Monrovia – The acting head of the National Port Authority, Madam Celia Cuffy Brown has suggested that she should have been the one to order this week’s closure of FrontPageAfrica and the arrest of its staff.
Madam Brown, who has openly defended her hiring of three of President George Manneh Weah’s brothers at the port, took issue with the FPA editor in an open post on the editor’s personal Facebook account Wednesday.
Madam Cuffy Brown wrote:
“I should have been the 1st to have done that to you, but I left it with God. For, vengeance is not for man, but for God at his chosen time. Touch not he whom has been anointed by God the creator, and do his Prophets no harm (Psalm 105:14-15). You smear the character of honest people who are working in this government, just to satisfy, your #wicked friends. God is seated on his #Throne and he watched you in your quest to destroy a true servant. Be careful who you smear. God is not like man to be toyed with. You have no remorse of conscience. You went from radio station to another just to smear a woman like me who built myself and worked for this country without 1 stain of corruption, only to please your wicked friends. God is watching. Your recompense will be served.” When asked by another poster whether what was reported in FrontPageAfrica and alluded to her hiring three of the president’s brothers was alluded to her although she openly defended her actions on Prime FM recently, Madam Cuffy Brown replied, without offering any proof: “He started way before that and you know it. Bad press on unsuspecting people is very, very bad. Smearing reputation of good people is uncalled for, especially, if #wicked people pay you to do so!”
Cuffy-Brown clamp down on FrontPageAfrica is based on the paper’s investigation that uncovered a major case of payroll padding, nepotism and corruption at the NPA in which several pay-roll checks dated March 1, 2018, were paid to three of the President’s brothers.
The president’s brothers were appointed to positions of Evaluation Officer, a Local Liaison Officer and a Public Relations Strategist, which according to sources were non-existent until now and created by the acting MD. Their salaries quadruple salaries being paid for simple portfolios at the same entity.
Cuffy-Brown made the appointments and took several other critical decisions in the absence of a board which is to approve decisions by the Managing Director.
The employment contract obtained by FrontPageAfrica, the acting managing director on February 1, 2017, less than a month after the inauguration of the new government appointed an individual listed as Prince Weah as a Public Relations Strategist with a salary of US$4,500 less 10% government tax totalling US$4,050.
A copy of Mr. Weah’s first pay-roll checks No. 0021134700182801 dated March 1, 2018 in possession of FrontPageAfrica specifies his salary in the amount of US$4,050 for the month of February 2019.
FrontPageAfrica has been unable to verify Mr. Weah’s credentials as to whether he has a background relating to the consultancy he was hired to perform.
The NPA currently has a Public Relations Manager Malcolm Scott whose salary is set at US$1,067 monthly.
Cuffy-Brown had told Prime FM after FPA’s publication, she could employ 10 of the President’s brothers once they meet the qualification.
Action Against FPA Condemned
Global Witness, an international watchdog group in a statement issued Wednesday condemned arrest of FPA staff.
Global Witness questioned the arrest of staff members without charges brought by the police.
“The closure of Front Page Africa continues a worrying trend in which the independence of leading Liberian voices, including the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI), are being threatened.
“The decision of Liberian Judge Yamie Gbeisay to close Front Page Africa sends a chilling message to the Liberian press,” said Simon Clydesdale of Global Witness.
He added, “Defamation suits should not be used to silence the press, and in this case Front Page Africa is being penalized months before the newspaper even has its first court date. The order to seize assets, including its office, must be rescinded immediately – as should the performance bond imposed upon the paper.”
According to the Global Witness, the Liberian Government has also recently undermined the independence of Liberia’s key transparency agency, LEITI – with President Weah illegally firing the Head of the Secretariat earlier last month (12 March), and using Liberian police to forcibly remove him from his office.
LEITI is a semi-autonomous agency whose multi-stakeholder steering group is empowered by law to appoint its Head of Secretariat. Instead the Liberian President has taken matters into his own hands.
“Having this kind of intimidation imposed on LEITI endangers the independence critical to its mandate to scrutinise and report on the payments oil, logging, mining, and plantation companies make to the government.” said Clydesdale.
“Liberian democracy requires independent voices and impartial information, like that provided by Front Page Africa and LEITI. President Weah should ensure that Liberia’s press – including the vital Front Page Africa – remains free, and reinstate LEITI’s Secretariat Head Konah Karmo.”
Timeline of intimidation
According to court documents seen by Global Witness, on 5 April Judge Gbeisay ordered that the offices of Front Page Africa – Liberia’s leading newspaper – be closed. Four days later, the police raided the paper and arrested its staff.
The order followed a legal complaint in which two plaintiffs reportedly brought a US$350,000 defamation action against FrontPage Africa for publishing an advertisement that also appeared in other publications.
Judge Gbeisay “attached” all of the paper’s assets to the complaint, shutting its doors even through the case will not begin until June. Other publications who ran the advert have not faced court orders.
After being held under arrest for several hours, Front Page Africa’s staff members were released. The offices remained closed on 9 April, reopening only after it reportedly paid a US$5,000 performance bond to the court.
Judge Beisay’s order should be challenged
Under Liberian law, a court can only seize assets in a civil case if it has a “reasonable belief” that the plaintiff will win the case and that the defendant’s assets are hard to reach. (1) The closure of Front Page Africa’s office clearly shows their assets are easy to access.
On the day that police raided Front Page Africa, the Liberian Ministry of Information issued a statement, saying that “the closure of the FrontPage Africa newspaper and arrest of some of its staff was not on the orders of the government of Liberia.” (2)
The court order against Front Page Africa is only the most recent threat to independent Liberian voices since President George Weah took office in January of this year. On 22 March, President Weah verbally accused BBC stringer Jonathan Paye-Layleh of being “one of those that were against me.” (3)
Mr Paye-Layleh has chosen to leave Liberia for the time being. The Executive Mansion later sought to clarify that the President had not attacked Paye-Layleh, but was clarifying that the journalist’s past reporting had not been fair. (4)