The New Democrat Halts Operations
July 24, 2000
According to reports reaching The Perspective, The New Democrat newspaper has officially suspended publication due to persistent threats against the staff and state-erected bottlenecks for its survival. The paper is, however, finalizing plans to launch an Internet edition that will be followed by a foreign-based printed edition.
In recent weeks, state security forces have stepped up the intimidation and harassment of journalists at the paper, leading to the resignation of some editors out of fear for their lives. The incidents followed a publication of a story on the circumstances of the country's vice president's sudden and mysterious death. State officials have also accused the journalists of feeding "detrimental" information to some of the paper's exiled editors now contributing to a number of foreign-based publications.
Private and state advertisers have been warned to desist from advertising in the paper or risk the consequences, which entail suspension of licenses or withdrawal of government contracts. The reports indicate that government officials, including the late vice president, incurred debts amounting to several thousand dollars in services and advertisement, but they have refused to settle their obligations convinced that no action will be taken against them.
According to the reports, the paper's deposits at the state-owned National Housing and Savings Bank, then run by Charles Taylor's appointee when he (Taylor) served as a member of the Council of State, were confiscated along with several others. The money was used by the NPFL for its political and military objectives. The bank has since collapsed, leaving depositors with no legal recourse to recover their money. The Bank's President, a Taylor protégé named Charles Bright, was later elevated to Governor of the National Bank.
The New Democrat's offices and equipment were ordered burnt down in 1996 by Taylor following a series of public threats. At a live radio conference, he confirmed the act by asking a reporter, "Is the New Democrat still around?" By then, the paper's assets were laying in ashes.
Following his installation as President, he rejected the paper's application to continue publication, yielding only after intense local and international appeals. Thereafter, intimidation and harassment of the staff continued. Editors were bundled and interrogated on a number of occasions at the Ministry of Defense and other secret security agencies.
The New Democrat was launched in 1993 as an alternative paper to provide a critical review of the war and its attending problems. It attracted some of the country's best writers, including the late G. Henry Andrews (who later became chair of the 1997 elections commission) and State Council chair Wilton Sankawolo. Both men served as columnists, among many other young writers. However, as chair of the State Council, Sankawolo later accused the paper's editors of being "against peace" in response to accusations that he was serving Taylor's interests on the State Council. His offer to return to the paper after Taylor's election was rejected.
The New Democrat's style of reporting and contents earned it many admirers and enemies. The paper reached its circulation peak of over 7000 copies per edition prior to the destruction of its premises and at a time of war when Monrovia was an isolated enclave with rebels in control of the rest of the country. Quoting some statistics, the reports say that the average circulation of newspapers in the country now is below 500, a factor attributed to the decaying economy and the extreme self-censorship adopted to escape the government wrath.
The New Democrat's critics were many. Former Interim President Dr. Amos Sawyer, predicting the paper's quick death, accused it of "deception" for publishing a picture of hungry young NPFL prisoners of war while his Government entertained their leaders at state receptions in Monrovia. The remnants of President Doe's Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) declared some editors "enemies of the AFL," meaning their safety could not be guaranteed. ULIMO-K Speaker of the Interim National Assembly, the journalist Morris Dukuly, threatened to shut it down. ULIMO-J refused to grant it interviews because the group believed that the paper was against their interests. The NPFL dispatched its thugs, headed by its General Isaac Musa, to destroy its facilities.
The paper's management has also sought legal advice for legal actions against Mr. Taylor for all looses, including the destruction of its facilities, which he admitted.
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