Liberia: Is Weah Gov’t Adopting Subtle Means To Crackdown On Dissent, Free Speech?

Cllr. Cephus is the Solicitor General-designate of the republic of Liberia

Monrovia – Liberia’s Solicitor General-designate has threatened to “go after” individuals who make accusation aganist government officials, saying there’s a distinction between “free speech and free lies”.

Report By: Alpha Daffae Senkpeni / [email protected]

Cllr. Sayman Syranna Cephus ardently defended his comments when he appeared on OK FM on Monday morning, telling the talk show hosts that the government wants to “decriminalize” public offices by using the courts to deter derogatory comments.

Cephus, who is yet to be confirmed by the Liberian Senate, comments seem to be buttressing President Geroge Weah who recently sent out a caveat to Liberians against “insulting the president”.

Pres. Weah’s Warning

“I want to be clear, we will not tolerate those kinds of citizens,” the President Weah on June 6 in Paynesville City.

“Those that [are] constantly insulting the President, I want to be clear; after this, there will be no citizens in this country, I can defy you that will ever insult the President and think you will walk on the streets freely.”

The President’s comment is still drawing ire as many have slammed him for circumventing his own push for press freedom by decriminalizing free speech in 2018.

One legal expert expressed concern about the lawful means the President will employ to “go after” people “insulting” him considering that he’s immune from prosecution and attempting to sue anyone would mean he will be relinquishing such immunity to go under the jurisdiction of the court.

“I still need to understand how the President will deal with people who insult him. As much as it’s wrong, how will a President go after people who insult him in a democracy like ours,” said one lawyer, who asked for anonymity.

“We have a law that has now decriminalized speech, so it makes it complicated for the president to sue anyone for defamation.”

Others are afraid that the government may embark on illegal arrests to silence critical voices or people who “insult” the President.

But Cllr. Cephus says there will be “no arbitrary arrest”, rather “arrests will be based on probable cause and if we go to court whatever the outcome, we’ll accept it.”

He told OK FM that critics who make allegations against government officals will have to prove it.

Said Cllr. Cephus: “If you say Jallah Grayfield [is a] rogue and Jallah Grayfield brings the complaint to us; you are going to bring the evidence to us aganist Jallah Grayfield – we have to decriminalize public service.”

When quizzed about the government undermining the tenets of free speech, Cephus replied: “If you accused another Liberian, public official of being a rogue or looting state’s funds then it means that the person is not qualified to be in public service, then it means the government cannot condone and shelter someone who the public has evidence against for being a criminal – so then the burden of proof shifts on you to proof it.”  

Undercutting ‘Democratic Values’

Meanwhile, the Press Union of Liberia has blasted the government, calling on it to “end emotional reactions to situations involving civil liberties”.

“These kinds of pronouncements and subsequent interpretation by a state lawyer who vowed that journalists and ordinary citizens accusing officials of the government of being corrupt will be taken to court on the first instance undercuts democratic values Liberia has earned of late,” the PUL said in a statement exclusively to FrontPageAfrica on Monday.

The Union statement, signed by its Secretary-General Daniel Nyakonah, also stresses that “public officials of the Solicitor General’s paygrade are qualified to understand the doctrine of right to reply as provided by Liberian Law in the absence of court hearing and orders.”

If the governance of Liberia will be dramatically reversed, the Journalism Community in Liberia led by the Press Union and all organizations locally and internationally in its network will proportionately respond through the courts to safeguard the role of media, the PUL adds.

‘Delibrate Attack On Free Speech’

At the same time, the Union says it is “shocking that the CDC-led government would opt to block internet platforms during a peaceful & lawful citizens’ assembly in contrast to its professed commitment to free expression”.

To uprightly restrict access to the internet for whatever reasons especially during a peaceful protest on June 7 was a deliberate attacked on free expression and access to information, the Union says.    

The umbrella body says access to the Internet is intertwined with the right to the freedom of the press and speech which are at the fulcrum of the universal free expression campaign led by the United Nations and other international organizations.

Only authoritarian regimes are found of blocking and restricting access to the internet especially amidst mass citizens action or petition of their government, the PUL notes.

The PUL says it is appalling that the Weah led government is fast following the path of North Korea, Iran, Egypt and other notorious regimes to limit the use of the internet as a rallying point for criticism of its governance.

‘Prosecuting’ SUP Leadership

Meanwhile, the incoming Solicitor General hinted at prosecuting leaders of the University of Liberia-based Student Unity Party, stressing that they will be responsible for the actions of individuals who are accused of injuring a police officer.

“The SUP is a student party, it’s a campus-based political party, it’s not a national political party,” Cllr. Cephus said while promising to determine the legal status of SUP in the coming days.

“If it is established that the leadership that brought them on the street knew or had reason to know that these people were not students and brought them onto the streets that will be one of the reasons why the leadership will be held liable.”