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Saturday, 26 August, 2000, 20:49 GMT 21:49 UK
Freed journalists tell of Liberia 'terror'

Free, (from left), Tim Lambon, David Barrie and Sorious Samoura
A group of journalists freed after being held on spying charges in Liberia have spoken of the "hellish existence" they left behind.

Three of the journalists, who had been working for Channel 4, flew into London on Saturday morning. A fourth had already flown home to South Africa.

It was just total terror

Director David Barrie
Speaking at a news conference at Heathrow Airport, the celebrated Sierra Leonean film-maker Sorious Samoura described how, during the week he and his colleagues were imprisoned, prison officers had threatened to kill him with a knife .

"They were brandishing a knife and said: `We are going to split your heart open' and I thought that was the end," said Mr Samura.

Bundled into trucks

The journalists, British director David Barrie, Zimbabwe-born cameraman Tim Lambon, who has dual South African and British nationality, Sierra Leonean Mr Samoura - and South African soundman Gugulakhe Radebe - described how they had been bundled into trucks by 20 police brandishing rifles during their arrest.

Liberian President Charles Taylor
President Taylor: Expelled journalists
Mr Barrie, said it had been a moment of "total terror, considering the number of officers there, the number of rifles there and the extent to which these guys had absolutely been hyped up".

Mr Lambon added: "There might not have been all the serious physical abuse such as rifle butts in the back of the head, although there was some of that, it was a situation of mental terror."

Offical permission

The four had been given official permission to work in Liberia, but were arrested and accused of filming in no-go areas and seeking to damage the country's image and falsely linking President Charles Taylor to diamond smuggling.

The African story has to be told

Sorious Samoura
Their arrest sparked protests from the international community and press freedom groups.

If convicted, the men would have faced up to 10 years in jail or the death penalty.

But Mr Taylor said on Friday they were free to leave the country after they had apologised to the nation.

"Impartial and accurate"

A spokesman for Channel 4 said a seized document on which the men's arrest had been based had only described a programme which might have been made, and not actually the film they were making.

"There's no question that we would have made, as we always seek to make, a fair and impartial and accurate programme," he said.

"So if we were going to make an apology, it would not be an apology for the programme we intended to make; it would only be in respect of some of the things in that document."

And Mr Samoura, from whose point of view the film was being made, said he was still anxious to make a film about Liberia. He said he would be prepared to return to the country.

Sorious Samoura, producer of documentary Cry Freetown
"I want to go back. I don't know if these guys will want to come back with me though.

"People are pushing trucks for five days and five nights to make a basic living. People break rocks just to survive and we promised them we would tell the outside world their story."

Mr Lambon added: "There were four international journalists who were banged up and the entire world came to their aid.

"Let me tell you, we met hundreds of people who today are still in those jails, whose families don't even know they are there. And they don't have a hope.

"You have to pay to go to the toilet, you have to pay to come out of your cell, if you don't have that kind of money, you don't get water and you don't get food."

David Barrie: "It's wonderful to be home"

They said they were thankful for the international pressure which had been put on Liberia during their imprisonment.

In particular they thanked US President Bill Clinton's envoy to Africa, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, former South African president Nelson Mandela, and Nigerian President Olusegun Obsanjo.

They also thanked the UK Government for its efforts in trying to gain their freedom.

Mr Barrie said: "We went their to do a job, we meant no offence. We went in there to try to understand the country."

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See also:

24 Aug 00 | Africa
Weah to help jailed film crew
06 Jun 00 | Africa
Liberia implicated in diamond war
16 May 00 | Africa
Liberia fishes in troubled waters
26 Jul 00 | Africa
Thousands flee Liberian fighting
14 Jun 00 | Africa
Liberia: Where rebels roam free
26 Aug 00 | Africa
Freed journalists arrive home
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