Liberia’s Archaic Sedition, Criminal Libel Laws in Spotlight

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Monrovia – Despite being a signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration, Liberia has struggled in the past years to get some age-old laws off the books.

“When we signed the Table Mountain Declaration in 2012, it was and still in the interest of repealing the sedition and criminal libel laws that serves as an intermediate for the journalism craft and free speech in the country-since 2012, it has taken too long, but we want to urge the PUL that rather criticizing you should join us in this process in getting it done” – President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

In recent years, critics have taken the Sirleaf administration to task for invoking “age-old” Sedition and Criminal Libel laws as a means of punishing outrageous and reckless speech.

“Provisions of these laws have no place in our democracy,” opposition politician Charles Walker Brumskine of the Liberty Party said recently.

“We must now erect a legislative check point to ensure that we do not once again creep into prosecution of speech simply because the government does not like it,” the LP stated.

The laws have been on the books as far back as the 1900s, when governments used charges of sedition as a draconian weapon against political figures seen as threat to their rule.

Several international organizations including Human Rights Watch have taken the Liberian government to task for failing to revise its libel laws because they do not meet international standards for freedom of expression and the media.

While appealing for the release of FrontPageAfrica editor Rodney Sieh, in 2013, both HRW and Global Witness in letter President Sirleaf, urged President Sirleaf to press for the reform of libel laws and procedure to prevent excessive judgments and restrictions on appeals from undermining free speech rights.

The FPA Editor was jailed because he could not pay a US$1.5 million civil libel judgment.

The judgment arose from a lawsuit brought in 2010 by a former government minister, Dr. J. Chris Toe, against the newspaper and Sieh for allegedly falsely linking Toe to corruption scandals. The Supreme Court dismissed Sieh’s appeal because he failed to post a huge bond required by Liberian law to file an appeal.  

“Politicians shouldn’t be able to squelch press freedom with big-ticket lawsuits against the media,” Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said at the time.”

“Liberia’s libel laws should be changed to limit civil suits by public officials and to make sure any damage awards are no more than the actual harm caused.”

The watchdogs groups wrote: “Liberia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides for the right to freedom of expression.

he United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the treaty, has stated that imprisonment is not an appropriate penalty for defamation.

By allowing awards in defamation cases that are far beyond the ability of most Liberian newspapers to pay – and mandating imprisonment for non-payment – Liberian law makes imprisonment the likely outcome of many defamation cases, which creates a serious chilling effect on journalism.

In any case, imprisonment for non-payment of a court-ordered debt, while permitted under Liberian law, should only be used as a last resort and for as short a period as possible.”

Liberia’s civil procedure law provides no cap on the period that a civil defendant can be imprisoned.

It states that a defendant can be imprisoned for “a period sufficiently long to liquidate the full amount of the judgment, interest, and costs at the rate of twenty-five dollars per month.”

At that rate it would have taken 5,000 years in prison for Sieh to pay off the US$1.5 million judgment.

Table Mountain Recollection

The Liberian President joined the Press Union of Liberia in opening a Two-Day “Media Law and Regulatory Reform Stakeholders’ Conference in Monrovia and reminded those in attendance of her pledge made as evident in her signing of the Table Mountain Declaration, the party maintains she must keep her promise to repeal those provisions of the law that have the propensity to trample on free expression.

The conference held at the PA Ribhouse Restaurant in Monrovia is organized by the Press Union of Liberia in partnership with Internews (Liberia Media Development Program), Albany Associates of the UK and Accountability Lab.

It is aimed at leading the media law and regulatory reform agenda of a democratically transitioning nation.

President Sirleaf defended her administration’s record, emphasizing that it has made significant contributions to the administration of media respect and sustainability, citing the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act of 2010 – for which she was honoured as “Friend of the Media” by the Africa Editors’ Forum.

The President said Liberia is noted for making history and currently holds an enviable record as the first country in West Africa to have made the FOI accomplishment.

Said Sirleaf: “Our political tolerance is manifested by allowing freedom of speech as a fundamental civil liberty and sine qua none of democratic value system, and as such never before have we seen the multiplicity of newspapers and proliferation of radio stations (some of which have violated our laws by continuing to be unregistered and non-tax compliant, some in the promotion of politics rather than journalism)”.

The President also red flagged the lack of regulation of media institutions, declaring: “What does our country seek to benefit when the watchdogs watching over society remain unregulated”?

If we must progress, “The media must first be accountable in as much as they demand accountability”.

The President recalled that when the Table Mountain Declaration was signed in 2012, it was and still is with the interest to repeal the sedition laws and criminal libel laws.  

This has taken some time with the full involvement of some civil society organizations.  Let me commit to you that this matter will be brought to closure within 60 days”.

Foster Reconciliation, Media Urged

Added Sirleaf: “As we progress along the course of our democratic and recovery paths, we urge the media to act in recognition of the power you have in shaping minds and changing attitudes, shaping public opinion – mobilizing communities for community development – fostering reconciliation, building and helping to sustain the peace”.

The President said a constructive media, while reserving the right to independence and the role of a watchdog, can promote or destroy the environment for private investment and the economic growth, which results with benefits to all including the media”.

The Liberian leader noted that her government fully subscribes to and offers its partnership to this reform agenda, which has an objective that places emphasis on equipping and empowering the local media, saying, not just for sustainability of media house but equipping them with the tools, skills and values that will make journalists place country above self.

The President said as the PUL and its partners embark upon strengthening these legal enormity goals for a more-free media, the onus is upon the media to tell the truth and curb deliberate ethical transgression that are now common in the Liberian society.

The President also took aim at media houses who have refused to register while others are not even paying their taxes while accusing some journalists of promoting politics rather that journalism, which is the crux of their craft.

“When we signed the Table Mountain Declaration in 2012, it was and still in the interest of repealing the sedition and criminal libel laws that serves as an intermediate for the journalism craft and free speech in the country-since 2012, it has taken too long, but we want to urge the PUL that rather than criticizing us, you should join us in this process in getting it done,” she noted.

The President stated further that her government will ensure the passage laws before the legislature:

“We should ensure that whatever is at the Legislature is passed and we appeal to our lawmakers to assist us in this endeavour. We also want to call on the Civil Society Organizations to join us to make this come to pass.”

The Liberian leader said one of the things that needs to be done is the establishment of a regulatory body, that will ensure that the values and principles of good journalism are adhered to and respected.

The President noted that many of Liberia’s sister countries and other African countries have subscribed to the same best international standards, declaring that Liberia must do likewise.

Reduce Workshops, Help Struggling Media

Senator, J Milton Teahjay (Unity Party, Sinoe) for his part took international partners to task and urge them to reduce media workshops in Liberia and focus more on supporting media houses.

Senator Teahjay who is the senate chair on broadcast, called on international media institution partners to provide support to media houses in order to enable them provide increase sustainable media in the country.

The Senator lamented that media institutions are suffering and in need of support from other partners to strengthen them in providing the information to the public.

“International media groups should turn in support to the media institution because for so long media institutions have been suffering and are still going through. Let’s reduce the too much of workshops and shift support to them for a better press freedom.”

The lawmaker described the media regulatory reform law as a huge process but at the right time to regulate free and fair press freedom in Liberia.

Mr. Henri-Paul Bolap, Chief of Party of Internews said his organization was proud to support the Liberian media and respectable media around the world to enjoy access to quality information.

He explained that in order for Media Reform Law to be successfully implemented, the media law needs to be committed through the Press Union of Liberia (PUL).

He promised that media institutions would work with PUL in working to repeal the regulatory laws on the book.

Underscoring Sustainability

President acknowledged the world-wide experience of Internews with a view to empowering media in more than 90 countries – thereby counting on such leverage to assist the local media become more accountable, responsible and professional in their service to our country.

The Liberian leader said her administration fully subscribes to and is committed to offering government’s partnership in the reform agenda; the objective that places emphasis on equipping and empowering the local media not just for sustainability of media houses but equipping them with the tools and skills that will enable them to place country above self.

She observed that when we ensure or underscore sustainability it calls for quality in news gathering and packaging for a news-hungry population.

She challenged the organizers that: “As you embark on strengthening both the legal and normative means to achieving an enabling environment for a freer media – the onus is on all and sundry to enjoin media practitioners on the need to curb deliberate ethical transgressions, which have become commonplace – thus eroding the foundation of freedom of speech and the press”.

Report by Edwin Genoway, Jr.,  [email protected]

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