Legal luminary or legal buffoon?

Recently, in the wake of the hullabaloo that followed the death of Harry Greaves, Liberia’s Justice Minister went on the rampage threatening people with arrest, simply because they were pointing fingers at the government for the demise of Greaves. Clllr. Benedict Sannoh’s threat was the result of the media giving voice to citizens who are aggrieved and damned right frustrated with the inability of the Justice Ministry under his watch to logically convince Liberians about the earlier deaths of two prominent citizens – Cllr. Michael Allison and Victoria Zayzay.

What was horribly terrible on the part of Minister Sannoh was his insinuation that journalists were engaged in ‘unethical practice of journalism’ that would lead to chaos from publishing ‘falsehood’. He would; therefore, go after them to face the weight of the law. The threatening statement from the Minister is not outlandish in the Liberia political setting and body politics. Whenever government officials have misstepped in the discharge of their duties and the press begins to report their blunders, they are quick to blame the press for ‘unethical reporting’ rather than themselves (government officials) for their own deeds that make government to look bad in the eyes of the people.

Under President Samuel Kanyon Doe, four (4) Ministers of Information (Gray D. Allison, Carlton Karpeh, Alhaji G. V. Kromah, and Emmanuel Bowier) and one (1) Justice Minister (Jenkins K. Scott) were always blaming the press whenever missteps in government were exposed. A similar situation occurred during Charles Taylor regime when Joe Mulbah and Reginald Goodridge served as Minister of Information and Eddington Varmah and Koboi Johnson as Justice Minister.

In the case of Justice Minister Sannoh concerning the death of Harry Greaves, he has continuously, willfully and woefully goofed. His utterances have given more room for speculations. He doesn’t even know the commonest diplomatic etiquette among states that when Liberia is seeking any kind of favor from another country, or a state is seeking favor from Liberia, the message is sent through the ministry of foreign affairs. Instead of allowing the Minister of foreign affairs to write the US embassy in Liberia to seek assistance to help the Liberian government investigate the death of Greaves, Cllr. Sannoh wrote the letter himself. The tone of the letter was so undiplomatic that the US embassy reportedly sent the letter back to him (see Frontpage Africa of February 15, 2015 for all the hitherto missteps of Cllr. Sannoh).

A peep into history shows that in 1929 when the US government expressed its concerns on the allegations of slavery in Liberia as regards the Fernando Po Labour Scandal, the message from the Minister Counsel of the US embassy in Monrovia was directed to the secretary of the department of state (Minister of foreign affairs) of Liberia and NOT the secretary of the department of justice (Minister of justice).

What is so shameful today is that Cllr. Sannoh, who is a Minister under an African President who signed the Table Mountain Declaration (TMD), is attempting to go after journalists in the discharge of their duties instead of fighting to repeal the draconian anti media laws. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was among the few African leaders who signed the TMD on June 3, 2007 in South Africa. The Declaration calls for African countries to repeal anti free expression or anti media laws that exist on the continent. In Liberia, such anti media laws are Criminal Libel Against the President; Sedition; Special Act (Providing Protection to the Head of the State and Amending the Statutory Mode of Trial and Penalty for Treason, Sedition, Conspiracy and Attempt Against the Nation or its Official Head); and Criminal Malevolence. Take for instance what is considered seditious as passed by the regime of Edwin J. Barclay in the Sedition law of 1932 to stop citizens from exposing the heinous trade in human cargo and its effect or the infamous Fernando Po Labour Crisis:

“Section 1. It is hereby declared seditious for any citizen of Liberia or other person resident within the territory of the Republic who shall stir-up rebellion or set on foot, incite or in any wise promote insurrection against the authority of the government of the Republic or

(a) Who shall communicate by speech or in writing to any tribe, Chief of a tribe, or other person any statement imputing to the government unfairness in the treatment of the Native population if untrue, or in any other class or section of the community with the intent in so doing to cause discontent and political unrest among them; or

(b) Who shall write or inspire the writing of any document to a foreign government or any official thereof making representations on any matter properly the subject of domestic enquiry and adjustment; or

(c) Who shall convene or promote the convening of any meeting, public or private, the object of which shall be to defy, subvert or overthrow the constituted authority of the government; or

(d) Who shall write or speak in a disrespectful (sic) or defamatory manner of the incumbent of the Presidential Office with intent in so doing to show disrespect to the Head of the State and degrade the Office and thereby bring disintegration into the organization of the government.”

Or take what is meant by Attempt and the punishment thereof as defined in the Special Act as passed by the Barclay regime on March 2, 1936:

“The term ‘Attempt’ shall be defined as [it] is defined in Section 29, page s and Section 31 page 6 of the Criminal Code of Liberia A.D. 1914, including an attempt to injure the reputation or destroy the life of any of the officials named in Section 2 of this Act, or attempt to impair the existence of the body politic or otherwise affect the safety and tranquility of the people or the State.

Section 3. The punishment for ‘Attempt’ to commit any of the crimes herein specified, but failing to effect its accomplishment, shall be the same as the punishment for the commission of the particular crime attempted; where death or other serious bodily injury is the result of any of the above acts, or the safety of the nation seriously imperiled, the punishment shall be death or imprisonment for life.

[Barclay had apparently passed the laws as a means of silencing the people of Maryland and Grand Kru for their exposure of Liberian government officials who covertly and overtly benefitted from the Fernando Po Labour Scandal. Barclay, then secretary of state and a successor to President Charles D. B. King, who resigned along with Vice President Allen Yancy fearing impeachment by the Legislature, was himself (Barclay) implicated in the Fernando Po Labour Scandal through ‘conflict of interest’. Barclay was one of the partners for the law firm, Barclay and Barclay, which represented the Syndicate Agricola (SA) in Liberia. The SA was the agriculture company based on the Island of Fernando Po in Equatorial Guinea and owned by Theodomire Avendano (read Ibrahim K. Sundiata’s Black Scandal: America and the Liberian Labour Crisis, 1929-1936; and the League of Nations’ The League of Nations Commission of Enquiry Report on Liberia).]

Interestingly, the Liberia Constitution in Article 15 guarantees freedom of expression, an inalienable right. And it is this right that this Justice Minister under President Sirleaf wants to highjack from us. Sections A-D of this article say:

a) Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution.

b) The right encompasses the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to knowledge. It includes freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge and information and the right of libraries to make such knowledge available. It includes non-interference with the use of the mail, telephone and telegraph. It likewise includes the right to remain silent.

c) In pursuance of this right, there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries.

d) Access to state owned media shall not be denied because of any disagreement with or dislike of the ideas express. Denial of such access may be challenged in a court of competent jurisdiction.

No Benedict, you cannot intimidate us with such utterances which remind us of our distant and immediate pasts. One of the reasons why Liberians went to war was the lack of freedom of expression in the society. As soon as people expressed opposing views to those of the status quo during past regimes they were quickly branded as communists, paid foreign agents, trouble makers, inciters or destabilizers and were sentenced to several years in jail. If they were lawyers, they were banned from practicing law in the country just because they exercised their right of freedom of expression.

In 1961 during the regime of President William V. S. Tubman, a noted Liberian lawyer and Attorney General, C. Abayomi Cassell, was banned from practicing law in the country. His crime was simply to express some opposing views about the Liberian judiciary at a legal confab organized by the International Commission of Jurists in Nigeria. He presented a paper on the subject The Responsibility of the Judiciary and of the Bar for the Protection of the Rights of the Individual in Liberian Society.

As attorney general or Justice Minister, Cassell thought that laws such as sedition that he had prosecuted Didho Twe on restrained the rights of citizens. Here are excerpts from the Supreme Court ruling [In re ‘C. Abayomi Cassell’ [1961] LRSC 22; 14 LLR 391 (1961) (19 May 1961)] in which he was charged for ‘professional misconduct and contempt of the Supreme Court’.

“The Chief Justice felt that certain portions of the paper were basically untrue as to accusations of restraints certain Liberian statutes allegedly laid on the rights of citizens. He felt that the document was generally contemptuous because it asserted Counsellor Cassell’s belief that certain statutes, under which he, as Attorney General, had prosecuted citizens for the commission of crimes for which he had prayed judgments of our courts, constituted restraints on the constitutional rights of those citizens. He characterized his insistence that the courts render judgments against those citizens, growing out of the said prosecutions, as an instance of deception practiced on the courts. The Chief Justice felt that the counsellor’s conduct in allowing circulation of a document so basically untrue, and so destructively critical of the judiciary of Liberia, in the presence of the head of the judicial branch of the government and at this international conference, was disrespectful, humiliating and embarrassing to the Chief Justice and to his office; was conduct unworthy of a counsellor of the Supreme Court Bar; and constituted gross constructive contempt. In this light charges were prepared against Counsellor Cassell, and he was accordingly cited to appear and show cause why he should not be made to answer on several enumerated counts….

“In view of the foregoing, we are of the considered opinion that the respondent, Counsellor Cassell, is guilty of contempt of the Supreme Court; and because of the gravity which we attach to his contemptuous act, we do hereby disbar him as a lawyer and forbid his further practice of law before any of the courts of this country. And it is so ordered. Respondent disbarred.”

No Benedict, we cannot allow Liberia to go back to those days when such anti free expression laws were used to silence people. As patriotic Liberians, we cannot sit back to allow you to go with impunity for threatening to slap us with strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). The days of telling us that if ‘your ma bore you kolokaya way, let me see you on the street’ are over. Let it be sounded to you, Benedict, that Liberia needs a legal luminary, not a legal buffoon as Justice Minister! That your utterances surrounding the death of Greaves are gross embarrassment to the government of Liberia; and that it would do President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf well to dump you from her cabinet!

About the Author:
S. Kpanbayeazee Duworko, II, is a Liberian Journalist, Academician, Published Writer and Researcher. In 2015 he served as research facilitator for the Christian Aid, CAFOD, Tearfund and Islamic Relief Worldwide sponsored Keeping the Faith: The Role of Faith Leaders in the Ebola Response (Sierra Leone and Liberia); 2014 as assistant lead for the John Hopkins University sponsored Community Perspectives About Ebola in Bong, Lofa, and Montserrado Counties of Liberia; and 2005 as lead researcher for the UNDP-Liberia sponsored Traditional Forms of Reconciliation in Liberia.

In 2012, Duworko was an International Exchanges and Research Board (IREX) fellow at the Sol Plaatje Institute (SPI) for Media Leadership at Rhodes University in South Africa; and in 2006 a speaker at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Conference in Halle, Germany. At the conference titled The Powerful Presence of the Past: Historical Dimensions of Integration and Conflict in the Upper Guinea Coast, he presented a paper on Settlers in West Africa: The Americoes’ Use of Inherited Slave Culture and Sororities/Fraternities as Instruments of Political Control and Domination in Liberia: 1847 – 1980. His published works include Celebrating Ten Years of The Lutheran Church in Liberia Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program: Reflections and Challenges [written in 2008 for the tenth (10th) anniversary celebrations of the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP) of the Lutheran Church in Liberia (LCL)]; and THRP PEACEBUILDING TRAINING HANDBOOK (written in 2005 for THRP, LCL).

Among the media entities Duworko has worked for are the British Broadcasting World Service Trust (now BBC Media Action) where he served as local trainer for its Transitional Justice Program; and the Liberia Media Center (LMC) as editorial advisorfor its Transitional Justice Reporting Audit – A Review of Media Coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation Process in Liberia(2008); Media Reach and Penetration Study (2008); and Truth and Reconciliation Commission Team Reporting Project(2007). He is currently chairperson of the Training Committee of the Press Union of Liberia. Email: kpanbayeazeedu@gmail.com

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