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RIA Scandal Secret Recordings
RIA Scandal Secret Recordings
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|Protect Press Freedom, Prosecute Corruption||| Print ||
|Written by Alphonso W. Nyenuh, Contributor|
|Saturday, 07 September 2013 04:10|
The Government of Liberia must move with utmost urgency to pass laws de-criminalizing libel and to include safeguards in the new law that will facilitate the ability of journalists to critically investigate and report on corruption and other vices in society, especially in government, and involving matters of public interest without the current stringent restrictions penalties. The extent to which a country’s laws promote the exercise of rights by its people and foster public discourse is the barometer by which that country’s adherence to democracy and good governance is judged. Governments bear responsibility for making laws that enhance the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms and for repealing those bad laws that undermine the enjoyment and pursuit of those freedoms. The Government of Liberia has abdicated this duty by its failure to repeal criminal libel laws, in spite of pronouncements by President Sirleaf to do so.
Criminal defamation laws have been used in the past to punish journalists for exposing corruption in government and have a chilling effect on the ability of journalists to freely and fearlessly perform their very important civic functions; they force journalists into self-censorship and to avoid pursuing hot topics such as corruption. Criminal defamation laws also embody the real potential of undermining the public’s ability to question and criticize public officials, as journalists shy away from publishing those critical comments. In total, this creates a society in which there is no real freedom of speech as journalists are forced to undertake self-censorship, and as the people are denied the media through which to engage in critical questioning. This undermines legitimate public discourse and debate on the workings of government and government officials.
The recent conviction of journalist Rodney Sieh and FrontPage Africa Newspaper, his subsequent imprisonment and the closure of his newspaper under the criminal libel laws of Liberia for reporting on corruption allegations has a chilling effect on the ability of journalists to investigate and report on corruption in Liberia, a country that has seen its progress saddled for decades by official corruption and graft and continues to appear on the lists of international corruption watchdog groups as a breeding ground and haven for graft.
FAILURE TO DE-CRIMINALIZE LIBEL: Though this government is on record acknowledging that our libel laws are abhorrent to press freedom, and has even promised to remove such laws from the books, it has failed to do so. This is blight on the government’s reputation. The imprisonment of journalist Sieh and the closure of Frontpagafrica, on punitive damages in the tune of $1.5 million, coming more than a full year after President Sirleaf made public pronouncements acknowledging the negative effects of criminal defamation laws on press freedom and expressed her government’s determination to repeal such laws, brings into question the government’s real commitment to press freedom and freedom of speech.
While the Sirleaf administration has done better than most previous administrations regarding press freedom, protection and promotion of press freedom require more than one benevolent leader or administration not beating up journalists and not arbitrarily closing media houses, it demands the passage of protective laws and the institutionalization of safeguards that would prevent abuses and other restrictive actions such as the judgment against FrontPage Africa.
When, on May 3, 2012, President Sirleaf signed the Table Mountain Declaration, she pointed to the negative effects of criminal libel laws on press freedom and announced her government’s determination to repeal such laws. The Table Mountain Declaration calls for the repeal of criminal defamation laws and was adopted at the World Newspaper Congress held in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2007. As the second African Head of State to sign the Declaration, President Sirleaf noted then that her administration would play a leading role in promoting press freedom in Africa. She also boasted of Liberia not using such laws to silence its media. Liberia under Sirleaf has now joined the ranks of countries using criminal libel to intimidate their media into silence. The fact that more than a year after this pronouncement criminal defamation laws have not been repealed, and the fact that a journalist currently languishes in prison and his media house closed, under the very criminal defamation laws, is not exactly the “leading” that President Sirleaf promised. How many more journalists must go to jail under these repressive laws, how many more media institutions must be closed down, before the government follows through on its pronouncement of repealing these laws?
REFORMING THE JUDICIARY: The failure of the government to effect meaningful reforms in the judicial system is also to blame for this terrible miscarriage of justice. Eight years after the administration promised it would reform the judicial system the judiciary remains utterly corrupt, with judges and court officials bent on selling justice to the highest bidders rather than basing their decisions on fairness and the rule of law. Horrifying tales abound of how court officials solicit bribes from potential jurors to place them in jury pools and how the jurors would then rule in favor of the highest payers so as to recoup the bribes they paid to get on the jury. The jury system has now become a money making and money peddling business rather than a patriotic duty. Even the government has claimed that it has lost serious corruption cases to this bribery scheme in the judicial system.
A judiciary that is atoned to the imperatives of justice, the virtues of fairness, and the demands of democracy would under no circumstances impose such an excessive damage award of $1.5 million dollars on a media house whose only offense was to report a government audit report accusing a government official of corruption, and that clearly has no means to pay such exorbitant amount. This creates the impression that the purpose of imposing and upholding such an excessive judgment was to ensure the closure of FrontPage Africa and to punish its journalists for their aggressive reporting of corruption, including corruption in the judiciary.
FAILURE TO FIGHT CORRUPTION: Government’s unwillingness to tackle corruption within its ranks and its failure to prosecute officials accused of corruption greatly undermines the ability of journalists and the public to expose and discuss those criminal acts. The fact that officials accused of corruption are allowed to remain in government or to roam in the luxury of their stolen wealth has seriously impinged on development, the right of children to education, the right of pregnant women to healthcare, and now, has claimed another victim - freedom of speech and the press.
1. Government must demonstrate its commitment to press freedom by condemning the criminal libel laws and the very excessive judgment imposed by the courts.
Alphonso W. Nyenuh, Contributor