Open Letter to Her Honor, Jamesetta Howard Wolokollie, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of Liberia
The leadership of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), the representative body of journalists and media institutions in Liberia extends heartfelt greetings to you and the Full Bench of the Supreme Court of Liberia and the Judiciary Branch of the Government of Liberia.
Since 1964, when the PUL was founded, it remains the corner stone and fulcrum for the protection of journalists, free speech and freedom of expression generally. On the basis of our founding mandate, we are well placed and under instruction from our membership to address any potential or actual threats, be it physical force or comments that have impact on the work of journalists and media workers in and out of Liberia.
Your Honor, your comments of Monday, August 10, 2020 during the opening of the August Term of Court in which you were categorical that journalists were defaming the Judiciary is of concern and has cast aspersion on the work of our members assigned or not assigned at the Judiciary. This is what you said, “This goes to the media people who, for some reason, are going out there defaming the judiciary without any evidence”.
Your Honor, we submit that the allegation and perception of corruption in the judiciary are rampant in the reports of local and international corruption watchdog groups. Before addressing the disturbing implications of your comments, we have had time to gather some of the reports for your information.
In 2018, the US State Department reported that, ‘corruption persisted in the legal system. Some judges, the report indicated ‘accepted bribes to award damages in civil cases’. The graphic details presented the story of how jurists ‘sometimes solicited bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, or acquit defendants in criminal cases’. To put all in a nutshell, the United States Government claimed ‘defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested defendants pay bribes to secure favorable decisions from judges, prosecutors, and jurors, or to have court staff place cases on the docket for trial’. This is the link to the report for your information. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/liberia/
In August 2019, the State Department reported on the suspension of one of the Commercial Court’s Judges, Richard Klah for one year by the Supreme Court. Mr. Klah was found guilty for “gross impropriety and irregularity” for what the Honorable Supreme Court of Liberia adjudged as solicitation of a bribe from a complainant. This case was forwarded to the legislature for impeachment proceeding, but Klah resigned in September 2019 and did not face additional charges.
The report also claimed, “Some judicial officials and prosecutors appeared subject to pressure, and the outcomes of some trials appeared to be predetermined. On July 5, in the midst of a widely publicized corruption and bribery trial, Supreme Court justice Joseph Nagbe visited Criminal Court C during the testimony of the defendant, Senator Varney Sherman, causing Judge Peter Gbeneweleh to pause proceedings while Nagbe and Gbeneweleh held a private meeting in chambers. Justice Nagbe, a former senator, had previously co-chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee with defendant Sherman before being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice by the same committee. Many observers saw Nagbe’s visit as an attempt to influence the decision”, the State Department held .This is the link to the report for your information.https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/liberia/
Your Honor, as you can see, what the media has done and will continue to do is to simply highlight these reports and the coverage in no way represent accusations coming from the media itself. The rules of journalism require that we elevate these local and international reports as a way of calling attention to the vestiges that erode the pure stream of justice and corrode the cornerstone for the rule of law. We hope to help bring to your desk what local and international organizations and foreign governments are saying about the work of the judiciary and how they perceive Liberia`s justice system. Justice Wolokollie, you interestingly disclosed that corruption exist, but at a minimal level in the judiciary in stack contracts to many international reports from respected corruption watchdogs and country setups like the US States Department Annual Report on Human Rights and different Amnesty International works.
These works contributed to by the Media in Liberia are based on factual events involving once respected lawyering colleagues of yours and some are still active; this is no makeup by the journalists whose honorable duty remains the gathering and dissemination of factual news and information for the good of the public.
Madam Justice, to admit that there is corruption in the judiciary is courageous and we are sure it amuses many when being rank as petit. In recognition of this national scourge being in the judiciary, you were economical of the facts on the prevalence rate of corruption in the judiciary. Corruption starts the day with the sheriffs, clerks, magistrates, judges and other judiciary workers and ends even in home service after the close of business day, according to international reports as already cited. There was no point warning judicial workers that the system’s waiting axe may fall on any of them for their transgressions.
The next point we want to address is the far-reaching implication of your comments. If a journalist was sued today for libel, he/she had already been declared guilty because you declare the verdict already. Which other judge would vindicate a journalist accused of libel when one of the chief judges in the Republic already declare a guilty verdict? Your comments did not only impinge the reputation of journalists, they expose them to more libel suits—frivolous with the intent to create fear and impose self-censorship. Your comments were broad and have endangered the reputation of an entire profession with varying outstanding achievements. Specifics are lacking in this generalized comment.
We will appreciate members of the Judiciary taking up issues on situational basis and attaching faces to claims against media practitioners for proper investigation by the National Media Council, a functioning version of self regulatory regime. Recently, the Leadership of the Press Union of Liberia amicably mediatedcomplaint filed against Abraham Godsend Wheon of Truth FM by Criminal Court C Judge Yamie Quiqui Gbeisay. This is the way to correct the wrongs and not the continuation of the faceless comments which have no bearing on institutional building.
The PUL insists that to ignore all acceptable media self -regulatory norms recognized by Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor is an upright intimidation of the media intending to coward well meaning news men and women into self-censorship and undermine democratic tenants.
Charles B. Coffey, Jr.