Former Liberian president Charles Taylor did not tolerate press freedom in Liberia while he served as the West African country’s president from 1997 to 2003, prosecutors said today at his trial in The Hague. Mr. Taylor dismissed the allegations as “not correct.”
Lead prosecution counsel Brenda Hollis told Mr. Taylor that during his tenure as president of Liberia, several radio stations were closed down and several journalists were harassed and imprisoned. Reading from a report on press freedom in Liberia by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), Ms. Hollis told Mr. Taylor that his government was “repressive and intolerant to press freedom.”
“Indeed Mr. Taylor, during your presidency, independent news reporting was cut back substantially, isn’t that correct?” Ms. Hollis asked Mr. Taylor.
“That is not correct,” Mr. Taylor responded.
Ms. Hollis read from the CPJ report that in 2001, Mr. Taylor’s government arrested journalists Joseph Bartuah, Bobby Tapson, Abdulai Dukulay, and James Dalieh. The journalists, who were imprisoned by Mr. Taylor’s government according to the CPJ report, were charged for the crime of espionage because they had reported that Mr. Taylor’s government wasted money in repairing a helicopter and producing Christmas cards.
Mr. Taylor dismissed as “total nonsense” Ms. Hollis’s assertion that after his presidency, there was a massive improvement in press freedom in Liberia.
“Indeed Mr. Taylor after you left office, freedom of expression and freedom of press improved significantly in Liberia, isn’t that correct?” Ms. Hollis asked.
“Total nonsense, no, that’s not correct,” the former president responded.
Responding to allegations that his government closed down media institutions including religious radio stations that questioned his government’s violation of human rights, Mr. Taylor said that media institutions were closed down because they failed to pay taxes. For religious stations, Mr. Taylor said that such stations which deviated from their religious broadcast were warned not to engage in politics.
As Mr. Taylor draws closer to the end of his cross-examination, prosecutors have been focusing on the former president’s policies in Liberia while he served as the country’s president. Prosecutors have accused the former president of running a government which did not have respect for the fundamental human rights of its citizens and democratic standards. As they do this, prosecutors have been trying to establish that the ‘Mr. Taylor’ who was leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel group which is accused of committing atrocities against the people of Liberia was no different from the ‘Mr. Taylor’ who became president of the country. Prosecutors allege that Mr. Taylor did not tolerate opposition and his violent reign in the NPFL and Liberia was reflective of how the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels operated in Sierra Leone. By questioning Mr. Taylor about his presidency in Liberia, prosecutors also aim to prove that Mr. Taylor has lied to the court in his testimony under direct-examination that he entertained press-freedom in Liberia and that he had respect for fundamental human rights. Mr. Taylor has denied these assertions.
Also in court today, Ms. Hollis questioned Mr. Taylor about his September 2009 testimony that it was only in court that he heard about “Operation No Living Thing”– an operation that was launched by RUF rebels in Sierra Leone which aimed to ensure that anything that had life must be killed. Mr. Taylor has previously denied giving orders to RUF rebels to conduct such an operation. In today’s cross-examination, Ms. Hollis asked Mr. Taylor about his September 2009 testimony that he did not know about such an operation.
“Were you telling the judges that prior to coming to this court, you’ve never heard of ‘Operation No Living Thing’?” Ms. Hollis asked Mr. Taylor.
“I could have but I cannot recall,” The former president responded.
Mr. Taylor reiterated that he never gave any order for such an operation.
Ms. Hollis also told Mr. Taylor that he ordered Operation No Living Thing in Liberia, an operation that involved Mr. Taylor’s Director of Special Security Service (SSS) Benjamin Yeaten and former prosecution witness and NPFL member Joseph Zig Zag Marzah.
“I was not aware and I gave no such order,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor is on trial for his alleged association with RUF rebels whose 11-year war in Sierra Leone saw the commission of atrocities such as amputations of the arms and limbs of civilians, rape, burning of houses and the killing of civilians. Mr. Taylor is accused of providing support for the rebels through the supply of arms and ammunitions in exchange for the country’s blood diamonds. Prosecutors say that Mr. Taylor occupied a superior position to RUF rebels and that he either ordered or could have prevented the commission of those crimes but he failed to do so.
Mr. Taylor’s cross-examination continues tomorrow.