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“Press Freedom & Free Speech Are Not Under Attack . . .”

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Introduction

Indeed, it’s a pleasing encouragement to note that young, professional Liberians, with undergraduate/graduate education, trained/experienced, are engaged/engaging in educated discourse of the presentation, debate and exchange of ideas concerned with issues of public policy – critical analysis of the given issues with suggested resolutions – without personality attacks and/or character-assassinations. The article quoted above by Mr. Nyekeh Y. Forkpa is a pleasing case in point.

Mr. Forkpa’s intervention is concerned, apparently, with our law on Libel, the GAC report, nation’s presidency and the Judiciary. It is in these areas that my comments attempt or navigate different points of view.

Firstly, Our Law & Libel

The local (Liberian) and international hue & cry raised about press freedom in our country, the closure of the FrontPageAfrica newspaper, and the imprisonment of the paper’s managing editor is not so much about our Libel Law or the whopping, US$1.5 million damage award, but about the approach, the manner, in total, in which the entire case was handled that gave or gives rise to the conclusion that closure, permanent silencing of the paper (indeed of the press critical of political power) was or is the sole objective. Here are the reasons:

Second, the GAC Reports and the Presidency

1. Public/private dishonesty – corruption – has become a big, thriving, successful business, an industry run by well-connected MBAs, LLMs, PhDs placed in, almost, all departments of the national government and state-owned enterprises. They control and run the corridors of state power with a potent, economic, political power and force such that the incidence of corruption has become alarming and threaten the survival of the nation; in that, the Liberian corruption, inc. may be likened to the Mafia. Accordingly, the current President of the Nation declared that “corruption is Liberia’s public enemy No.1” and ordered the GAC to audit all government ministries, agencies and state enterprises. Several agencies were audited and some managers prosecuted and/or terminated.

2. Consistent with this presidential directive, the GAC submitted an audit report on the Ministry of Agriculture, covering the tenure of the-then Minister of Agriculture, Dr. J. Christopher Toe. But it has been reported that Dr. Toe was asked, quietly, to resign without being made to respond, publicly, to the GAC audit. There has no reason given up to this day.

3. Meanwhile, on the basis of this audit report ordered by the President, the FrontPageAfrica newspaper wrote and published its investigative report. This has been confirmed by the former Chairman/Auditor-General of the GAC & Liberia, Mr. John Morlu, II.

4. Just after the imprisonment of Mr. Rodney Sieh, the Government of Liberia, by and through the Ministry of Information, described the GAC Report as “unprofessional” without any indication of the unprofessional aspect of the report at this late date. This was the exact term used by Dr. Toe in his recent, press conference.

Third, the Presidency & the Judiciary

The Power of the Liberian Presidency

I admit that there is no visible, physical evidence indicating that the government (president) was involved in the civil lawsuit between private citizens (Dr. Toe Vs. FrontPageAfrica, et al), but historically and in the context of our constitutional prescription, the president had been and is all over the place:

1. Prescribed by and enshrined in our constitution, all executive power is vested in a president who controls, unquestionably and practically, the other two branches of government, the appointment of all executives in the Executive Branch and Judges of all lower courts, including Judges of the Supreme Court. All appointees serve at the will & “pleasure of the President”!!  Some recent power-plays:

2. In the case CDC/Liberty Party versus the Executive Government (represented by the President), the political parties sought to restrain the Executive (President) from gaining   “appointment powers” to appoint mayors of cities. This request was made by the current President to secure such powers. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court granted those powers in a decision delivered on January 11, 2008, despite constitutional and long-practiced prescriptions to the contrary.

3. Moreover, the most recent case (of executive presence/involvement in legal/political issues) was the legal confirmation/appeal to President Sirleaf by the Ruling Party Chairman, Cllr. Varney Sherman, who is, also, one of nation’s prominent attorneys as well as confidante of the President, when he said to the President, during the recent, Independence Day Oration, in seeking/advising action, “Madam President, I submit to you (that) in a country (our country) every successful political program or action must be driven by the highest political Office of the President” (see 2013 Independence Day Oration).

A. The Judiciary

a) The Civil Law Court, 6th Judicial Circuit

“Unprecedented court action” was the observations/conclusions gathered from legal experts experienced in Liberian jurisprudence and courtroom, legal procedures. These legal experts 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 . . .”

3.       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)”.

B. The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the Nation, in response to the “Motion to Dismiss” filed by none other than Dr. Chris Toe against the appeal by the FrontPageAfrica, et al, dismissed the appeal on the grounds that FrontPageAfrica, et al failed/refused to follow through on its appeal and that such failure/refusal action denied/deprived the court the jurisdiction and opportunity “to hear FPA’s side of the story”. To this, I observed (Rodney Sieh’s Imprisonment . . ., The Analyst, August 29, 2013) that the denial/dismissal was a legal technicality that is inferior to overriding, national issues now prevailing, thus:

1.       I recognize the Supreme Court’s legal authority, under law, to deny/miss such appeal, while I recognize, also, that within the purview of its lawful authority as the final, legal interpreter of our law, the Supreme Court could have assumed “jurisdiction”, which would have afforded the “opportunity to hear FPA’s side of the story”, given the critical, over-riding issues of our socio-economic and political problems, now prevailing. These problems are, in fact, challenges that threaten not only the peace & security of the citizens, but, also, the foundation upon which the nation rests and, in turn, the very survival of the citizens and nation. This threat includes the Court and Judges!!

2. Indeed, I argue that a court of law, particularly, the Supreme Court of our Nation, is a serious and inherent participant in the public policy, decision-making matrix; in that, the legal finality of its interpretative rulings/decisions on contested provisions of the constitution (case law) are recognized, accepted and treated as “law” (public policy). Therefore, the decision to “hear the FPA’s side of the story”, concerned with alleged, massive corruption would have been an exercise of the court’s a public policy responsibility, in the effort to avert a potential tragedy.

3. Realizing and recognizing that the significance of the critical issues raised by the Judicial actions – verdict of the Civil Law Court and its enforcement, and the dismissal, without hearing, by the Supreme Court – have far-reaching impact on the national (as well as international) 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 public at this late hour.

Conclusion

On the basis of the foregoing, it is not only reasonable to conclude that there has been, and is, a government/Judiciary collusion against FrontPageAfrica, et al, but also that this condition –  socio-economic and political – obtains because of the awesome, but constitutional power of the Liberian presidency.  Although articles 1 & 3 provide that “all power is inherent in the people”, Article 50 provides that “The Executive power of the Republic shall be (is) vested in the President who shall be head of state and government, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Liberia”. Article 54 says that “The President shall nominate and, with the consent of the Senate, appoint and commission . . . all executive-branch officials of government, including [Article 54(c)] the Chief Justice, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts”; and Article 56(a) prescribes that . . . all government officials . . . appointed by the president pursuant to this Constitution shall hold their offices at the pleasure of the president”.

Indeed, the appointed individuals are the intellectual, academic, technological and socio-economic and political “cream of the crop” of Liberian professionals; they teach, write, research, study, analyze, prescribe and recommend, as well as manage/implement, the plans and programs that determine present and future directions of our nation; they constitute the upper and middle classes of Liberian society. However, their lives – hopes, fears, personal growth and development, careers, dreams, etc. – depend upon and are determined, to a large extent, by the will and “pleasure” of one person who is answerable to no one, according to the prescriptions of our Constitution. No wonder there are very few, if any, who can muster the “guts” or courage to challenge “presidential power” and prerogatives, for fear of “losing it all”, including being labeled a “trouble-maker who wants to rock the boat” and ostracized socially, economically and politically. This includes the lawyers and Judges; perhaps, there is need to amend our constitution!!!

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