Liberian journalists in court over government graft claims

Two Liberian journalists appeared in court in Monrovia on Friday charged with criminal libel after accusing the government of corruption on national radio.

Octavin Williams and Rufus Paul were arrested on Thursday after criticising ministers on Hot FM's Henry Costa talk show for giving a $13 million road maintenance contract to a company they said was connected to family of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

They claimed the job should have been offered for no more than $100,000, telling the host: "We just want to tell Liberians that this is how our money is being misused."

The journalists told AFP the police had been listening to the hour-long interview and were ready to meet them outside the station's Monrovia headquarters as the show finished.

"When we got out of the studio, we were issued a writ of arrest. We called the president of the press union who went to the court with us but when we got there, we were immediately sent to prison," said Williams, after both men were bailed.

Their case, adjourned until Monday, is the second recent high-profile criminal action against journalists which critics have described as part of a worrying clampdown on press freedom.

Rodney Sieh, editor of the Frontpage Africa newspaper, was taken into custody on August 21 following a Supreme Court ruling that the paper should pay $1.6 million (1.2 million euros) for libelling former agriculture minister J. Chris Toe.

Sieh, who has been treated for malaria, was returned to prison from a three-week hospital stay this week, drawing criticism from international rights groups.

Human Rights Watch called on Liberia to ensure damages in civil cases brought by public officials were proportionate and said politicians shouldn't be able to "squelch press freedom with big-ticket lawsuits against the media".

Meanwhile Reporters Without Borders said Sieh was being punished for doing his job as a journalist.

"We call once again on the government to take action to decriminalise media offences, in particular to stop imposing disproportionate fines on journalists in order to intimidate them, since the media play an important role in the fight against corruption," said a sokeman.