Liberia: Two Ex-Press Union Leaders Red Flag Violations Against Journalists

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In a joint statement, the two former PUL leaders, Gabriel Williams and Isaac Bantu expressed “grave concern regarding reports that the government of President George Weah is using the State of Emergency declared by the government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic to criminalize free speech and to harass and terrorize peaceful Liberians, especially those regarded to be anti-government.”

Boston, MA –   Two former leaders of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) have expressed alarm about the growing violation of freedom of speech and human rights in Liberia.

The two former leaders are Isaac D.E. Bantu, who served as president of the PUL during the last period of the brutal Samuel Doe regime to the early period of the Liberian civil war, and Mr. Gabriel I.H. Williams, who also served as secretary-general and acting president during the same era, which was also the beginning of Charles Taylor’s reign of terror. During that era, rights activists, journalists, and opposition politicians endured extreme violence and many were killed in the advocacy for free speech and democratic governance.

In a joint statement, the two former PUL leaders expressed “grave concern regarding reports that the government of President George Weah is using the State of Emergency declared by the government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic to criminalize free speech and to harass and terrorize peaceful Liberians, especially those regarded to be anti-government.”

“We recall with trepidation that Solicitor General Cephas’ threat is the latest example of the government’s attempt to muzzle the press since President Weah came to power in 2018. For example, in October 2019, riot police firing tear gas attacked and broke into the offices of Roots FM and seized broadcast equipment because the station was deemed to be critical of Weah’s government.”

According to the statement, an example of the government’s attempt to criminalize free speech is the recent threat by Liberia’s Solicitor General Cyrenius Cephas to shut down, seize equipment, and revoke the operating license of media entities. Mr. Cephas has declared that the government will use the State of Emergency that is in effect to sanction media institutions who may air or publish what he called “fake news.”


We recall with trepidation that Solicitor General Cephas’ threat is the latest example of the government’s attempt to muzzle the press since President Weah came to power in 2018. For example, in October 2019, riot police firing tear gas attacked and broke into the offices of Roots FM and seized broadcast equipment because the station was deemed to be critical of Weah’s government. 


On March 12, 2020, the PUL presented a petition to the government which states: “In recent months, attacks, detention, and brutality meted against media practitioners have become unprecedented with seven journalists being attacked in just two weeks and ten attacked in three months across the country.” Amid the growing wave of anti-press violence, one journalist has already died under questionable circumstances after he reportedly complained of pain in his body after being beaten by officers of the Executive Protection Service (EPS), President Weah’s bodyguards.


One of the latest attempts by the Weah government to suppress dissent is the May 12, 2020 arrest and detention of Mr. Menipakei Dumoe, acting chairman of the Council of Patriots (COP), a young people driven advocacy movement, which held a mass protest against the Weah government early this year for rampant corruption and nonperformance.

According to media reports, Mr. Dumoe was arrested after he posted on his Facebook page: “We don’t need free bags of rice. I say we the poor in Monrovia need AK-47s so our leaders can take us seriously.” The President of the Liberia National Bar Association, Counsellor Tiawan Gongloe, who is legally representing Mr. Dumoe, said his client’s Facebook post was in reaction to the government’s food distribution process and not intended to incite violence as the government has claimed. Cllr. Gongloe, an internationally-respected human rights lawyer, added that Mr. Dumoe was not a member of any of the defunct warring factions and he has no history of involvement in violence.


However, speaking at a press conference in Monrovia, Solicitor General Cephas said Dumoe’s statement was in violation of the prevailing State of Emergency because it “created fear and it is a campaign of terror and misinformation that clearly represents the fake and dangerous news …”  

While we may disagree with Mr. Dumoe’s comments, he has the right to freely express himself under the Liberian Constitution. This is why we strongly condemn the government’s action by using the State of Emergency to arrest and detain the leader of the most vocal advocacy group in Liberia.


The developments cited are clearly an attempt to instill fear in the people and silence them from speaking against the unprecedented scale of incompetence by the Weah government, in which rampant corruption has thrived. Surrounded by a bunch of misfits and a criminal few parading as presidential advisors and confidants, Mr. Weah has proven to the Liberian people that he lacks the competence, integrity, intelligence, and maturity to serve as President of Liberia. After nearly three years in office, it is clear that President Weah is clueless as to what it takes to lead a democratic country, and that is why the Liberian people are suffering more hardship and the country is in rapid decline. 


We wish to also note that the arrest of Dumoe, who was released by Justice Minister Musa Dean after spending two nights in detention, is another glaring examples of the double standard or selective justice under the Weah government.


For example, in 2019, a former rebel general Augustine Nagbe, who hailed from President Weah’s ethnic group and home county, called for the formation of a “Kru Defense Force” as a private militia to protect President Weah. Since the pronouncement by the notorious ex-rebel commander, who goes by the nom de guerre General Power, there has been no report of any action taken against him. The brutal and barbaric General Power, along with other former rebel generals and ex-combatants, have reportedly been integrated into the state security apparatus.

According to media reports, the murderous ex-rebel general has been part of the security forces the government has often deployed to brutally suppress peaceful anti-government protests.


Another blatant example of the government’s selective justice regards the respective cases surrounding COP leader Henry P. Costa, who the government attempted to extradite from Sierra Leone, where he had fled from Liberia, on frivolous allegations of forged travel document. The other is Mr. A. Ndubusi Nwabudike, a Nigerian fraudulently claiming Liberian citizenship, who is known to be a close associate of President Weah. 


On January 6, 2020, the Costa-led COP held a mass protest in Liberia, which succeeded in putting the international community on notice that Liberia is in a state of rapid decline due to corruption and bad governance. After using police brutality to suppress the protest, the Weah government desperately failed to arrest Mr. Costa on frivolous allegations of forged travel document. Following this development, the government suspended the issuance of temporary travel document called Laissez-passer. As a result of the ill-conceived decision by the government to suspend the issuance of Laissez-passer, many Liberians in need of temporary travel document have been denied the benefit.            


Embarrassed by a firestorm of protest and condemnation, President Weah was forced to withdraw the nomination of Mr. Nwabudike as Chairman-designate of the National Elections Commission (NEC) on April 2, 2020. Mr. Weah withdrew Mr. Nwabudike’s nomination after the Nigerian national was found to have fraudulently claimed Liberian citizenship during his Senate confirmation hearing.


Since Mr. Nwabudike’s fraudulent claim to Liberian citizenship was exposed, the Nigerian national continues to serve as Chair of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, one of the major state integrity agencies, where President Weah had appointed him before his nomination to the NEC. 


Mr. Nwabudike’s continued presence in the government is a violation of the Liberian Constitution, which states that only Liberian citizens can occupy the positions that the Nigerian has held in the Weah government. More importantly, the Weah government has taken no action against Mr. Nwabudike for his fraudulent claim to Liberian citizenship. 


Another example of selective justice under the Weah government regards the apparent criminal involvement of Solicitor General Cephas in the dropping of charges against Ms. Ellen Corckrum, the fugitive former Managing Director of the Liberia Airport Authority (LAA). Prior to his appointment as Solicitor General, Mr. Cephas was the lawyer for Ms. Corckrum, who absconded Liberia and was facing extradition from the United States on charges of economic sabotage, criminal facilitation, conspiracy to defraud the government, and making unauthorized transfer of funds from government accounts.


Upon becoming Solicitor General, Mr. Cephas used his position to have the government drop the charges against Ms. Corckrum in December 2019 without the knowledge of Justice Minister Musa Dean. After Mr. Cephas’ illegal action was exposed, Justice Minister Dean said he was not aware that the government had dropped charges against Ms. Corckrum, and he ordered the LACC to reopen the case.


A left-over from Charles Taylor’s murderous National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel group, Mr. Cephas has become a law unto himself at the Ministry of Justice. Besides his reckless pronouncements and illegal actions, Mr. Cephas has also been at war with Justice Minister Dean since he became Solicitor General, usurping the functions of the Attorney General, and running a parallel Justice Ministry, an opportunity he has exploited to engage in dishonorable and criminal activities. 


We call on the loud-mouth Solicitor General Cephas, who has demonstrated to be rebel-oriented, to desist from using the State of Emergency to suppress dissent to cover up the Weah government’s colossal failure in fulfilling its promises to the Liberian people that their lives would improve under a Weah presidency.


This is to also renew our call to President Weah to reconstitute the committee he set up in March 2020 to probe the petition the PUL presented to the government regarding allegations of harassment and violence meted out against journalists. In a joint statement in April, we called on President Weah to replace Dr. Laurence K. Bropleh, former Minister of Information, as head of the investigation committee, because Dr. Bropleh currently serves as Special Envoy and Advisor to President Weah.  We also noted that Rev. Dr. Bropleh lacks the integrity to head the committee because he arbitrarily shut down the Independent newspaper in 2007 during his tenure as Minister of Information, and that he was forced to resign in 2010 as Minister of Information and forwarded to court for prosecution for alleged economic crimes against the state during the administration of President Sirleaf.


We also call on Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Nagbe to desist from using his position to harass FrontPageAfrica editor Rodney Sieh for reporting a traffic violation by Justice Nagbe’s official vehicle. Associate Justice Nagbe is not above the law. He is expected to uphold the rule of law. We affirm our support to Mr. Sieh and all journalists in Liberia to exercise their responsibilities without fear of retribution from government functionaries like Nagbe and Cephas. The rule of the jungle must stop.     

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