When journalist Sorious Samura set out to film a half-hour documentary on Liberia (part of a 3 x 30-minute series for the U.K.’s Channel 4 and CNN), he never expected to see the inside of a jail, much less temporarily reside in one.
After filming in the African nation for nearly three weeks in August, Samura and the three members of his crew (all from London-based prodco Insight News Television) were arrested on charges of espionage. They had made every attempt to go by the books – contacting the minister of information in advance of their trip, submitting a list of potential questions for Liberian president Charles Taylor, obtaining permission to begin conducting interviews in Monrovia and the provinces – but their presence clearly made the powers that be uneasy. ‘I don’t know why my president doesn’t want to talk to you, I don’t know why he’s afraid of you because he normally gives interviews. Now I’m under real pressure to find out what you have been filming,’ the information minister told Samura hours before the arrest. That night, the director of police arrived with two truckloads of soldiers to arrest the doc crew.
Says Samura, ‘The moment we were in the vans, they started hitting us with the gun butts and they took all our personal belongings – watches, money, passports. If you tried to resist, they would beat you up, kick you, hit you, slap you in the eye. So, we just let them have everything.’
Inside the central prison it was even worse. Samura describes the ‘prison government’ as a micro version of the Liberian national leadership. ‘To be looked after, you have to pay. For us not to be raped, for us to use the toilets, for us to be allowed to use one candle among all four of us . . . we had to pay us$150.’
The crew’s ordeal ended after one week with the help of u.s. activist Jesse Jackson, former South African president Nelson Mandela, CNN and the British Foreign Office, among others. But, Samura says he can’t stop thinking about all of the prisoners who have no one to crusade for them. The vast majority have never been charged, though they’ve been kept in jail for up to six years. ‘The only way to get out is to cough up US$50 to the judge and then $10 to the prison government who will pass the money to the judge,’ Samura explains. ‘[When you] can’t even afford $1 a day to eat, where will [you] find $50?’
Samura says he’d like to complete the film, although all the footage is currently in the hands of the Liberian government. ‘The story won’t be told right now, but it will be told.’ He is currently moving ahead with the series, which will be delivered in November, and is planning a trip to Uganda. Susan Rayman