UN Special Rapporteur Calls on Liberia to Abolish Defamation Laws
Monrovia – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kay, says Liberia must align her local laws on free press and expression with international laws in order to consolidate gains made in granting free speech in Liberia.
Report by Lennart Dodoo, [email protected]
Mr. Kay made the recommendation after his recent visit to Liberia where he had meetings with President George Manneh Weah, Speaker Bhofal Chambers, the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, Senator Albert Chie, Chief Justice Francis Korkpor, Foreign Affairs Minister Gbezhongar Milton Findley, amongst a host of government officials.
His visit to Liberia was aimed at assessing freedom of expression in the country.
Mr. Kaye observed that Liberia’s criminal code contains provisions that are not in line with the country’s obligations under international human rights standards.
He cited Sections 11.11, 11.12 and 11.14 of the Penal Law which criminalize defamation of the President, sedition, and defamation of public authorities.
Article 11.11 makes it a crime to publicly disseminate an accusation against the incumbent President regarding criminal conduct, provided that the person making the accusation knows that the accusation is untrue and intends to damage the President’s reputation.
Article 11.12 contemplates the offense of sedition through overbroad wording that can be subject to arbitrary interpretation.
The section defines sedition as advocacy for sectionalism, countyism, tribalism, parochialism, or rebellion, incitement or promotion of insurrection, or accusation of the incumbent President of conduct which constitutes a violation of his oath of office.
Section 11.14 makes it a crime to accuse any executive authority, judicial authority, member of the Legislature or any other public authority of the commission of a crime, in line with the provision regarding criminal defamation of the President.
Criminal defamation involves penalizing statements made by members of the media as well as others. It has no place in democratic society, susceptible as it is to abuse against reporting, criticism, and opposition. It is a disproportionate approach to the problem of defamation, which may be subject to civil actions when appropriately constrained.
Sedition criminalizes expression, in that case expression of a political nature.
Both should be removed from the Liberian criminal code. Landmark cases before the ECOWAS Court of Justice, just last month, and the African Court of Human and People’s Rights in 2014 have found that criminal defamation is inconsistent with international and African human rights obligations.
Kaye in his report after his visit noted that as part of his observations, it came to his notice that despite an attempt by the government of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to repeal laws criminalizing freedom of expression through the singing of the Table Mountain in 2012, the bill proffered to for the repealing of anti-freedom of speech and expressions in the Penal Code was tabled by the administration.
“The bill is pending. Nearly every official in the administration and legislature with whom I met understood that it was time to remove the anachronisms of criminal provisions governing the press.
“Thus, as a matter of priority, I would urge the Government to finalize the already initiated process to repeal these provisions, in order to bring the legal framework into compliance with international human rights standards.
Second, I learned from a number of sources about the implications of Liberia’s libel law on journalists,” he noted in the report.
He said the presence of such laws on the books creates room for the imposition of large financial penalties in civil suits, which, he said, may cause self-censorship and severe economic difficulties for journalists and media outlets.
Mr. Kaye: “In recent years, there have been several cases in which public authorities have filed civil libel lawsuits against local newspapers and journalists, seeking high damage awards.
“In 2013, the editor-in-chief of the investigative newspaper FrontPage Africa was imprisoned for libel because he could not pay US$1.5 million in damages following a judgment.”
“The current legal framework provides no limitation on the amount of damages that a defendant may have to pay.”
“To avoid excessive fines and de-facto criminalization of libel, I strongly recommend that the existing legal framework be amended to provide for a reasonable cap on the amount of damages that can be sought in civil libel lawsuits. This would also be in line with the Liberian Constitutional provision in article 21 that prohibits excessive penalties.”
Mr. Kaye recognized the rapid growth of the Liberian media and lamented the many, if not most Liberian journalists struggle to earn a living, putting severe economic pressures on them.
“The newspapers in particular suffer from an extremely competitive situation in which advertising is almost exclusively governmental (including, at least until recently, from UNMIL),” he said.
This situation, he said, led to concerns from government officials and civil society actors over media professionalism and training.
According to him, Some raised allegations of a lack of ethical practice and even blackmail as journalistic ills but said allegation could not be confirmed but noted the allegations in any event would appear to amount to a small number of cases compared to the vast amount of journalism in the country.
“The existence of such concerns among stakeholders highlights both the potential support for dangerous rollback of press freedoms and the need for strong journalism training to strengthen the profession,” he said.
Government’s Failure to Pay Ads
The print and electronic media in Liberia rely heavily on government advertisements as means of generating revenue.
However, it was brought to the attention of the Special Rapporteur that government often fail to live up to its financial obligations to the media.
Also, due to the absence of a framework that regulates government ads, advertisements are given to media outlets on a selective basis, depending on the relationship between the outlet and the government.
“Such actions, if true, would have a strongly distorting effect on the media’s willingness to cover Government activities critically.
But even if such distortions are difficult to prove, the possibility of such distortion will, over the long term, have a negative effect on the trust that people can have in their journalism,” Mr. Kaye noted.
“Presently there appears to be a limited, if any, regulatory framework for government advertising (based, apparently, on Liberian procurement rules).
In the absence of a clear framework, the risks of Government misuse of ad dollars — and just as importantly, the fostering of distrust among readers, outlets, and officials — will increase.
“I would urge the Government to consider adopting a set of rules that would regulate official advertising and eliminate the possibility of ad placements based on the point of view expressed by an outlet or its reporters.”
Mr. Kaye recommended, among other things that:
- Enact the bill to transform the Liberian Broadcasting System into an independent public broadcasting network
- Enact the Community Broadcasting Bill
- Revise and move toward adoption of the Independent Broadcasting Regulator Bill
- Establish a regulatory framework for government advertising ensuring accountability and transparency
- For the media: Reinforce and strengthen the self-regulatory system of the Press Union of Liberia, including by addressing matters of widespread public concern
- For private companies and international donors: Advertise in broadcast and print media outlets in order to broaden the revenue base of competitive media
- For all stakeholders but especially private companies and international donors: Encourage and support the expansion of internet access throughout Liberia while monitoring the impact of social media, in particular to ensure that it does not do damage to a fragile but essential Liberian media industry