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Liberia Mourns Imprisonment of FrontPageAfrica Editor, Struggle for Press Freedom continues

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Some Reflections

Today, this week or for how long, Liberia mourns and awaits the final outcome of the imprisonment of the Managing Editor of the FrontPageAfrica (FPA) newspaper, Mr. Rodney D. Sieh, one of the nation’s hard-hitting, independent, investigative reporters. Meanwhile, one of the major principles of modern, democratic thought and practice, Freedom of Speech & the Press has become the talking point in offices, bars and restaurants, barber shops and beauty salons, street corners, dinner tables and house parties.

Conviction of Damages for Libel

It can be recalled that Dr. J. Christopher Toe, then Minister of Agriculture of Liberia, filed an Action of Damages for Libel in the Sixth Judicial Circuit, Civil Law Court, Monrovia, against the FrontPageAfrica newspaper and its Managing Editor.

The New Democrat (New Democrat, August 22, 2013) reports that “. . . after a series of publications (by the FPA) alleging corrupt practices against him, Dr. Toe, in the complaint (against the FPA) alleged that Mr. Sieh, ‘with malicious intent to injure his image and damage his reputation developed over many years, had published in the newspaper (FPA) and on the internet, a number of deliberate false and malicious stories . . . ‘lacking in any and all truthfulness . . . exposed (Dr. Toe) to local and international humiliation, ridicule and disgrace. The Plaintiff (Dr. Toe) . . . prayed that the court . . . enter a judgment in his favor and award him US$2,000,000.00 (for Damages) plus . . . all costs . . .”

“In response”, the New Democrat (New Democrat, August 22, 2013) reports, also, that “ . . . the defendants (FrontPageAfrica) filed an answer . . . which . . . ‘sought to justify and re-affirm the accusations made in the publications and . . . attributed to the plaintiff (Dr. Toe) did occur, and hence . . . the defendants (FrontPageAfrica) could not be held liable’. . . That the stories (FPA publications) referred to in the plaintiff’s (Dr. Toe’s) complaint were the results of thorough investigation . . . into plaintiff’s (Dr. Toe’s) stewardship while serving as a public servant at the Ministry of Agriculture.” For example, “the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, the Honorable Peter N. Korvah, wrote a letter to President Sirleaf, exposing several corrupt transactions at the Ministry, including the purchase of a Nissan Patrol Trooper for US$60,000.00 which was actually worth US$45,000.00 for the plaintiff (DR. Toe)” 

According to the response by the FPA, Dr. Toe denied receiving “huge sums of money” intended for the resolution of the violent, labor strike action at the Guthrie Rubber Plantation in Bomi and Cape Mount Counties, including money intended for citizens affected by an army of caterpillar worms in Bong County, for which President Sirleaf asked, on national radio, what did he (Dr. Toe) do with “the people’s money”, when she visited the affected areas and saw that nothing was done, despite the allocation of funds in the Ministry’s budget for the purpose.; that lawmakers from Bong County that was affected by the army of worms, described the announcement by Dr. Toe, upon questioning, that the funds were used to construct hand-pumps in the county was false.

And also that the GAC’s Audit Observation Memorandum submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture observed that several financial irregularities were committed by Dr. Toe (as Minister), with recommendation that he (Dr. Toe) provide supporting documentation for alleged payments made to Firestone; that Dr. Toe and Mr. Cage be made to account for all incentives paid to them, as indicated by the GAC Memorandum; and that because of the many financial improprieties and irregularities as detailed, Dr. J. Christopher Toe was asked to resign or be dismissed as Minister of Agriculture.

The Civil Law Court

The Civil Law Court of the 6th Judicial Circuit, however, ruled in favor of Dr. Toe and ordered FPA and its editors to pay to Dr. Toe the amount of US $1,500,000.00 as damages. To this ruling, the FPA and its editors excepted and announced appeal to the Supreme Court.

On July 15, 2013, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Civil Law Court on grounds that FrontPageAfrica and its editors “elected not to pursue the appeal process”, legal technicality. This conclusion is a blatant and total disregard of the national significance and critical merits of the issues of corruption raised by FPA, meticulously documented, presented and supported by reports of the General Auditing Commission. Corruption, in our country, today, is not only rampant, but has, also, been developed into Corruption, Inc., a thriving, successful big business, an industry, by a corps of well-connected MBAs, LLBs, PhDs, etc., in the government, that control and run the corridors of state with potent, political power that may be likened to the Mafia. For example, the recent FY2012-2013, national Budget disclosed massive abuse of this lawful, Salary/Wage Allowance system to the detriment of the tax-payer and our friendly, foreign partners who donate towards the salary/wage allowances.

“Unprecedented Court Action”

Observations gathered from legal experts experienced in Liberian jurisprudence and courtroom, legal procedures, conclude that the immediate arrest and imprisonment of Managing Editor, Rodney Sieh, “just days after the bill of cost was approved is unprecedented”. A well-known, prominent Counselor-at-Law of the Supreme Court observed that “the Judge allowed (or instructed) the Sheriff to act with wanton disregard to the order (as contained in the Writ of Execution) which held in part”:

1.      “You are hereby commanded to seize and expose for sale the lands, grounds and chattels of the defendants Rodney Sieh of the FrontPageAfrica and if the sum realized be not sufficient, then their real property until you shall have raised the sum of US $1,624,000.00 and LD $17,300.00” and,

2.      “If you cannot find said lands, goods and chattels of the said defendants, you are hereby commanded to arrest the living bodies of the above-named defendants and bring them before any judge of competent jurisdiction to be dealt with according to law . . .”

But, “in fact”, the Counselor said that “immediately after the Sheriff received the Order they . . . went looking for the living body of Mr. Sieh, ignoring the first part of the Order – to seize the property (and expose to sale). Ironically, they (Sheriff & deputies) looked under the very desks and the chairs and computers they should have been seizing, in order to arrest Mr. Sieh. Usually, in judgment enforcement   the Sheriff first look to seize property and sell it at public auction, a procedure that would have taken more than one month. This was not done in this case. Further, a defendant is typically incarcerated in matters like this under a contempt order for failure to pay, not a Writ of Execution which initiates the process of collection”.  In conclusion, the Legal Expert held that “the whole proceedings against Rodney Sieh and the FrontPageAfrica newspaper, from a bad verdict to bad enforcement proceedings show that the justice system in Liberia is subject to the whims and caprices of the government (or dictated by the government of Liberia)”.

Realizing that the significance of the issues raised by this court action – verdict and enforcement   – has far-reaching impact on the national level, someone took out a 7-page spread in the Democrat newspaper (New Democrat, August 22, 2013) to explain the Supreme Court Decision, with supporting argument, to the Liberian people at this late hour.

Our Reflections

What, fundamentally, are the critical issues, in terms of freedom of speech and the press? The Quest or desire/demand for human freedom, liberty, dignity and respect for the human person defined and characterized the socio-economic and political development of humankind, throughout history. With the invention of the “printing press” came the desire for freedom of thought and expression, and freedom to publish the printing press’ communication.

Today, the advent of electronic media – the internet and other “social media” – the phrase “freedom of the press” expresses coverage of the mediated communication in general. Indeed, “freedom of speech” and  “of the press” have become the major tenets and practice of modern democracy – the US and French revolutions were driven by this thought, among others.

According to the Oxford Bibliographies, “Freedom of the press refers to the freedom to criticize government without suffering official interference or punishment, before or after publication. ‘Freedom of the press,’ ‘freedom of speech,’ and ‘freedom of expression’ are terms often used together in the United States, with ‘the press’ primarily connoting print and electronic media . . . The clearest indicator of press freedom is that opponents of government or of government leaders, laws, or policies can publish effective criticisms without suffering government retaliation in the form of fines, imprisonment, or even death”.

According to the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the country from which we borrowed and/or modeled, almost, all of our laws provide that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting . . . or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . .”

However, ruling groups, past and present, of the First, Second and Third World countries sought and seek to restrict press freedom in two ways, according to Oxford Bibliographies. The first is either censorship or mandatory licensing by the government, a requirement prior to publication. The second is punishment – fine or imprisonment – for printed material that is considered to be seditious or libelous. Censorship of the press began after the invention of the printing press.

The history of the struggle for press freedom shows that in England, where the struggle began, there were royal edits that required licensing in 1534 and later, strong, censorship measures were applied by the monarchs. In the United States, the debates on press freedom began just 23 years after that country declared itself a republic with commitment to classical democracy based on liberty, justice, freedom of speech and of the press. However, the Sedition Act of 1798 which sought to over-ride the US Bill of Rights was short-lived.

In Liberia

In our country, the Constitution of January 6, 1986, Chapter III, page 5, Fundamental Rights, makes the following provisions:

Article 11 (a), “All persons are born equally free and independent and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, among which are the right of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of pursuing and maintaining the security of the person . . .”

Article 14, “All persons shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion . . .”

Article 15(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”

15(b), “It (this right) includes freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge . . . “

Notwithstanding all of the above, we had our share of denials and restrictions in form of legislative enactments designed to over-ride constitutional provisions, throughout our 166-year history as a democratic nation. Some relative, recent examples:

At the request of President Edwin Barclay, in 1933, our Legislature enacted a Sedition Law which penalized criticism of the President and government’s policy on the treatment of indigenous Liberians of three to seven year-imprisonment and confiscation of property.

President William V. S. Tubman, who succeeded Barclay, amended the Sedition Laws, incorporated and treasonized acts which, when committed during peacetime and prior to the amendment, could fall under provisions of the-then, existing criminal code. Treason is a first-degree felony which, in war time, is punishable by death, in most cases. President Tubman, further, obtained the passage of an Emergency Powers Act which authorized the President to arrest and detain, up to one year without the right of bail, any person suspected of acts described as subversive.

President William R. Tolbert did not only continued the tradition of President Tubman’s amended Treason, Sedition & Emergency Powers Act, but expanded the scope of coverage to include, among others, accusation of the incumbent president, any other executive or judicial authority, subject to severe penalties under sections of Sedition, including imprisonment. The problem posed by these provisions, among others, is the element of truth or falsity of the accusation.

Although upon examination, it would seem reasonable enough, but, in reality, it is not. For, who defines or interprets the truth or falsity of the accusation? Of course, the prosecutor and the trial judge, traditional, friendly agents of authority, some of who are likely to be so politicized such that an objective interpretation of the law could, very well, be or are jeopardized. At stake here is the right of free speech, a right basic to the functioning of the democratic process. The very enactment and potential enforcement of such laws create fear and inhibit the free expression of opinions.

We had, also, our fights and controversy over PRC Decree 88A and the Article “Monrovia Stinks” (the Daily Observer) and others in early 1980, during the Military Government of the Chairman, Samuel K. Doe. Writing on the subject of “The Liberty of Thought and Discussion” in mid-19th century, John Stewart Mill said, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion (critical of authority) is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right (or true), they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong (or false), they lose (that) which is almost as great a benefit, the clear perception and the livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error (or falsity)”.

Again, the nation mourns the imprisonment of a popular, aggressive, investigative reporter/Managing Editor of a popular, aggressive newspaper, while it awaits the outcome and the future of Press Freedom in Liberia.

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