Decriminalise Libel–MFWA Urges New Liberian President

Liberian leader, President George Manneh Weah

February 22, 2018 marked one month of George Weah’s assumption of office as President of Liberia, having secured 61.5% of the presidential run-off votes against then outgoing Vice President, Joseph Boakai.

The peaceful conduct of the polls, coupled with Vice President Joseph Boakai’s gracious concession, is another milestone in Liberia’s post-war efforts at building a democratic and tolerant society. What is even more reassuring is President Weah’s pledge at his inauguration to govern by consensus and ensure prosperity for all Liberians by tackling corruption.

The Media Foundation for West Africa congratulates (MFWA) and its partner organisation in Liberia, Centre for Media Studies and Peace-building (CEMESP) congratulate His Excellency George Weah on his election and assumption of power and wish him success in his proposed anti-corruption crusade.

A crucial ally in the president’s anti-corruption crusade is the media and civil society. Fortunately, Liberia has a Right to Information Law and its constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression – two powerful tools in the fight against corruption.

However, the full exercise of these rights has been undermined by a flurry of criminal libel and civil libel suits that have resulted in excessively prohibitive judgments. Journalists and media houses have been at the receiving end of crippling fines, closure or long custodial sentences for publishing information deemed uncomfortable.

One of these crippling fines was seen in the Rodney Sieh case of 2013. In what is arguably the most infamous libel judgment in West Africa, the Supreme Court in Liberia, on August 20, 2013, sentenced Sieh, the Managing Editor of the FrontPage Africa newspaper, to 5,000 years in prison. The sentence followed Sieh’s failure to pay an equally hefty fine of USD$ 1.6 million in a civil suit for defamation brought by then Minister of Agriculture, Chris Toe. The journalist was later pardoned after he apologised as part of a deal to end the case.

In July 2015, the publisher of the Nation Times, Octavin Williams was arrested and held in pre-trial detention for eight days after a criminal complaint by one Tony Lawal, a construction mogul, who sought US$4 million in damages for an alleged defamatory article. The journalist has made four appearances in court so far.

On October 7, 2016, Philipbert Browne, the publisher of Liberia’s Hot Pepper newspaper, was arrested and jailed without trial at the Monrovia Central Prison on the orders of a Civil Law Court. Brown’s imprisonment for libel followed an article he wrote which was based on an interview with an alleged rape victim. The alleged perpetrator of the rape, lawmaker Prince Moye, had filed a US$1.5 million libel lawsuit against Browne together with Jah Johnson, the editor of Hot Pepper. Alfred Togbah, the publisher of The People newspaper, which first broke the rape story, was also joined in the suit.

As Philipbert Browne and Rodney Sieh’s cases clearly illustrate, judgments of even civil libel cases have also been excessively punitive in recent times. Crippling fines and damages are often imposed, and defaulting in payment often leads to detentions. The New Democrat, Analyst, the Independent and the New Broom are some of the media organisations that have recently suffered excessive punishments in civil libel suits.

In November 2017, Tony Lawal again sued Joel Cholo Brooks, the publisher of the GNN Liberia online newspaper for libel. The businessman is demanding US$10 million in damages in connection with a series of investigative reports by Brooks in which he alleged that the businessman was involved in some dubious road construction deals.

The harassment of media owners and journalist with criminal prosecutions and prohibitive fines in civil cases has led to widespread self-censorship and weakened the media in Liberia. This situation has seriously hampered the media’s watchdog duties as well as the ability of citizens to freely express themselves.

Over the past few five years, Liberia’s press freedom landscape has consistently been rated as “partly free” in the RSF Press Freedom Index due to these press freedom violations and the difficult environment under which the media works.

Before leaving office, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attempted to make some amends by taking steps to get criminal libel scrapped from the statutes. On July 20, 2017, the president put before Parliament a bill to decriminalise libel. The bill sought to amend the following repressive provisions in Liberia’s criminal code: Criminal Libel against the President; Section 11.12 (on Sedition) and Section 11.14: Criminal Malevolence of the Penal Law of Liberia.

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives could not consider the bill before it vacated in October 2017.

It is a credit to Liberia that it gave its citizens a legal basis to demand accountability by adopting a Right to Information law in 2010. The country will be equipping itself with a set of progressive press freedom laws if it successfully repeals criminal libel. Such a prospect, will be a major boost to press freedom in the country.

We therefore recommend to President George Weah to use his good offices to ensure the repeal of the anti-free speech sections of the Liberia Criminal code to give a new lease of life to the country’s media, thereby enhancing the capacity of the media to support his anti-corruption agenda and also the country’s young democracy.

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