Liberia's Irrepressible Push to Dismantle Draconian Libel Laws

Why you should care

Liberia stands on the cusp of unleashing a truly free press, and its civil society isn’t about to let the momentum slip. 

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Rodney Sieh knows a thing or two about lawsuits. The publisher and editor-in-chief of Liberian news magazine FrontPage Africa (FPA) was jailed in 2013 because he couldn’t pay a $1.5 million fine for a libel lawsuit won by former agriculture minister Chris Toe. But when the magazine was hit with a new $1.8 million lawsuit this past April, Sieh stayed relatively calm. He knows his demands to change the country’s menacing libel laws have found greater resonance than ever before.

Just 15 years ago, Liberia was a smoldering wasteland. By August of 2003, 250,000 people had been killed in two civil wars, scores more were left homeless and the country’s democracy — including the freedom of the press — flickered from a charred wick. Today, that trajectory is changing, and an increasingly vociferous civil society is taking on a new administration when it slips up on commitments to media freedom.

We want to ensure that no matter who takes power as president, they will conform to these [changed] legal instruments.

Charles Coffey, Press Union of Liberia

Building on gains made during Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency, Liberians witnessed the first peaceful handover of power since 1944 when President George Weah was sworn in earlier this year. Since then, journalists and outside observers have amplified calls for the government to finally unglue laws that have long prohibited a truly free press.

Leading the charge is Charles Coffey, the president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). Despite continuing challenges, Coffey counts some gains since 2003. Currently, he says, there are no jailed journalists, and the press enjoys “significant” freedom — generally. All efforts to silence the media are now documented publicly through the USAID-funded PUL Media Alert Program launched in January 2016 by Internews, a California-based nongovernmental organization. The press, beholden to a strengthened code of ethics, is also held accountable through the relatively new National Media Council. Coffey says this combination helps minimize libel or defamation lawsuits.

The U.N., while lauding the country’s gains, is pressuring the government to change legal provisions that continue to target journalists. And internally, Coffey and others are unrelenting in their efforts to convince Weah to complete what Sirleaf started in July 2012, when she signed the Declaration of Table Mountain vowing to repeal criminal defamation laws.

“We want to ensure that no matter who takes power as president, they will conform to these [changed] legal instruments,” says Coffey.

That pressure is telling on the government. Weah, once one of the world’s top soccer players, has repeatedly committed to strengthening freedom of press and expression. His Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs & Tourism (MICAT) has in a press release said that Weah “promised to resubmit the draft act to decriminalize speech offenses so as to give media entities protection against closures and arrests in civil cases of defamation and libel,” in keeping with the Table Mountain declaration.

And Weah’s administration has publicly distanced itself from lawsuits like the new one Sieh confronts. The case is over an advertisement (since retracted) about land administration — brought by private citizens Henry A.K. Morgan and Moses T. Konah. The FPA accused the government of trying to silence the magazine after a series of hard-hitting reports, charges the MICAT has denied.

But the case is a reminder of the deep challenges that Liberia’s media continues to face, and of why Sieh, Coffey and their colleagues aren’t sitting back. In a live Facebook video with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York, Sieh argued in April that Liberia’s libel laws are a trigger for all other media-related problems, calling the associated fees “outrageous.” He encouraged groups like the PUL to keep pushing for change.

It intends to. The PUL released its third quarterly report this January, naming and shaming offenders. On the FPA’s recent case, the PUL released a statement condemning the court-sanctioned raid on the independent paper’s offices. The group also called on Chief Justice Francis Saye Korkpor to mandate an end to defamation suits.

Though the National Media Council has not yet intervened in the April FPA case, it too plays an important role, suggests Coffey. An ethics committee for the council — composed of nine representatives from academia, Christian and Muslim institutions, a women’s group and the media — investigates reports of ethics violations leveled against media institutions. Their findings are also released to the public. Appropriate action is then taken, including retractions in some cases, strengthening a self-regulating mechanism that gives the government less of a handle to impose external restrictions.

Then there’s the U.N., which earlier this year sent in a special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. David Kaye spent a week in Liberia — before the new FPA case. In his preliminary observations, he wrote that its open space for expression places Liberia “at an extraordinary level given where it started just 15 years ago.” But he also tore into a series of sections in the country’s penal law that he said violate international human rights standards. “Nearly every official in the administration and legislature with whom I met understood that it was time to remove the anachronisms of criminal provisions governing the press,” he wrote. Publicly, the Weah administration has promised to do just that. But then, so did Sirleaf.

For the moment, Sieh is willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t think Weah is “bad.” He says the president is dealing with the same challenges as his predecessors — such as self-serving advisers leading him astray. But Sieh, other Liberian journalists and organizations like the PUL, the National Media Council and even the U.N. are all watching Weah. And if the new president can get libel and defamation laws off the books, Sieh tells the CPJ, his legacy would go “way up.”

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