The House of Representatives on Tuesday repealed the Penal Law of 1978, which impedes freedom of speech with criminal libel against the President, Sedition and Criminal Malevolence.
The House amended the Bill, titled, “An Act to Amend the Liberian Codes Revised, Penal Law of 1978, Chapter 11, by repealing sections 11:11, 11.12 and 11.14, to be known as Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom, and forwarded it to the Senate for concurrence.
Members of the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Act of Press Freedom on Tuesday, July 3, during the 42nd Day Sitting, following a report from the House’s Joint Committee on Information, Culture and Tourism and Judiciary.
The Joint Committee report recommended that plenary passes it, and forward same to the Senate for its timely concurrence and submission to the President, George M. Weah to sign it into law, provided that the name of Mr. Kamara Abdullah Kamara is removed.
The Committee said the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) can identify a project to name it in honor of Mr. Kamara, befitting his gallant contributions to press freedom and free speech in the country.
The House rejected the name to be altered, so 40 lawmakers voted for its passage to be known as the Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom.
“Honorable Speaker, Deputy Speaker, distinguished colleagues, our extensive research and consultations revealed that this bill is timely, expedient and logical and meets all civilized international standard,” the Joint Committee report said.
The co-chairman of the Committee, Representative Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa, said: “It has been determined that the Penal Law of Liberia contains some provisions, which have the tendency to impede freedom of speech and expression, contrary to the spirit and intent of the Table Mountain Declaration and other international conventions. We therefore recommend that the Plenary of the House of Representatives repeal the Law.”
During the public hearing on Monday, July 2, held by the Joint Committee on Information, Broadcast, Culture and Tourism and Judiciary in the Joint Chamber of the Legislature, media related institutions and executives argued that all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws.
But Prof. Finley Y. Karngar, a lecturer at the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, informed members of the House of Representatives to take into consideration the historicity of the law as well as the protection of the Presidency, threat against national security and covert activities.
Mr. Peter Quaqua, former PUL President, now President of the West African Journalists Association (WAJA), said criminal defamation and libel laws in the Penal Codes of Liberia do not only contravene the constitution, but fall short of the country’s obligations under international human rights standards as espoused in various treaties, protocols or declarations.
Quaqua then referred the panelists to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted by United Nations (UN) on December 10, 1948, International Covention on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the UN 1966, and came into effect 1976 and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right adopted by Heads of State and Governments, and entered into force on October 21, 1986; the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, adopted by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in 2002, and the Table Mountain Declaration of 2007, which our country acceded to in July of 2012 by the signature of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
“The intend and purposes of all the above declarations, and many other regional and international instruments, is one and the same: to protect and enable freedom of expression and the press – hence obligating member states to repeal all laws that inhabit the media and speech generally.”
Mr. Quaqua added, “A joint statement by the Special rapporteurs of freedom of expression for the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organization of American States reaffirmed in 2002, that criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary with appropriate civil defamation laws.”
PUL President Charles Coffey said the progress of the government will amount to nothing if the political process is governed by repressive laws. He thanked President Weah for resubmitting the de-criminalization of the Press Freedom, and renaming it in memory of former PUL President Kamara Abdullai Kamara. He said that the media is indispensable to the democratic development, but in most cases, government uses defamation laws as a weapon to silence, harass or bully the press.
The Media Advisor at Internews, Mrs. Patmillia Doe-Paivey, and the executive director of the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP), Malcolm Joseph, said to repeal and amend Chapter 11 of the Liberian Codes Revised, Penal Law of 1978 is necessary to promote free speech and expression and to affect the human rights indicators.
Aaron Kollie, Chief Executive Officer of the Power Communications Incorporated, argued that ‘Draconian laws’ do not seek the safety of the press.
Other speakers were former PUL President James Kiazolu, who said the condition of the press is like a “beautiful car” with under carriage problems; and the terrible condition of the media has put them into two positions, protest and surviving, and the government is acting “messy with the press.”
Alphonsus Zeon, former PUL Secretary General, said the scrapping of criminal defamation and libel laws would reassure citizens of their rights to access information, and the naming of law in memory of Kamara Abdullai Kamara, “is acceptable in Common Law practices.”
Deputy Information Ministers Daniel Gayou and Eugene Fahngon, said the President supports decriminalizing Press Freedom by recognizing freedom of speech and expression that promotes democracy, good governance as well as the rule of law, which are sine qua non to the development of any government.
The two ministers said the government will support civil defamation laws over criminal defamation and libel.
It can be recalled that President Weah submitted the Kamara Abdullai Kamara Act of Press Freedom to the Legislature on May 31, which formed part of June 5 agenda of the House of Representatives.