Court Orders Entire Staff of the Heritage Newspaper Arrested In Monrovia

By Josephus Moses Gray
Monrovia, Liberia

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 26, 2004

Crackdown and attacks on press freedom have again re-surfaced in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, with the court ordering the arrest of the entire staff members of the independent Heritage newspaper for publishing a sex scandal story under the banner headline, “ For US$400.00-Liberian Girls Sex With Dogs”.

The National transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) through its regulatory arm - the Ministry of Justice - mandated the stipendiary Magistrate Court at the Temple of Justice to arrest and detain the entire staff of the independent Heritage newspaper for what the government termed as “dissemination of obscene materials”.

The Heritage’s staffers ordered arrested were Mohammad Kanneh, Managing Editor; J. Alfred Chea, Editor-In-Chief; Nathan Bengu, sub-Editor; Augustus Bortu, News Editor, Meekie McKay, Sale Manager and Massa Sambola, Sale Representative.

In its February 16th edition, the Heritage newspaper carried an article entitled ”Liberian Girls Sex with Dogs” in which the paper quoted Mr. George Dweh, Speaker of the National Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA), as saying that he saw a video made in Monrovia by an Ukrainian investors and operative of a Logging company -Exotic. Speaker Dweh was further quoted as saying that while viewing the film he saw dogs having sexual intercourse with Liberian girls. According to the speaker, the ugly act took place during the regime of the deposed President Charles Taylor.

Following the court orders, the paper’s Managing Editor and Sale Representative, Mr. Kannah and Madam McKay were arrested and arraigned before the Stipendiary Magistrate, Judge Joseph S. Fayaih. The arrest took place after the arrest officers identified Mr. Kannah and Madam McKay as members of the newspaper. However, they were later released the same day after the paper’s legal counselor filed a cash bond of L$1,000.00 (US$20.00).

In the warrant, the Ministry of Justice accused the paper of selling obscene materials to the public and described the Heritage newspaper publication as” unlawful, illegal, criminal and transgression of Section 18.7 of the Penal Law of Liberia.

Section 18.7 of the law, among others, states that a person has committed a first-degree misdemeanor if the persons disseminate obscene materials, with the purpose that such materials will be disseminated.

But several persons spoken to described the government action to only arrest and detained the staffers of the Heritage while the source of the story, Speaker Dweh goes without any action, as counter productive to press freedom in Liberia.

In a separate interviews, legal analysts said while the action to arrest the journalists was within the confines of the laws of Liberia, it was also necessary for the source of the story identified as Speaker Dweh to be brought to book to explain his action. They argued that arresting the newspaper’s staff without George Dweh was an attempt to crack down on the free press in the country.

Journalists interviewed want the court to go beyond arresting only the staff members of Heritage but should also probe the “Exotic“ Ukraine Logging company accused of using dogs to sex Liberian girls. The journalists believe prosecuting the Heritage Newspaper’s staff without Speaker Dweh and Exotic Logging Company is an attempt to crackdown on the independent and news media.

Speaking this week on a Talking Drum talks show program, a resident of the St. Paul Bridge community said at the time the company was operating it was very difficult to enter the Exotic compound and added that for one to be accepted as a visitor that person must bribe the Anti-Terrorists Unit ATU - security that used to be assigned at the gate of the compound. Owing to the war, the Exotic Logging Company has since folded its operations while the whereabouts of company staff members remain unknown. Many believe that staffers have gone underground for fear of being attacked by the angry public.

On Thursday, February 19th, hundreds of aggravated women in Monrovia staged a peaceful demonstration to protest The Heritage story: “Liberian Girls Sex With Dogs". The Heritage newspaper, in its February 16th edition, alleged that Liberian girls were having sex with dogs for four hundred dollars (US$400.00). The paper in the report named the Speaker of the National Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA), Mr. George Dweh as the source of the story.

The Heritage quoted Speaker Dweh as saying that during his visit to Europe, he (Dweh) witnessed a video recording, which shows dogs having sex with Liberian girls.

However, Speaker Dweh did not name the European country or the individuals who displayed the video recording to him. The news story, which is the talk of the town, was published on the front page of the Heritage newspaper and accompanied by a graphic portraying a dog having sex with a woman. Newspaper vendors and petty traders took advantage of the publication to circulate photocopies of the story on the market.

The dog sex scandal story prompted public outcry, and accusations that the Liberian media is engaging in "yellow journalism".

The march, which started from the head offices of the Liberian Women Initiatives (LWI) on Broad Street, brought the aggravated Liberian women in the dozens from the various communities and sectors.

During the march the women chanted anti-media slogans, accusing the Liberian media of being unprofessional and unschooled in the journalism profession. The women who carried banners and placards in their hands, with various kinds of anti-media slogans ended their march at the Capitol Building, the seat of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), where they demanded that the Speaker of the House, Mr. George Dweh offer an apology to them for his involvement in the sex scandal story. While at the Capitol Building awaiting an apology from Speaker Dweh, the women camped out before the main entrance to the building and vowed to continue their action until the speaker openly apologize to them. The women said the story has disgraced them as Liberian women and girls are being dehumanized, as a result of the publication. The women, who also described the newspaper publication as "unethical and unprofessional", have called on the Ministry of Information and other appropriate government agencies to take the necessary action to deter the ugly practices of yellow journalism in Liberia.

In his apology to the Liberian women, Speaker Dweh said his action was in no way intended to disgrace the Liberian women but blamed the Heritage newspaper for unprofessional and unethical journalism. Speaker Dweh, who accused the Liberian women of unfair treatment against him through their actions, said he felt disgraced and embarrassed upon viewing the film in which he saw dogs having sex with Liberian girls.