– House Committee Judiciary chair
With just 12 days to the October 10 presidential and legislative elections, the House’s chair on the Committee on Judiciary says he does not see the possibility for the current lawmakers to pass President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s bill decriminalizing offenses that are against free speech, particularly libel.
Nimba County District#7 lawmaker Worlea Saywah Dunah said the reason is because the law provides some technical issues that need enough time for discussion. He said the President’s bill appeared ‘very late’ to the lawmakers, and that there are some loopholes that require discussion before passing the bill into law.
Dunah made the statement yesterday in Monrovia when he severed as one of the panelists at the 21st Edition of the Wilfred E. Clarke Forum on Social Justice and the Rule of Law, organized by the Liberian National Law Enforcement Agency.
President Sirleaf, on July 20 this year, submitted the bill titled, “An Act to Amend the Liberian Codes Revised Penal Law of 1978.”
According to Liberian law, criminal libel against the president occurs when a person, “exposes to the public in writing, or makes any public broadcast, in which he has accused the incumbent President of Liberia of conduct, which constitutes the commission of a crime, provided that at the time of such publication, the conduct charged is untrue and the actor knows it to be untrue, and the purpose of the actor is to injure the President in his reputation.”
The charge of sedition relates to advocating “by word-of-mouth, writing or otherwise, sectionalism, countyism, tribalism, parochialism or the like, with the intent in so doing to incite the people to hostility, create disunity among the people and divide the nation.”
Although not seeking reelection, Rep. Dunah clarified that because most of his colleagues in the interior are campaigning to maintain their respective seats, it makes it difficult for the lawmakers to sit and debate the passage of the bill.
He said the old law provides protection for the officials of the three branches of the government, namely, Executive, Legislative and Judiciary.
“This has limited free speech and makes people afraid to express themselves freely against ills in the society or against officials of those branches of government,” Dunah argued, adding, “Without the passage of the law, there is no way to enjoy civil liberty.”
Dunah admitted that under President Sirleaf’s administration, Liberians are able to express themselves freely without any interference or being arrested and detained.
“If the act is not passed until the tenure of the President is expired, the next government may rely on the old law for their protection to silence people from expressing themselves freely,” he said.
Another panelist, Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe, said the constitution guarantees free speech, the right to hold opinion without interference and the right to knowledge and information, noting, “the government has enacted the Freedom of Information Law and established the Freedom of Information Commission in defense of free speech.”
Gongloe added that past governments have been using sedition to create fear in the mind of people not to express themselves against the attitude of those in authority.
“Past governments used sedition to scare people from speaking freely, but this government has been so relaxed to use the law to frighten people against free speech,” the rights activist said. “We don’t know if the next president will use this law to suppress people who speak against them if this law is not repealed.”
He said past governments have used the law as a political tool to intimidate people from expressing themselves on societal ills.
“Our people should be protected to speak their minds against their leaders. Let them speak freely so that our leaders will know that they want them to govern properly,” Gongloe said.