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Press Freedom and Free Speech Are Not Under Attack in Liberia

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Liberia has been an interesting place the last few weeks. Newspaper pages and radio and television airtimes have been consumed largely by a debate about press freedom following the libel judgment against Mr. Rodney Sieh and the resultant actions. Several international institutions and local civil groups have voiced varied opinions: some calling the issue an attack on press freedom and others calling on the President to intervene in a judicial matter between private citizens. I want to add a different perspective to the discussion and possibly help interested parties to reach different conclusions about what is currently unfolding in a segment of our dear country.

I worked as a journalist in Liberia for years and know persecution, intimidation and harassment of journalists when I see one because I personally suffered at the hands of the repressive Charles Taylor regime. As Editors of The News Newspaper, we were rounded up frequently and sent to jail without due process for writing the truth. I am told many practitioners suffered similar fate during the Samuel Doe regime. So yes, I experienced attack on press freedom as did many of my friends and colleagues during those arduous days when choosing to be a journalist was almost a life and death decision. I do not believe that the prison is for any journalist and no journalist should be imprisoned simply for being objective, balance and fair in his or her reportage.

The Liberian press is free and unfettered, limited only by its editorial choices and business model, if I may add. The battle for press freedom was long won by giants whose shoulders we stood on to continue the struggle. The interim government or Dr. Amos Sawyer congealed the gains of press freedom as it freely engaged the media without fear or favor. It was such freedom that we suffered to secure and perpetuate when Mr. Taylor and cohort attempted to bend the arc of history toward repression.  President Sirleaf has allowed the media to flourish and has been supportive of all covenants and conventions in support of a free and vibrant press. That is exactly why we must put this Rodney Sieh issue in proper context and not use it to cast aspersion on our collective gains.

Mr. Rodney Sieh and all who practice journalism today in Liberia are beneficiaries of years of struggle and pain for press freedom. Mr. Sieh and others current practitioners in the country can take pride in the fact that they arrived on the scene when the path to media plurality and democratic governance was already paved and both are taking place in a post war country that is guardedly proud of the freedom of speech and of the press that the country enjoys under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

If there is any one point that all 15 or 19 or however many opposition political parties in Liberia agree on with the ruling Unity Party, it is that there is abundance of free speech and free press. There are over 20 newspapers on the market with anywhere between 10 to 15 active daily depending on the advertising availability and political machinations of the opposition and government alike. Stories, commentaries and editorials can be unbalance and bias as one written by individuals with tunnel vision and caged minds and or objective as ones rooted in facts and history.

The airwaves are filled with talk shows using open phone lines where citizens are free to call and comment about any number of issues, sometimes recklessly as well. Opposition politicians have not missed any opportunity to opine on issues and criticize the government openly, sometimes ill-advisedly, even if heir prior histories do not qualify them to be serious and objective critics. Political parties, without the power and political means to effect actions, have threatened to arrest senators and compel the president to resign. All have been said without molestation.

Radio and Television stations operate and compete with closure due to energy cost and elements of the weather — lightening being the most formidable threat to their operations.  Radio station political talk show is the order of the morning breakfast show.  Nothing thrives better in Liberia than the political talk shows which span the morning hours from as early as 6 am to as late as 11 am. Depending on the station and the host current availability and disposition on an issue, the host can on any given day be as caustic and impetuous as to call for the resignation of the president, or the impeachment of justices of the supreme court or they can be as cautious as the church mouse to be as close to the legal framework and not run the risk of libel, slander or defamation. So press freedom and free speech are not under attack to create prisoners of conscience in Liberia today.

Now, we can debate the fairness of the criminal defamation and insult law, the appeal law (requirements) and have various interpretations of article 21 of the constitution all we want, the fact of the matter is that if this case was brought against any other media entity and personnel, the same would have applied because it is the law we have until we change it. We should change these laws and many other bad ones. Maybe this case and the attention it has garnered will accelerate the repeal process of some of these laws. Obviously, this must involve not only the executive but the legislative branch of government as well.

We can argue that the GAC reports provide the basis for further investigation and or prosecution, and that had complainant Toe been subjected to one of these processes, he would not have had the opportunity to sue Mr. Sieh and others in court, but that is not what occurred and Mr. Toe sued. For me the matter in this particular case begins from that point. As to what should have happened or should happen to complainant Toe based on the audit report, it is an issue to be debated separately. And we can and should do that. But we must not mix and confuse these issues at all and use this case as an opportunity to attack and malign the government and or the presidency about matters of press freedom. The government may be many things to many of us, but it is certainly not anti-press freedom — at least not that I know of or that I have witnessed in the last two years.

Right now, the law is what it is and we are where we are, at the end of a “due process.” Mr. Sieh has said categorically that he will not pay the penalty or abide by the outcome of a process he subjected himself to. Does that mean, like Mr. Sieh, we all can determine by what standard we can be measured and which law to respect and which not to? Wouldn’t it have been better had Mr. Sieh and legal team raised these issue during the proceedings and not at the end of the case? Could Mr. Sieh has had a different outcome from the Supreme Court had he perfected the appeal process and follow through on it? Maybe! But despite his defiance and palpable flaws in his legal representation, others are now asking the president to intervene in a judicial outcome and reverse the judgment won by a private citizen. No one is thinking about an imperial presidency at the moment because it is all sentimental. What else will we ask the President to intervene in and what will be the ramifications when that happens – what will be our pose when we are in disagreement with the next call for presidential overreach?

I would like this matter to be settled as quickly as possible so that the bogus anti press freedom hue can stop and Mr. Sieh can be free from imprisonment, but it must be done the right way and not at the expense of our laws. Perhaps Mr. Sieh and others could find a way to reconcile with the judgment creditor….Dr. Toe.

The point is that the general argument abounding in certain quarters about press freedom and free speech being under attack in Liberia and as such, is creating prisoners of conscience is just not substantive . That is just not the case. Do I believe this criminal defamation law is punitive (for everyone) and should be repeal and replace….YES!!!! Do I believe that the appeal requirement is too hefty and must be changed…..YES….Is that the fault of the president…..NO!!!! But for now, that is the law and we must be a society of law.

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Nyekeh Y. Forkpa is a former media practitioner who currently works as the Deputy Managing Director for Administration at the National Port Authority. He holds an Advanced Graduate Certificate in Finance from Providence College in Rhode Island and a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Rhode Island. He is a Lean Six Sigma (process improvement) student and an honors graduate (Accounting/Economics) of the University of Liberia. He can be reached through email at nyekeh33@yahoo.com or by phone on 011 231 880 690750. Comments welcome.

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