Liberia’s Media, And Gross Libel Claims

 

By Abdullai K. Kamara

The past month has been very rowdy for the media landscape in Liberia.  At a hearing of the Media Complaints Committee, claims were made about media targeting specific public officials; media accusing public functionaries of engaging in campaigns to discredit them, deny them of public adverts, and conspiring to eliminate them  or destroy their enterprises.

On the eve of reaching a position on one of such matters, we encountered the enforcement of a court decision that effectively sends Rodney Sieh, the publisher of FrontPage Africa, to prison for 5,000 years – a period exceeding the modern era. This is given the fact that Sieh or Frontpage as an institution may not be in the position to pay a fine of such magnitude. That is aside from Sieh’s gut feeling that the fine is grossly unfair.

 

Two nights into prison, court officials sealed off the offices of FrontPage Africa. Ahead of the closure, a radio program that had taken to discussing this FrontPage matter at another level was effectively taken off the air and the producer barred from the station’s premises (restored after 2 days).  All of these actions coming within a few lousy hours show a deep dive unto the platform of disregard for dissent, abuse of free expression and a general deterioration of our democratic space.

How the media and the society at large in Liberia see this, how they respond to it, and how far they go in sustaining this aggression will show the strength of the media and civil society, and how the world will see the democracy of Liberia’s so-called peace years.

Already, there have been claims from the government that they have nothing to do with the Sieh case, as it is a judicial matter. But this is certainly not the case, as the reportage related to government functions, and the government is effectively administering court rulings. In addition, the entire case relates to Toe’s stewardship as an official of government, and key attributes of the case are so government related that attempting to get the government out is playing ostrich.

Aside from what anyone thinks, the following issues – which obviously do not speak favorably to a free press or an enabling democratic regime – come to the fore. In other words, these actions point to a strong intolerance of dissent and criticism, and an increasing effort to limit the space for public discourses that might effectively indicate a divergence of viewpoints.

Imprisoning Rodney in lieu of the fine and following that with the closure of the Frontpage Africa is the imposition of double jeopardy, which is not only wrong and against the law (Article 21 h – Constitution, 1986), but also qualifies as a human right abuse – a cruel and unusual punishment;

Ahead of this, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a fine of $1.5m, without ascertaining the value of the paper and or the private capacity of the owners, effectively evolves into a case of excessive fines, as opposed to the constitution and laws of Liberia(Article 21 D – Liberian Constitution 1986).

Imprisoning Sieh for a media offense is contrary to public policy, given that the President of the Republic has publicly signed unto the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls for depenalization of press offenses. The bad public relations points to the lack of coordination among the branches of government – i.e. – the executive enters an arrangements and does not seek the support of other branches. Furthermore, this is a failure to follow up an international obligation, which is effectively a failure of foreign policy;

More crucially, as Rodney Sieh is firm in his belief of the illegality of the impositions, he is also determined (and rightly so) not to cooperate with this unfair action. In this vein, he is poised to spend 5,000 years in prison. This is an undisputed world record. This an effective life sentence for committing no crime, and there is a likelihood that there may not be any feature called Liberia by the time this sentence ends.

 

The appeal process in the Supreme Court requires a bond of 10% of the claim, a massive US$150,000, which is itself excessive in Liberia, and drives people away from pursuing further judicial action. If people do not have confidence in the judiciary, thinks of what happens – they undermine it

But most importantly than all of the legal issues is the contribution of this particular matter to undermining the government’s efforts to fight graft. Jailing Rodney and closing FPA, raised ripples that kept Henry Costa off air at Hott FM for 2 days, and sent a strong (rather frightening) signal that there is NO accommodation for exposing corruption. Reporters and Publishers, who do not see confrontation as the way forward will SHUN any story about corruption which doesn’t originate from the government.

Like someone said recently, the longer a regime lasts, the more repressive it becomes. As was in the final days of the Taylor reign, all of the surviving media will sooner or later become extensions of the New Liberia – adding to the failings of democracy in Liberia.

As a matter of fact, FPA has been the one paper that has led reportage on the majority of independently raised corruption/conflict of interest/moral probity probes in Liberia since 2006. There has been no corruption case or issue pursued by this government or not without a prior report and/or detailed follow-up by FrontPage Africa.

Knucklesgate

-RIA-Cockrum

Kilby Qualification/Conflict of Interest

– LTA allocations & Expenditures

– PUP Saga

– Faulty Declaration of Assets

-Various GAC Audit Reports

– Reviews of Concessions

– Follow up on Sector Reports

– Background checks on Public Officials/Stewart at Maritime

Regardless of the outcome of some of these articles, they were not even reported in most other papers/media, and Frontpage provided greater uncensored space for public feedbacks. One needs not go far to arrive at the conclusion that Sieh is most likely being held for his advocacy role and his passion in pursuing corruption. By all accounts, even if we have to accept the government’s claims that it cannot interfere in the case of a judicial action – this government must show its belief in the fight against corruption by stating its respect for Front Page Africa’s contributions to the fight against corruption – even in the given case involving Chris Toe.

In addition, the paper has proven over and again that it is among the best in Liberia. That several of the paper’s reporters have been – on one occasion or another – recognized for national or international awards for excellence in journalism is reason for which exceptional caution must be taken in dealing with any issue involving them.

Emerging Issues

I am not sure that either Chris Toe or the Government of Liberia has benefited from the widespread publicity and backlash, both locally and internationally, about the imprisonment of an anti-corruption crusader for failing to pay an impossible libel fine. This is in addition to the fact that little has been done to allay public disapprobation and disappointment in the level of corruption – claimed or proven – in the given case or the government at large.

When President Sirleaf felt that the Legislature was doing little to support the passage of the code of conduct, she announced further executive action to ensure that Executive Branch personnel adhere to this measure. In a serious case, the President simply needs to demand that members of her cabinet and others serving at her will and pleasure act accordingly or risk their service.

In the given case, while there has somehow been a conclusion of the judicial process, the government however needs to stress its commitment to the fight against corruption, and indicate its position on the cases involving Mr. Chris Toe at the Ministry of Agriculture. This will say one thing or another to the public about whether Sieh and the Frontpage were simply running mischief or whether there was an instance of suspicion on the part of Toe that needed to be brought to check. This will confirm the government’s position on any side of the divide and drive people into taking the position that is clear.

But the argument of a judicial process cannot be all in itself as there are various instances in Liberian history, where the judicial process has been used to strangulate a free society. There is clear recollection that when Charles Taylor held journalists or civil society actors, the cases were also sent to court. Reference can be made to the case against the reporters from The NEWS Newspaper, the British TV2 and Sarious Samura, the case with Hassan Bility, James Torh, among others. By this reminder, we like to note that we are aware that judicial processes can be used (rather abused) to provide legitimacy to clamp down on fundamental rights.

In this case, the proceedings and the results have also come forth with a new round of concerns. There must be laws – new or revised – that will guarantee citizens the opportunity to pursue rights provided under our constitution and international conventions. This has to be a multi-prong assault on a flawed system, and can best work with the full participation of the legislature, which also has a significant role in ensuring that democracy works in Liberia.

As a friend notes, the “legislature has to be pressured to amend portions of the law to make it difficult for such travesties to happen.”  Though the Supreme Court did not consider FPA’s appeal because “it was not perfected in keeping with judicial procedures,” it all the same recognized that the appeal process and costs bar the effective provision of justice for the poor and less fortunate.

In addition, the legislature must also act to define a new collective approach to libel/slander issues in the country. This must be a citizen propelled action, pressuring the legislature to have a text that would not subjugate concerns about reporting corruption and other missteps by public officials for fear that they would bear the wrath of a libel suit. On the contrary, the new legislation should provide inspiration for civil society actors and journalists to follow leads in corruption and public missteps and ensure that public officials account for their conduct and stewardship.

New legislations should be clear about when a jury is needed in a trial, so as not to permit pedestrians to make decisions regarding issues of law, when facts in particular cases are not disputed.

The issue of Justice Banks presiding over a case where his sister and brother-in-law are counsels, sprouts a deep concern about conflict of interest, and strengthens a reminder about the passage of a law that should define conflict of interest. While we are not especially happy with the delays in the passage of the law, due to various political interpretations, I again insist that Madam President has the wherewithal to define and enforce conflict of interest within her realm. Similarly, the non-political branch of government – the Judiciary – can more easily define conflict of interest within its ranks and enforce it. In a case like this, we already have 2 against one in the fight to ensure a code of conduct. By such reckoning, Justice Banks will not have to worry about people bringing his integrity into disrepute – he would already be defined by practice to stay away from certain cases.

Fear of Libel

The growing list and expected claims of libel suits by senior government officials and related actors show the desperation with which they want to silence those drawing attention to corruption:

National Chronicle – $5m – pending

The Monitor– $1m  – Executive Protection Service– pending

The Independent– $5m  – Former Senator– pending

The Independent – unspecified – President’s son – pending

FrontPage Africa– $1.5m – Matilda Parker (National Port Authority)-pending

New  Broom– $5m – President Sirleaf- awarded/ paper off the market

FrontPage Africa– Chris Toe(former Minister)- $1.5m awarded/Paper closed/ Editor Imprisoned

New Democrat– $900G – concerned  awarded/settled out

With nearly $20million in the offing for libel against journalists – nearly all reporting corruption – the two possibilities include gagging reportage on corruption and or closing down any newspaper that dares run that route. Whichever way paints a bleak picture of life, democracy and governance in Liberia. An apology from Rodney to close this chapter, as is being proposed in some quarters – and even acknowledged by Dr. Toe – will simply open a gang run, wherein the time of media people will be wasted, and apologies demanded. On the other hand, as neither Rodney nor Frontpage Africa has the capacity to make this size of payment, he now remains in jail for the non-payment of debt by a monthly calculation of $25. This calculates to 5000 years – effectively a life time, for having committed no crime.

Fighting Corruption?

Given the cost that corruption has left on Liberia, both in terms of dollar value, political strife and socio-economic conditions, there should not be any circumstance to allow reasonable suspicion of graft go un-investigated, and without punitive action. Anything of the sort leaves the future of Liberia quite uncertain.

The President has pledged the public declaration of her assets, but FrontPage Africa is still going to court for reporting faulty representations in asset declarations, and the relevant official is most comfortable at work. All of these have come forth in the face of recent and damning international reports that have said the following:

Liberia among most corrupt countries in the world – Transparency International – 2013

Police is at the heart of corruption – Human Rights Watch – 2013

Liberia Press Freedom Record – Freedom House– 2013

So, how can we disagree with these positions when issues like the Rodney Sieh case continue to unfold? We insist that we do not want to cause the wrong precedent of apologizing against our beliefs. There have been several instances where people are held on vague charges, and released on the basis of some demanded apology. That has been true, both during this regime and even during the Taylor and Doe periods. That is wrong.

Way Forward

In wrapping this discourse, I like to refer to comments by President Ellen Johnsn Sirleaf during the recent 10 years of peace celebrations:

“Both the Agenda for Transformation and the TRC Report have emphasized the need for an aggressive fight against corruption. This has proven to be a more difficult battle than expected. As we celebrate our hard-won peace, we remain keenly aware that corruption can detract from sustaining that peace. So we will continue measures to fight this scourge. If we cannot get passage by the National Legislature we will re-issue the Executive Order to implement the Code of Conduct within the Executive Branch; Assets Declaration will be made public, and I will start with my own.

We still have to fight corruption. This is not just a President’s fight; it must be the Executive’s fight, the Legislature’s fight, the Judiciary’s fight, the media’s fight, and society’s fight! But let us recognize the progress. Today, it is no longer under the table. We can talk about it and now we can say that prosecutions are taking place, and violations are openly aired. We have a free press, through which people can freely write and say things, sometimes falsely, about other people. Our commitment to peace assures that nothing will happen to them, even as we call upon the media to be a more constructive and responsible partner for the promotion of peace and development.”

These comments reemphasize the government’s fight against corruption and respect for dissent and a free press. Unfortunately, the events of the succeeding weeks – whether justified by a judicial cover or an attempt to enforce respect for our institution – have seriously questioned the relationship between governmental utterances and practices.

That Chris Toe – questioned by important anti graft institutions about his stewardship of public affairs and funds – can win a case written about such investigations on grounds of libel and get away with a gargantuan award and the effective silencing of a crusader speaks volumes about which side of the battle is succeeding, and makes the peace day comments inconsequential – for all intents and purpose.

But beyond the references about what the government can and should do, the concerns that linger include the extent of media solidarity to the extent of making meaningful follow ups on the reports that resulted in the libel suit, and the unavailability of the concerned reports from the public domain. We should also be concerned whether media are following the case from the point of following up to determine the truth that is being crushed? In recent times we have found it nearly impossible to access the relevant reports on the website of the General Auditing Commission. Aside from the fact that these documents are relevant to justifying the truthfulness of the court case and the challenges of the Frontpage Africa, having those reports online or available in other platforms also serves the purpose of the Liberia Freedom of Information Law, which requires automatic publication of certain classification of documents created by public bodies.

Beyond the given case, we should now seek out why reports of inquiries carried out by accountability bodies are not publicly available? Do these help the cause of accountability, as was being pursued by Rodney? Is there something that the media can learn from following these issues?

In addition, while the Frontpage case was not taken further because they did not “perfect the appeal process,” there is a growing bewilderment that issues from the unheard case are considered in the decision handed down by the Supreme Court. So, in this event, once some issues are considered, it goes without saying that others should as well be considered. Among key concerns that have however grown out of this are:

Claim that Rodney Sieh’s conduct is callous and rude, though he was not heard – how did we get here?

The appeal process in the Supreme Court is costly – confirmed by Justice Banks – and does not help the search for justice;

Review of the matter – excessive fines allowed to stand

Which rules used in the decision, which rules ignored

Conflict of interest not declared

I believe responses to these issues should help to provide additional clarifications about how we can end this stalemate. Beyond how we feel and what we think, key issues that we should not lose sight of include the obligations that we have to together work to make our democracy functional; the integrity that our institutions must stand up to; and  promotion of actions that would sustain public confidence in the various functions and institutions of our society. The efforts we make to prop our personal egos, cover up our shortcomings and in the overall manipulate the system for our personal gains have added to the years of conflict in Liberia. Continuing along these paths is simply laying groundwork for the resurgence of conflict. This is the wrong way forward, and must be checked. That nothing is seen to be done to address such issues, I would not think Front Page is wrong in thinking that their fight to halt corruption is targeted.

K. Abdullai Kamara is an influential member of the Press Union of Liberia and its outgrowth, the Liberian Media Law and Policy Reform Working Group. Currently, he is Chairman of CEMESP, Contributing Editor at The Monitor Newspaper in Monrovia, and writes occasional papers on media, governance and human rights themes in Liberia. 0886-522-334; abdullai824@yahoo.com; @abdullai824

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