Two former leaders of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) have expressed alarm about the growing violation of freedom of speech and human rights in Liberia.The two former leaders are Isaac D.E. Bantu, who served as president of the PUL during the last period of the brutal Samuel Doe regime to the early period of the Liberian civil war, and Mr. Gabriel I.H. Williams, who also served as secretary-general and acting president during the same era, which was also the beginning of Charles Taylor’s reign of terror.
During that era, rights activists, journalists, and opposition politicians endured extreme violence and many were killed in the advocacy for free speech and democratic governance.
In a joint statement dated May 20, 2020 from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA, the two former PUL leaders expressed“ grave concern regarding reports that the government of President George Weah is using the State of Emergency declared by the government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic to criminalize free speech and to harass and terrorize peaceful Liberians, especially those regarded to be anti-government.”
The former PUL officials cited the recent threat by Liberia’s Solicitor General, Cyrenius Cephus, to shut down, seize equipment, and revoke the operating license of media entities as an example of the government’s attempt to criminalize free speech. Mr. Cephus has declared that the government will use the State of Emergency that is in effect to sanction media institutions that may air or publish what he called “fake news.”
“We recall with trepidation that Solicitor General Cephus’ threat is the latest example of the government’s attempt to muzzle the press since President Weah came to power in 2018. For example, in October 2019, riot police firing tear gas attacked and broke into the offices of Roots FM and seized broadcast equipment because the station was deemed to be critical of Weah’s government,” said the former officials.
They recalled that on March 12, 2020, the PUL presented a petition to the government which states: “In recent months, attacks, detention, and brutality meted against media practitioners have become unprecedented with seven journalists being attacked in just two weeks and ten attacked in three months across the country.”
Amid the growing wave of anti-press violence, the officials noted, one journalist has already died under questionable circumstances after he reportedly complained of pain in his body following brutal flogging by officers of the Executive Protection Service (EPS), President Weah’s bodyguards.
They further indicated another attempt as to suppress dissent as the latest arrest and detention on May 12, 2020 of Menipakei Dumoe, acting chairman of the Council of Patriots (COP), an advocacy movement, which held a mass protest against the Weah government early this year for rampant corruption and nonperformance.
According to media reports, Mr. Dumoe was arrested after he posted on his Facebook page: “We don’t need free bags of rice. I say we the poor in Monrovia need AK-47s so our leaders can take us seriously.” The President of the Liberia National Bar Association, Counsellor Tiawan Gongloe, who is legally representing Mr. Dumoe, said his client’s Facebook post was in reaction to the government’s food distribution process and not intended to incite violence as the government had claimed.
Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe, an internationally-respected human rights lawyer, added that Mr. Dumoe was not a member of any of the defunct warring factions and he has no history of involvement in violence.
However, speaking at a press conference in Monrovia recently, Solicitor General Cephus said Dumoe’s statement was in violation of the prevailing State of Emergency because it “created fear and it is a campaign of terror and misinformation that clearly represents the fake and dangerous news …”
“While we may disagree with Mr. Dumoe’s comments, he has the right to freely express himself under the Liberian Constitution. This is why we strongly condemn the government’s action by using the State of Emergency to arrest and detain the leader of the most vocal advocacy group in Liberia,” the officials said.
According to the PUL officials, the developments cited are clearly an attempt to instill fear in the people and silence them from speaking against the unprecedented scale of incompetence by the Weah government, in which rampant corruption has thrived.
They claim the Weah Administration is surrounded by a bunch of misfits and a criminal few parading as presidential advisors and confidants, stressing that Mr. Weah has proven to the Liberian people that he lacks the competence, integrity, intelligence, and maturity to serve as President of Liberia.
“After nearly three years in office, it is clear that President Weah is clueless as to what it takes to lead a democratic country, and that is why the Liberian people are suffering more hardship and the country is in rapid decline,” the release noted.
“We wish to also note that the arrest of Dumoe, who was released by Justice Minister Musa Dean after spending two nights in detention, is another glaring example of the double standard or selective justice under the Weah government,” the two men added.
The men also recalled that a former rebel General, Augustine Nagbe, who hails from President Weah’s ethnic group and home county, called for the formation of a “Kru Defense Force” as a private militia to protect President Weah. Since the pronouncement by the notorious ex-rebel commander, who goes by the nom de guerre General Power, there has been no report of any action taken against him and he remains a part of the security forces in the country.
“Another blatant example of the government’s selective justice regards the respective cases surrounding COP leader Henry P. Costa, who the government attempted to extradite from Sierra Leone, to where he had fled from Liberia, on frivolous allegations of forged travel document. The other is Mr. A. Ndubusi Nwabudike, a Nigerian fraudulently claiming Liberian citizenship, who is known to be a close associate of President Weah,” said the PUL officials.
“Embarrassed by a firestorm of protests and condemnation,” the men claim, “President Weah was forced to withdraw the nomination of Mr. Nwabudike as Chairman-designate of the National Elections Commission (NEC) on April 2, 2020.”
They claim that since Mr. Nwabudike’s fraudulent claim to Liberian citizenship was exposed, the Nigerian national continues to serve as Chair of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, a major integrity institution, to where President Weah had appointed him before his nomination to the NEC, even though this is in violation of the Constitution that allows only Liberian citizens to occupy such a position that the Nigerian occupies.
They cited another example of selective justice under the Weah government as the apparent criminal involvement of Solicitor General Cephus in the dropping of charges against Ms. Ellen Corkrum, the fugitive former Managing Director of the LiberiaAirport Authority (LAA). Prior to his appointment as Solicitor General, Mr. Cephas was the lawyer for Ms. Corkrum, who absconded Liberia and was facing extradition from the United States on charges of economic sabotage, criminal facilitation, conspiracy to defraud the government, and making unauthorized transfer of funds from government accounts.
The PUL officials said upon becoming Solicitor General, Mr. Cephus used his position to have the government drop the charges against Ms. Corkrum in December 2019 without the knowledge of Justice Minister Musa Dean.
“We call on the loud-mouth Solicitor General Cephus, who has demonstrated to be rebel-oriented, to desist from using the State of Emergency to suppress dissent to cover up the Weah government’s colossal failure in fulfilling its promises to the Liberian people that their lives would improve under a Weah presidency,” the officials said.
The officials, who had rejected earlier Dr. Laurence K. Bropleh appointment to preside over the investigative committee constituted by President Weah to look into journalists’ claim of harassment and intimidation, renewed their call to the President to reconstitute the committee leaving out Bropleh. They claim Bropleh lacks integrity and credibility to preside over the investigation, and he is moreover a Special Envoy and Advisor to the President.