By: Rodney Sieh
ON FRIDAY, MAY 31, 2013, a clerk from the Civil Law Court served at our offices in Monrovia, a writ of summons against FrontPage Africa indicating that Ms. Matilda Parker, the Managing Director of the National Port Authority had filed a lawsuit for libel, seeking US$1 million dollars and praying on the court to order our newspaper closed, barred and stop from any and all further publication for the damages done to her, the women of Liberia and the country as a whole.
THIS WEEK, FrontPage Africa responded to Ms. Parker’s lawsuit and prayed on the court not to order our business closed, barred and stopped from all further publication and to dismiss Ms. Parker’s quest for US$1 million.
THIS IS NOT the first time we have been taken to court for comments either posted by our readers or in our opinion pages.
MS. PARKER’S lawsuit stems from a recent publication entitled Assets Declaration Fallout: LACC, NPA Boss at odds over a ‘Lie’ under which some readers rained insults on Ms. Parker.
ACCORDING TO THE WRIT filed by the Henries Law Firm, Ms. Parker is seeking damages in the amount of US$1 million dollars or an amount to be determined by a jury for the emotional trauma, humiliation, seclusion and mental anguish sustained by Plaintiff. In addition, the suit says: “Plaintiff says in addition to adjudging defendants liable their FrontPage Africa newspaper should be ordered closed, barred and stop from any and all further publication for the damages done to the plaintiff, the Liberian women and the country as a whole and further grant unto plaintiff any other relief Your Honor may deem just, legal and equitable.”
THE WRIT CITES two publication, an article captioned “Assets Declaration Fallout in Liberia: NPA MD Parker, LACC Spar Over a “Lie”; an editorial captioned: “Audit Verification a Waste of GOL Money, if and “An Apology to Matilda Parker, Plea to Comment Bloggers, which the suit says is an admission for which damages for libel lie.
THE REPORT BASED on findings by the Liberia Anti Corruption Commission noted that some officials of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf-led government, including Matilda Parker misrepresented the facts and lied in their declaration of assets. LACC provide this information at a news conference and it is also indicated in LACC its report entitled, “REPORT ON FIRST PHASE OF ASSETS VERIFICATION EXERCISE. The report is dated May 20, 2013 and published on the LACC Website
THE LACC particularly noted that the managing director of the Monrovia Port Authority Matilda Parker lied about the value of her assets and failed to cooperate with the commission in its efforts to get her to straighten the records provided. “Ms Parker was also asked to disclose the seller of the aforementioned Sophie community property and the contact details of the seller. Ms. Parker disclosed the name of the seller but declined to disclose any contact details; telephone, residential address, and or other means of contact,” stated LACC boss Cllr. Frances Johnson Alison during a news conference on Tuesday, May 21, 2013.
CHAIRWOMAN JOHNSON CONTINUED, “She wrote back that the receipts were missing both of the above statements cannot be true at the same time. One of the two assertions is definitely false and Mrs. Parker knows exactly which one is false.”
THE LACC boss disclosed that the NPA boss embarked on a campaign of misrepresentation throughout the entire process of asset declaration: “No reasonable person will pay a hefty 65,000 dollars for a property but claims not to have any information on the seller and Miss Parker needs to be held to account,” said Cllr. Allison. “Ms Parker’s USA house was put at 750,000 dollars on her declaration, when asked for documents on the mortgage, her house was discovered to be valued only three hundred thousand. When asked to explain the gross disparity Miss Parker said it was an error; LACC wonders how a 300,000 dollars house can be erroneously valued at 750,000.”
THE LACC BOSS said Parker was given two weeks which is ample time to bring receipts of the installment payments on the house she purported to have bought in 2008 in the Sophie community but the NPA boss later wrote the commission back saying that the receipts were missing. She said the LACC team investigating parker’s asserts categorically noted that both of the statements made to justify noncompliance in terms of providing a record could not be true at the same time.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA went to great length to get a response from Ms. Parker, who said that the LACC chairman’s assertion through a confidant questions the intent of the LACC assertions on her assets when according to her she had provided the commission all the information it needed to know in the process. “LACC raise three points against me 1. I stated that my property was valued at 750,000. But when they checked it was 300,000. Two points. LACC must be unaware of the massive reduction in property value in the USA, and have selected to ignore the fact that this property was purchased in 2006 and the MD started at NPA in 2009,” states Parker in a text message response.
SHE SAID the LACC claimed that she only provided the name of the person that she purchased a property from in 2008 that is located behind Sophie’s but questioned the entity to state the law that requires individuals to stay in touch someone they bought a property from four years after the transaction. “And if this information was so important, why the LACC in good faith didn’t write back mandating the data. And why was this so important considering the property was purchased before her tenure at NPA?,” states the NPA.
THE NPA boss maintained that she was requested by the LACC to produce the receipts for the down payment of the same property which she bought in 2008 which she didn’t have, but instead provided the deed.
THE ARTICLE’S POSTING on FrontPageAfrica.com drew a lot of comments, mostly negative about Ms. Parker from our online readers. Like most online publication, FrontPageAfrica throughout the day checks stories posted with negative, hurtful and insulting comments about subjects of our stories, especially public officials and this was no exception. In Ms. Parker’s case, we even removed some of those comments after a mutual friend brought it to our attention. Regrettably, the female editor on duty on the print edition, inadvertently posted some of the hurtful comments in the print edition.
THE LAST TIME we appeared before the Civil Law Court, we lost. Not because we did not have a solid case but because the judicial system looked the other way and ignored allegations of jury tampering by the plaintiff, former Agriculture Minister Dr. J. Chris Toe’s lawyers and host of other violations.
FPA HAS had a painful experience, as well in the court system in Liberia. And it is hard to find a case in recent time when a media institution, with all the facts on their side, have won a libel case against Government officials who have plenty of public cash to use against the media in these frivolous lawsuits.
FPA CARRIED a story about corruption at the Ministry of Agriculture. FPA did not quote anonymous sources. Instead we quoted from General Auditing Commission Reports and a letter from the President of Liberia sent to the Minister of Agriculture highlighting alleged corrupt practices sent to her by the former Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Peter Korvah.
FPA DID not accuse the Minister of Agriculture of corruption. Instead it was GAC and former Deputy Minister Korvah letter to the President and the President’s letter to the Minister of Agriculture, in which she attached as evidence the letter sent to her from the Deputy Minister of Agriculture. Neither the GAC, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture were sued. Instead it was the newspaper, FrontPageAfrica that was sued for carrying a story from official Government reports and letters.
IN COURT, FPA presented the GAC report and the letter from the President. GAC auditors were summoned and testified in Court that indeed that Report from which FPA reported was their Report. But unfortunately, although it is well established principle that in a libel case the truth is a defense, in Liberia and in the case of FPA, the truth did not matter. Instead how much money the opposing side, many Government officials are willing to pay as means to buy off the jury.
DUE TO OUR last experience in the Civil Law Court during which lawyers for former Agriculture Minister Dr. J. Chris Toe was seen speaking with one of the jurors outside the courtroom and it was later revealed by one of the alternate jurors that they were each paid US$50 to turn the case against FPA, we feel very reluctant and wary about appearing once again in this court.
DUE TO THE ANGRY response from women’s group regarding the negative comments made about Ms. Parker by readers, we took a decision to suspend Ms. Williams indefinitely without pay and issued a strongly-worded apology to Ms. Parker which was posted both in our online edition, our Facebook page and on the front page of our print edition. We apologized not for the LACC report but for insulting comments meted against a woman by readers. FPA would have apologize to any woman who has received such insults from readers.
THE EDITOR also took to various radio talk shows to express regret for the negative comments made about Ms. Parker and announced the suspension of the female editor who has accepted her suspension. To our utmost surprise, we have learned that Ms. Parker has filed a lawsuit not against the readers but against FrontPageAfrica. We found this lawsuit frivolous and a clever attempt, once again, to use the judicial system that has been deemed for the “highest bidder” by U.S. State Department Human Rights Report. Furthermore, a judicial system has be characterized by jury tempering by LACC, Ministry of Justice and even the President of Liberia has said time and time again the jury system is so corrupted that it has undermined the Government’s ability to win cases in the Courts.
WE BELIEVE FPA met the requirements of our readers when asked the very readers to be more issue oriented in their postings, leaving personal issues out. We have a record of doing that time and time again when we received complaints.
BUT STRANGELY, it is also indicated FPA is being sued for editorializing the LACC report. Now FPA is being sued also for its Editorials. This is a sleepy slope for all newspapers. The next time they will sue for the Cartoons in the newspaper.
SOMEONE asked me why is it I cannot give the judicial system a try and the benefit of the doubt. What I do know is that on the morning of the verdict of our case against former Agriculture Minister Dr. J. Chris Toe, I was pacing up and down the front of the Civil Law Court and ran into then Associate Justice Francis Korkpor and informed him of what I had just seen with dismay. I informed Justice Korkpor that Dr. Toe and his lawyers had just left Judge Yussif Kabbah’s office giggling and laughing and that we had gathered that the judge had been paid to turn the case against us. Justice Korkpor asked me then, “Are You Sure?” I said yes – and in subtle tone, he said. “But he(Judge Kabbah) is one of our best”.
I found the giggling and early celebration from Dr. Toe and his lawyers that morning very disturbing and painted on me a very bad picture of the judicial system in Liberia. That anyone can influence a jury, possibly a judge and lawyers to turn a case. We boycotted the verdict that day, and as expected, lost the case.
JUDGING FROM our paper’s experience with the justice system in this country, we are reluctantly proceeding to respond to this frivolous law.
WE HOPE THAT THIS time around the justice system minus a jury pool which is more likely to be tainted or compromised, will weigh all the facts in the case and help set a precedence in Liberia for generations to come.
WE HAVE been petitioned on a number of occasions to do away with the comments blog from our website. But we feel strongly that this is not the right approach, that Liberians are capable of disagreeing without resorting to insults, threats and rude tones.
WE HOPE that our defense and support of free speech against surmountable odds will send a strong message to the powers that be that we cannot and will not be intimidated by US$ 1 million and $US2 million dollar lawsuits.
THIS IS OUR STORY: We have acknowledged error on the part of our female editor who allowed an online comment about Ms. Parker to be reprinted in our print edition and we have apologized with all sincerity to Liberian women and Ms. Parker. The Editor has been suspended indefinitely without pay and has accepted wrong and the punishment given her. If this is NOT enough, then the chips will have to fall where they may and let the Liberian judicial system with all of its frailties decide what they feel is best. But we will not waiver and we will not budge into frivolous lawsuits aimed at instilling fear and keeping us from carrying out our responsibility, but we will not go down without a fight.
Culled from the FPA