

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