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This is one of the reports about the French ambassador. (Credit: New Dawn, screenshot)

Liberia’s press union ruled that four Liberian newspapers, the New Dawn, the New  Republic, Women Voices and National Chronicle Newspapers, all violated journalism ethics, the Liberian Observer reported.

As a result, they all must apologize and pay the Press Union a “fine of  L$10,000” (US$139).

All four newspapers published reports about “an alleged sex scandal implicating the French Ambassador to Liberia,”   according to the Liberian Observer. The articles were published Feb. 6 and 7.

A story published by the Liberian Times on Feb. 7 reported that  two women claimed they “sexually satisfied” the ambassador and he didn’t pay.

The press union found that the claims were “largely unsubstantiated” and that the newspapers reported “a number of general inaccuracies” like using “the wrong name of the ambassador,” the Liberian Observer wrote.

And, all four newspapers failed to ask the ambassador for comment, the Liberian Observer wrote.  The press union added that “two of the papers used photographs which were obtained under questionable means,” according to the Liberian Observer.

We wrote to the French embassy in Liberia to ask more about the issue and if it brought the complaint.  The embassy’s project manager Flore Rossi  told us by e-mail that ” The Embassy didn’t bring the complaint to the council. According to the diplomatic rules, the Embassy refered the affair to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Liberia that transfered it to Ministry of Information.  Then, the Ministry of Information dealt with the Liberian Press Union and the Media Complaints Committee.”

Rossi added that “according to the diplomatic law and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Embassy and the diplomatic staff are under a diplomatic immunuity” and therefore “cannot take legal action.”

Rossi wrote that the embassy is satisfied with the ruling.  We asked if the embassy had any further comment about this incident.  Rossi wrote:

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“The Embassy would like to know why these four newspapers published this report of an alleged ‘sex scandal’ and what are the reasons that explain this act.”

We wrote to the four newspapers seeking more information about this incident. The New Dawn’s editor Othelle B. Garblah responded to our inquiry and explained the newspaper must apologize for the story in print and to the ambassador. The New Dawn doesn’t have to unpublish its original report, but it does have to retract the story, according to Garblah.

We asked what prompted the original story and how the newspaper verified it.

Garblah wrote that one of the two women who “claimed to have been the alleged victims,” Rose Sikler, told New Dawn deputy editor George Barpeen, a former Press Union of Liberia president, her account of the alleged incident. Then “efforts were made to verify the alleged claims with the French Embassy,” according to Garblah. He said that Barpeen “spoke with the Ambassador’s Secretary,” who said she would call back but didn’t.  Next, Barpeen had another New Dawn reporter, Nathaniel Dagbor, go to the embassy in person.  Dagbor and other reporters present were “told to return at about 5 pm,” which they did only to be told to return the next day for a press conference.

Garblah added that the newspaper considers the press union’s investigation to be “unprofessionally conducted” because as of Feb. 19, the newspaper still hasn’t been given a copy of the ruling or a report on “how the investigation was conducted.”

“All we have heard is a news release which have [sic] been circulated by the PUL to other media outlets, saying that we breached ethical standards,” he wrote, adding that there hasn’t been any ‘official communication” from the press union to any of the four newspapers in question.

Garblah also noted that he is “reviewing how the story was handled by my deputy” independent of the Press Union’s ruling to check on “due diligence.”

We have written to the press union and the three other newspapers for comment and more information and will update with any response.

UPDATED: 2/23/2012 10:59 AM EST: Added in comments from the French embassy in Liberia.

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4 Liberian Newspapers to Apologize, Pay Fine after Sex Scandal Story

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