Press Freedom And The Liberian Supreme Court

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II

I recently researched cases  which the Liberian Supreme Court had decided on regarding press freedom.  The just passed decision of the court resulting in the closure of FrontPage Africa newspaper and the imprisonment of its editor and publisher Rodney Sieh prompted the study. My major finding is that on almost all of the cases, the court ruled against press freedom or freedom of speech. In the 1861 landmark case Dennis v. Bowser, the court overturned the lower court verdict, which had favored the plaintiff.

Dennis sued Bowser for defamation of character. The high court ruled that words are not actionable per se, cannot support action for without proof of damage, special or general. The court also argued that the right to free speech, whether spoken, written or printed on any subject, is a constitutional right which all may fairly exercise, but not of malicious motive, for there is a consequence for the abuse of such right.  (Dennis v. Bowser, 1861) While the high court’s ruling remarkably confirmed the constitutionality of freedom of speech and press, the court has made a 350 degree turn in subsequent rulings concerning press freedom/free speech, as noted also by the Media Rights Agenda, a legal analyst group.

In Sie et al v. the Republic of Liberia, the court confirmed the ruling of the circuit court, which denied appellant’s right to register and probate its political party, and the right to write, publish and hold meetings in matter concerning the party and the coming election.  Thorgues Sie, a Kru, educated in the United States left his family behind and returned to Liberia purposely to help the presidential campaign of DidhoTwe in the 1951 elections.   Twe and his supporters founded the United People Party to contest the elections but they were denied registration and probate of their party. The election commissioner was said and made to have left Monrovia in order not to enable registration of the party. As the registration deadline expired, the government further charged key members of the party with sedition.  The government maintained that the party wrote President Tubman, the United Nations, and respective government of United States and Great Britain and thus invited foreign entities into Liberia domestic affairs.

Certainly appellant wrote the president and sent out copies to and wrote the  UN, US and the Britain governments only to call attention to the gravity of the issue. Indeed the president was the commander in chief of the country, Liberia was a signature to the UN charter and US, in particular, was responsible for creation of the Liberian nation. (D. Twe, 1952, “Liberia: an American Responsibility”)

In appellant’s letter, Twe reminded Tubman of Twe’s position against slave trade and forced labor in 1929 but was accused of sedition and expelled from Congress.   He wrote. “In 1929 I took a position in the national legislature against slavery and forced labor and introduced a bill which would have saved Liberia from international disgrace if it had passed into law. But the vision of my colleagues was very short and they could not see into the future as far I could. I was consequently branded with the unfounded charge of sedition and expelled from the legislature. But in 1930 the inevitable happened and the whole of that administration was pronounced guilty of slave trading and forced labor”.  (Thorgues Sie et al v. RL, 1954)

Twe went on to give his famous remark. “May I emphasize that my nomination to the presidency at this time does not grow out of any selfish desire or effort on my part but is truly providential. I wish to repeat here, as I did in 1930, that presently I am in a better position to save Liberia than you are able to realize now, and if you know what I know and see what I am seeing, you will without any hesitation give me full justice and fair play in the issue now at bar instead of refusing to extend the time of the election and exclude my name from the ballot on pretext that I am late to register”. (Ibid, 1954)

The court decided that appellant’s letter to the president was disrespectful or defamatory to the president and copies and subsequent letters to the UN and the two countries were intended to invite foreign nations to interfere in Liberia sovereignty and domestic affairs. This act, including appellant writing, publishing and printing of its complaint publically was seditious, malicious and unlawful. Not only were the accused party members jailed and their properties confiscated, the Supreme Court suspended their lawyer, Councilor Brownell, from practicing law in Liberia.

Twe was forced to leave the country and exiled in Sierra Leone. “The party died”. (D. Nyanfore, 1973) Tuan Wreh, a reporter of the Independent newspaper was arrested and jailed for critical reporting on the ruling government. The paper was the voice of the opposition party, the Independent True Whig Party, a broke away group from the ruling True Whig Party.  The new party nominated former president Edwin Barclay as its standard bearer for the 1955 presidential election against Tubman. But before elections day, some leaders of the opposition party were jailed for what was viewed as a faked plot or a false attempted coup targeted to arrest the leaders.  The jailed members included Bill Horace, legal advisor of the party. Also, the paper’s editor, Bertha Corbin, an American who had naturalized as a Liberian, was denaturalized and deported back to the US.  (Tuan Wreh, 1976, “The Love of Liberty”)

It is interesting to note that the court reacted negatively to Counselor C. Abayomi Cassell, former Attorney General, when he presented a paper at an international conference of jurists in Lagos, Nigeria in 1961. The paper was critical of the Liberian judiciary. Copies of the presentation were made public.   Honorable Dash Wilson, then Liberian Supreme Court Chief Justice, also attended the conference.  Upon their return to Liberia, the court charged the counselor with contempt, because the court felt that his speech embarrassed and disrespected the Chief Justice and degraded the Supreme Court, and such act “therefore constituted contempt”. The court disbarred him from practicing law in the country.  (In re: C. Abayomi Cassell, 1961)

Also interestingly, Counselor Cassell served as Attorney General in 1951 when he prosecuted Twe, Sie and others for sedition when UPP complained to international entities.  (Ibid, 1961) The court however did not charge Cassell with sedition, though accordingly, he brought Liberian domestic matter to international attention.   Moreover, prior to his hearing before the court, the charges against him were published in the Liberian Age. But the paper and its editor or publisher were not sanctioned by the court. The reason was simple: the paper was owned by a True Whig Party boss and was a mouthpiece of the government. To show the contradiction, Counselor Cassell brought with him the paper and read the charges at the hearing.  In a similar instance, the state did not bring sedition charge on Thomas Faulkner, a former presidential candidate, when he in 1930 exposed the King Administration to the League of Nations and to the US government of slave trade in Liberia. But doing so would have back fired as Liberia was under international investigation for slave trade. In Tolbert v. Porte, the court affirmed the ruling of the circuit court, finding the appellant guilty of libel.  Stephen Tolbert, then Minister of Finance, sued Albert Porte in 1975 for deformation of character for appellant’s publication entitled “Liberianization or Gobbling Business “.  The paper alleged that the minister was using his political position for personal business benefits. Tolbert, owner of major businesses in Liberia, was brother of Liberian President William Tolbert and also son in-law of James A.A. Pierre, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.   The court decided that the right of free speech and press freedom guaranteed by the constitution is not an absolute right in all circumstances.  The court then found the appellant liable and upheld the $250,000 damage.  Porte could not pay or refused to pay. (Tolbert v. Porte, 1975) But he vowed to stay and die in jail.

Here the court was dealing with an established advocate. Porte, born of a Barbadian parentage, was a known critic of the Tubman and Tolbert respective government.  Most of the Barbadian immigrants had come to Liberia and settled in Crozierville, and it appeared that many had engaged in journalism as a profession.  (Carl Patrick Burrowes, 2004).  Porte was editor of the Crozierville Observer and the Enlightener newspapers. He graduated from Cuttington College and had written several pamphlets criticizing government policies and behaviors.

During the court proceeding, appellant was charged with making written comments and distributing them publically. These comments were reported in the Revelation newspaper with an editorial article titled “Speaking Out”.  The paper was created by university students in answer to President Tolbert’s call for citizens “total involvement for higher height” in his presidency.  The president considered youths his precious jewels and encouraged them to speak up on issues.  The court responded to the newspaper’s reports and found the editors in violation, charging them to pay as followed:  “Neville A. Best, $5,000; Vittorio A. Jesus Weeks, $4000; Willard Russell, $4,000; Ernest Cassell, $4,000”. Carl Patrick Burrowes, an editor, was not charged because he left Liberia before the hearing for the US.  (In re: Albert Porte, 1975)  The court argued and ruled that even though the public has the right to know of judicial proceedings, it does not have the right “to attempt by wanton deformation to prejudice the rights of litigants” in a pending case or the right to down grade the court or the administration of justice.  (Ibid, 1975) Failure to pay, the government jailed the editors.

Unlike Sie et al, Albert Porte and the Revelation editors were not jailed for long or Porte did not really go to prison, in part because of public pressure:  the editors were children of the elites. Their parents and other supporters demonstrated demanding release of the editors.  COLIDAP (Citizens of Liberia in Defense of Albert Porte) was recreated advocating for Porte.  Though this advocacy died down when the case was dismissed upon the accidental death of the plaintiff, it set the stage for progressive sensitization and a popular movement for justice during the Tolbert administration. Regarding the recent case resulting in the closure of FrontPage Africa newspaper and the imprisonment of its editor-publisher Rodney Sieh, it seemed that the court would not have ruled differently. The paper had written in the past critical of the court. Moreover, Sieh had gone to prison before but was released, thanks to the intervention of President Sirleaf. The president may have feared that having Sieh in jailed would amount to having a political prisoner in her first administration. Certainly having a good relation with the press in an election year for a second term would be helpful and useful.  That appeared to have worked.

The court apparently saw Toe v. FrontPage Africa, a private case, an opportunity to punish the paper and its editor for what the justice considered an act previously committed by the paper to “degrade the tribunal”.

Concluding Aanalysis

As the research indicates, the court ruled against press freedom and free speech, particularly in matters involving international attention.  Though the court recognizes the constitutionality of free speech and press freedom, it seems to believe that denial of this right and the subsequent criticism should be a domestic affair or an in house matter. Consequently, it views citizens who bring international attention to this denial to be seditious, disrespectful and unpatriotic.  This behavior or “fear” has a historical base — Major policy changes, specifically native rights, equal right, labor right, and voting right, all have come about in the past in Liberia as results of international criticism and pressure.  As a consequence, the government takes seriously its international image and wants the world to view it positively.   However, while the court has not supported the right of the press and free speech in general, further reviews reveal that on many other cases the court has ruled fairly. These cases include Harmon et al v. RL, 1924, Nat’l African First Pentecostal Church v. Davies et al, 2009, and MPC et al v. NEC et al, 2011, and many more.

With fair and just ruling in other cases, the court needs to see free press / freedom of speech as allied for democracy and justice and not as enemy for the degradation of the institution and individuals. A free society with free press is a healthy environment, where there is no fear to inform and educate. Professional journalism informs and serves as a watchdog for good governance.  It compliments good behaviors and exposes bad ones without fear and intimidation. That means, it “tells it like it is”.  In the fight against corruption and nepotism, free press is a foot soldier not for malice, but with good intention and for the good of the society. But the government, the administrative and the legislative arms, must make good laws and seriously implement them without impunity.

For instance, and back to the present case, Dr. Chris Toe maintains that he was not charged of corruption, though GAC reported the existence of corruption and though he was forced to resign. But the administration failed to institute persecution. Moreover, the minister did not appear to have proofed his damage. As stated, “Words are not actionable per se, cannot support action for without proof of damage”. (Dennis v. Browser). Also, under what basis was the damage amount determined and what was it higher than that of Stephen Tolbert, when both ministers sued for deformation of character? The court awarded Chris Toe $1.5 million.  As John Morlu, former GAC director, said, what did not Chris Toe sue GAC? The agency wrote the audit report and FrontPage Africa, a newspaper, reported the findings.

The present administration, to this writer’s best knowledge, has taken no persecutory action on government officials, except Bropleh, charged with corruption.  Yet it has identified and proclaimed corruption as its number one enemy for over seven years.   Fighting corruption means taking action against corruption, otherwise, saying it means nothing!

Pic: Liberia’s Temple of Justice, home to the Supreme Court

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