Four journalists in Liberia working for Britain's Channel 4 network on a documentary about diamond smuggling are headed home after a week in jail on charges of spying. Their ticket out: recantation.
The journalists, who were arrested after Liberian authorities found a partial shooting script in the crew's hotel room, issued a written statement from Monrovia Central Prison saying they wanted "to express our unreserved apology to both his Excellency the President of Liberia, and the people of Liberia, for any offense which our actions or statements have caused... we will discontinue this project as regards Liberia."
Liberian president Charles Taylor, who accused the four of "yellow journalism" and of coming to Liberia with preconceived ideas about the government's role in gunrunning and diamond smuggling, was terse. "We are not expelling the journalists," said Taylor, "but they are free to leave whenever they want."
"Little countries do not have this luxury of defending themselves," he explained. "We have to do it before the fact, not after the fact."
It's a song globe-trotting TIME correspondent Ed Barnes knows well.
"I've been arrested 18 times," he says. "And it's worse today than it's ever been. The leaders of these countries know that with so little international news, whatever does make it onto CNN or into the papers will have a greater impact. The stakes are higher than ever, and so they try to stop it before it happens.
"These guys obviously dug something up on Taylor, somebody talked about it, and so the Liberians went through their hotel room and found a pretext for grabbing them." As for the groveling apology issued by the four prisoners, Barnes says it's hardly an admission of anything, even "yellow journalism."
"The first rule for a journalist in this situation is to say or do whatever you have to to get out of jail. Then make a beeline for the airport and get out of the country."