Repressive Laws to Be Shown the Door at Last

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In her Annual Message to the Legislature on  Monday, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced that she was sending for enactment several bills, including some for the repeal of all laws found in the statutes and in decrees of the defunct People's Redemption Council (PRC) that militated against free expression and press freedom.

She reminded the Legislature that Liberia had been among the first African nations to ratify the Table Mountain Declaration calling for the repeal of repressive anti-press freedom laws.

She signed this Declaration in Monrovia on Saturday, July 21 2012, becoming the second sitting African Head of State to do so,   after Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou.

The Declaration seeks to abolish insult and criminal defamation laws in Africa and set  a free press higher on the agenda.

As she signed the Declaration, President Sirleaf cautioned then Press Union of Liberia president Peter Quaqua to "act now to establish self-regulating measures, as many other countries have done, to ensure
that the media acts responsibly by the granting of these freedoms. Both of us have that responsibility, if this Declaration will be more than the piece of paper that I sign, or we can make it a live instrument to protect the rights of all– journalists as well as any other citizen."

During the regime of President Charles Taylor, the Legislature repealed one of Liberia's worst  anti-press laws,  Decree 88A.  It was passed in the mid-1980s by the PRC regime of Head of State Samuel K. Doe. The law was so terrible that it stipulated that no one could say, write or publish anything offensive against any  head of state, Liberian or foreign, or against any diplomatic representative, or any government official, even if what was being published were true. That gave Samuel Doe and cohorts the freedom to commit any crime against the state or the people, and go scot free, without even a mention in the press.

A similar law which we hope has been sent forward for repeal is the Criminal Malevolence Act of 1978.  The legendary pamphleteer Albert Porte wrote a pamphlet about  Criminal Malevolence, in which he called it "a Nightmare with Foreboding."  It was intended by the Tolbert administration to tighten "internal security."

In his book on Albert Porte, Kenneth Y. Best records the full text of the law as contained in Mr. Porte's pamphlet.   The law stated that "A person has committed a first degree misdemeanor if he accuses any
executive authority, judicial authority, member of the Legislature or any public authority either by word or mouth, writing or by public broadcast or conduct which constitutes the commission of a crime, provided that at the time of such accusation:- a) the conduct charged  is untrue; b) the purpose of the actor is to thereby injure the official in his reputation and undermine his official status . . ."

"Criminal Malevolence," Mr. Porte said in his pamphlet, "is the latest large and heavy bundle of straw tied tightly on the back of the poor, weak, ailing, amenic, emaciated democratic camel."

Albert Porte declared that the new law signaled an intensification of Liberia's democratic decline; and instead of blaming one another, we should take action now! "We cannot stand idle while this democratic
ship of state catches fire," Mr. Porte wrote. That is exactly what  would happen should the law remain on the books, he warned.

As Mr. Best mentioned in his book, Albert Porte himself probably did not realize that the "fire" he predicted "had literal potency and would, in a short while, actually burst into uncontrollable flames
that would engulf the whole nation and beyond."

A year later April 14, the Rice Riots,   occurred; and the following year the coup, killing President Tolbert and his topmost officials and leading to the civil war that would spread far beyond Liberia.

Criminal Malevolence, though still on the books, lay largely quiescent (inactive, dormant).  But it is still there and the sooner it is removed the better. Its removal   and that of others like it would go a long way to make this first independent African republic more democratic, more peaceful, more stable, yea, more prosperous.

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