Atty Samuel Kofi Woods, a rights activist, has come to the defense of journalists in Liberia promising to fight against lawsuits that often land them in jail whenever journalists are sued for libel.
At a one-day validation workshop on decriminalizing defamation and libel, held in Monrovia yesterday, Atty Woods told participating journalists that penalties or judgments against journalists facing such suits should not include imprisonment and excessive fines that would send a journalist to jail.
The workshop was organized by the Liberia Law Society (LLS).
Before presenting a draft model law, Atty Woods said while it is encouraging that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed the Table Mountain Declaration in 2012, Liberia has not been able to decriminalize defamatory and libel laws.
The Declaration of Table Mountain calls for the repeal of criminal defamation and ‘insult’ laws across the African continent, and was adopted at the World Newspaper Congress held in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2007 at the annual meeting of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).
Before she signed the declaration, President Sirleaf said, “We are signing the Declaration of Table Mountain in order to underscore our message loud and clear, to advance a free press and freedom of expression, not just in Liberia but the entire continent of Africa.” She said at the time that her government was resolved to repeal all anti media laws that are inconsistent with the DTM, and urged the 53rd Legislature to act fast in that regard. But Atty Woods regretted that despite the giant step by Liberia, journalists are thrown in jail, undermining the very nature of the Table Mountain Declaration.
“This validation workshop is not conclusive, but it is to energize us to contribute to the ongoing discussion on ensuring that defamatory and libelous laws against journalists are decriminalized in the country,” Atty Woods said.
Presenting the draft model law, Atty Woods said while the intent is not to encourage journalists to have a free ride or to err with impunity – as remedies must be sought after actual damages to an individual’s reputation, business or income –defamatory and libel laws should, however, be decriminalized.
“A defamation complainant cannot recover presumed damages and only proven damages can be recovered only if the defendant knew that the statement was false, or should have known, in the exercise of reasonable care, that the statement was false,” he stated.
Atty Woods, reading Section 4 c (1) of the defamation law, said a defamation complainant must make a good faith effort to obtain a correction or clarification within 90 days following the claimant’s knowledge of the alleged defamatory publication.
Cllr. C. Alexander Zoe, who also contributed, told the gathering that journalists must endeavor not to abuse the journalistic code of ethics; and whenever they are in a legal situation, they should allow their lawyers to do the work on their behalf. He said journalists are not lawyers, and therefore, must seek the advice of capable lawyers whenever they are involved in cases.
He, however, admitted that “it is painful to be a journalist, and cowards cannot be journalists.”
Cllr. Osborne K. Diggs, Jr. restated that journalists would escape defamation and libel situations if they respect their Code of Conduct.
Wellington Geevon Smith, representing the Minister of Information, expressed gratitude for the workshop, but regretted that there are activists who consider themselves as journalists, which is wrong.
He encouraged journalists to follow the ethics of their profession, as it would defuse unnecessary tensions “that usually come up.” He spoke against incendiary utterances in the media, both on air and in print media articles, and called for level-headedness in the practice of journalism.
Former PUL President Peter Quaqua, who is current president of the West Africa Journalists Association (WAJA), and several others made insightful contributions at the workshop.
In December 2014, the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding, the PUL and other media stakeholders submitted to the Legislature through the House of Representatives an Act to Decriminalize the Violation of the Right to Freedom of Expression and to Repeal Certain Sections of the Penal Law of 1978.