Liberia: The Weah Government V. Henry Costa – A Test Case For Free Speech


TALK SHOW HOST Henry Costa went on a venting Facebook Live rage this week, raining insults on the Liberian presidency in an angry response to the government’s decision to force Lonestarcell MTN to discontinue hosting his transmitters, across from his Roots FM Radio station.

THE STATION, in particular Mr. Costa’s early morning show, has been in a tug-of-war lately with the administration voicing out critical views while allowing callers to weigh in on the topical issues making headlines.

MR. COSTA HAS also lately unearthed several damaging scandals relating to flawed concession agreements and shady business transactions which have brought the government under scrutiny and in a negative light to the public.

THE RECENT signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the administration and the government of Senegal regarding a Fishing agreement that will allow Senegalese boats in Liberia’s waters; awarding unknown Jordanians contract to handle the ground operations of the new Roberts International Airport Terminal are just a few of the many scandals recently unearthed by Mr. Costa on his talk show.

MR. COSTA’S BRAZEN IN-YOUR-FACE approach to tackling corruption and vices in government has won him thousands of followers and admirers on not just his show but on Facebook. But it has also won him few enemies, mainly followers and supporters of the Weah-led government.

WHILE SOME OF THOSE against Mr. Costa’s brash style say he is being disrespectful to the presidency, his supporters point to the current ruling party and the cards they dealt former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

THE MOST FAMOUS, perhaps more memorable was a parade led by Mr. Jefferson Koijee, former Youth leader of the party and now Mayor of the City of Monrovia, climaxing the twelve-year reign of Madam Sirleaf. 

PROTESTERS CARRIED coffins above their shoulders in a procession that, from an opposition standpoint, effectively summed up Sirleaf’s two-terms as president.

MR. KOIJEE TOLD FrontPageAfrica at the time, that the coffins represented the expiration of Sirleaf and Boakai’s regime. “They must go alone with all of their corrupt officials in government. The Liberian people tired with the all of the corruption and wickedness in government. We must burry them with their mother Madam Sirleaf in these caskets.”

WITH THE COFFINS on their heads, the men in black chanted: ‘Corrupt officials must be buried in this casket”; “It’s our time; go, go Ellen go, go with your big, big lie.”

REP. ACAROUS GRAY (District No. 8 Montserrado County) rarely spared the former president, raining insults and never shying away from holding her feet to the fire and nailing her grounds that she has failed the Liberian people by making corruption a number one friend contrary to declaration that corruption will be public enemy number one.

THESE DAYS, criticisms of alleged corruption in the current administration have become a taboo subject with those raising the alarm and red flag being labeled as “enemies of the state” by the President and his supporters.

CRITICISMS APPEARS TO HAVE COME full circle. From the Sirleaf administration to now, and even in the anal of Liberia’s brutal past, those at the helm of power have often found a way stifle freedom of expression and of the press.

A CRITQUE by the late Albert Porte in 1975 of then finance minister, Stephen Tolbert, the brother of President William R. Tolbert in which Stephen Tolbert was accused of using political office to advance his considerable business interests drew angry response from the Tolbert family, leading to  a lawsuit against Mr. Porte for libel. Tolbert won the suit – $US250,000 but later died in a plane crash soon after and the case was closed.

DESPITE GETTING SOME CREDIT for keeping her critics including the then opposition
CDC, Nobel laureate Sirleaf, who was a thorn in the side of Tolbert, struggled to allow a free flow of ideas. Journalists and commentators like Costa were jailed under her watch. While some of her supporters took to social media to assail critics against the Sirleaf government, the attacks were not as they are now.

IN THE CASE of Mr. Costa, the management of Lonestarcell MTN, under pressure from the government decided Monday that it could no longer allow the Talk Show host to use its antenna and generator facility to run his transmitter. This means, Mr. Costa would have to find another host, willing to give him the space to operate.

JUSTICE MINISTER FRANK Musa Dean insists that the government had no hand in Lonestarcell MTN’s decision but Mr. Costa says, he was told by the cellular company’s management that, the decision to keep him out was a precondition to allow the company back into its facility, which had been cordoned off by the Liberia National Police in a bid it says to probe recent break-ins into Mr. Costa’s station which has been interrupting his broadcast.

THE PRESS UNION OF LIBERIA and several international journalists’ groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have called on the government to end the harassment of Mr. Costa and his station. 

THE PUL, in a statement Monday says it is following the action of the police to deploy armed military police officers at a transmission hub of the Lone Star Cell Communication Corporation which houses the transmitters of Roots FM. “We call on the Liberia National Police to speed up their collection of evidence at the Lone Star Communication Corporation (Lone Star) transmission site on Johnson Street, in Central Monrovia.  

THE PUL NOTES: “The Police have won public confidence for swiftly responding to armed robbery incidents in the immediate past but to only barricade an area on Friday, February 15, 2019, weeks after Roots FM reported the unfortunate attack is worrisome. Our police must take into consideration the corporate interest of one of the country’s largest tax payers, Lone Star Cell and the rights of small-scale business, like Roots FM to operate and succeed in line with the Weah Administration’s Policies.”

THE IRONY OF IT ALL is that the Weah-led government is on the cusp of a landmark achievement with the passage in both houses of the National Legislature of a Bill with modifications, to repeal some sections of the Penal Law of Liberia in an effort to decriminalize free speech and create an unfettered media environment. The Bill submitted May 31, 2018 seeks to amend Chapter 11 of Penal Law of 1978, repealing Sections 11.11 on criminal libel against the President; 11.12 on Sedition and 11.14 on criminal malevolence.

INSULTS ARE NOT uncommon in global politics. In fact, leaders of major superpowers have been fond of insulting each other. 

LAST YEAR, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un called U.S. President Donald Trump “a dotard” and a “frightened dog” after Trump threatened his country during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Trump responded the next morning by calling Kim a “madman” and said he would test him “like never before.” That in turn caused Russian spokesman Sergei Lavrov to call the leaders “hotheads” who needed to “calm down.”

THE LATE BRITISH Labor Party politicians Tony Banks once referred to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the following way: “She behaves with all the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa constrictor.”

JUST LAST WEEK, NOTED Republican commentator Ann Coulter declared after President Trump declared a national emergency over his quest for a wall to keep illegal immigrants out, that ‘The only national emergency is that our president is an idiot’. 

SO, WHILE WE APPLAUD President Weah’s recent acknowledgement that his efforts to decriminalize speech is a proof of his government’s commitment to uphold the constitution, Table Mountain Declaration and other International Treaties relating to the Press and press-related activities, everything that is unfolding now, defeats that.

THE WEAH-LED government must allow Mr. Costa to run his station without intimidation and speak freely without fear or favor in the same vein that former President Sirleaf allow, Mr. Weah and his supporters to rain insults on the former president and her officials.

THIS IS A TEST of Liberia’s bourgeoning democracy. It is not enough that Africa’s oldest republic has had a successful democratic transition which saw one democratically-elected government ushering in another, but that each and every one is allowed an open playing field in the marketplace of ideas and opinions – a haven on which freethinkers can roam and express themselves without looking over their shoulders, and without coming under a rain of insults just for exercising free speech.