LIBERIA: CONTRADICTIONS GALORE OVER PRESS FREEDOM, FREE SPEECH

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ON THE BRINKS OF A LANDMARK PASSAGE of the “The Kamara Abdullah Kamara (KAK) Act of Press Freedom,” bill, there appears to be a lot of contradictions from some elements within the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change which if not curbed in a timely manner could derail efforts by President George Manneh Weah’s government to bolster its record on freedom of speech and the press.

LAST WEEK, the Senate followed the lower house of the national legislature in signing off on the bill which has now been forwarded to President Weah for passage into law.

THE BILL IN memory of the late former president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) amends the Liberian Codes Revised, Penal Law of 1978 of Liberia, Chapter 11 by repealing three sections to be known as “The Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom.”

IN JUNE 2018, PRESIDENT WEAH, in a letter sent to the Legislature, quoted Chapter 11, Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution, which provides for freedom of speech and expression and a caveat of abuse thereof.

THE PRESIDENT ADDED that Liberia is a signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration, which demands that African countries abolish inflammatory and other related media laws.

PRESIDENT WEAH HIMSELF made it clear that Liberia is in anticipation of adhering to such legal instruments which enacted the Freedom of Information Law and established the Freedom of Information Commission.

THE PRESIDENT’S POSITION follows similar declarations made in his inaugural address last January when he declared that citizens of Liberia were owed clarity on fundamental issues such as the land beneath their feet, freedom of speech, and how national resources and responsibilities are going to shift from this capital to the counties.

THE PRESIDENT, AT THE TIME, reminded his supporters and the rest of the country, that his victory could not have been possible without the support of the youths and women of this country, especially those who make their living by selling in the markets.  “We could not have arrived at this day without our voices been heard loudly, and all our views, no matter how critical, being freely expressed in an atmosphere void of intimidation and arrest. This was only made possible by the tolerance of my predecessor, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who protected the right to Freedom of Speech as enshrined in our Constitution. Now, in my turn, I will go further to encourage and reinforce not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of political assembly.”

IN THE WAKE of all this we find it peculiarly disturbing that some supporters of the President and even members of his administration routinely find the urge to speak and act against everything that the President has professed on paper.

SOME ARE EVEN going as far as suggesting that talk show host Henry Costa is fabricating two attacks on his radio station by armed men in the last two weeks.

IT TROUBLES US that such disdain attitude against Freedom of Expression which the President has repeatedly said he supports, contradicts his message and makes it difficult for critics to believe that the government is sincere about its position on free press and free speech.

WHEN CRITICS are being labeled as “enemies” of the state and venomously assaulted on social media for speaking out against corruption and others ills in the society, it paints a bad picture on the government that supporters of the president claim they want to succeed.

THESE VERY same supporters spoke out loudly against corruption in the previous government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf but today are refusing to allow others to have their say.

LAST YEAR, Mr. David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and protection of the right of opinion and expression, said that while Liberia has made meaningful progress in the areas of freedom of expression, media independence and government transparency, the country still needs to lock in and expand the gains made in the years since the cessation of hostilities over 15 years ago.

SAID MR. KAYE: “Liberia needs a vibrant and sustainable media but these are not possible in the midst of some challenges such as laws that criminalize the work of journalists and the lack of funding for journalists to carry out their activities and also live better lives.”

TODAY, THE COUNTRY’S Criminal Code contains provisions that are not in line with the country’s obligations under international human rights standards and Mr. Kaye has made specific references to sections 11.11, 11.12 and 11.14 of the Penal Law that criminalize defamation of the President, sedition, and defamation of public authorities. “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,” he noted.IT IS IMPORTANT that those who claim they want the President to succeed, allow free thinkers in the marketplace of ideas the express themselves without fear or intimidation. This practice is not only bad for democracy but detrimental the President Weah, his government and everything good he is trying to accomplish in the time allotted for his rule.

VACANCY ANNOUNCEMENT

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