Towards Repealing Liberia’s Draconian Press Laws

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Aaron Kollie, CEO of Power TV, made a strong point last week when he insisted that the perilous media conditions existing in Liberia can and must be reformed by the Liberian government exercising the political will to make reform happen.

Addressing a panel during the two-day Media Law and Regulatory Reform Stakeholders Conference, Mr. Kollie said the free press, which government continuously boasts about, must not be measured simply by the proliferation of media houses and free talk, but by the formulation of laws and policies that safeguard that freedom in line with constitutional foundation.

Kollie described the media reform initiative as “a strategic initiative to safeguard the sacred journalism profession.”

We are pleased to hear Mr. Kollie describe the journalism profession as “sacred,” but how many Liberian journalists think so? But first, let us understand what “sacred” means. It means holy, consecrated, revered.

How many Liberian journalists are practicing journalism in a “sacred” manner? For a very long time the profession has been seen by many as “pay as you go,” meaning you can get anything published or broadcast once you are backed by some unseen hand paying for it. No! That is just as corrupt as the very government which we journalists so often and so vigorously criticize for wrongdoing.

This brings us to the main point of Mr. Kollie’s remarks, that Liberia’s perilous media conditions “must be reformed by the Liberian government exercising the political will” to make it happen.

True, Liberia’s “perilous conditions” were made “perilous” by the punitive and punishing legislations made by the government itself, without regard to the Constitution. Take the law on Criminal Malevolence passed by the Tolbert Legislature in 1978. That law, seriously criticized by the constitutional analyst and pamphleteer Albert Porte, said the media could not criticize the Head of State of Liberia or any other country or high government official, even if the allegation were true.

Mr. Porte urged the government to repeal that law; otherwise it would spell trouble for the country. Like so many other warnings, this one went unheeded and ignored. And what happened almost two years later? The 1980 coup d’état, followed by the civil war.

So surely, it is primarily the responsibility of the government, which first put these laws into place, to take the first step to have them repealed and struck off the law books. If the GOL has the political will to do so, it should commandeer all the lawyers under its control, especially those in the Justice Ministry, but also lawyers that GOL can contract or co-opt to help with the repeal process by drafting the repeal bills for forwarding to the Legislature. GOL should then undertake the necessary follow-ups until the repeal process is successfully concluded.

But it takes two to tango. The PUL and all Liberian journalists have a stake in this noble and urgent endeavor. Fortunately, the PUL and Liberian journalists are not weak. They have many friends in the legal profession who think that way—lawyers who know that the perilous laws are wrong because they violate the Constitution. These media-friendly legal professionals are willing and ready to help PUL put its case before the Legislature.

We refer to such media-friendly lawyers as Counselor Tiawan Gongloe, former Solicitor General and former Labor Minister, Attorney Kofi Woods, former Public Works Minister, and others.

We recall that when in 1984 the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) government closed down the Daily Observer and later sued it for “quo warranto” in an attempt to cancel its Articles of Incorporation, Counselor Varney Sherman, then a partner in the Maxwell and Maxwell Law Firm, joined the Observer’s retained Counsel, Counselor S. Raymond Horace, Sr. and other powerful lawyers and came to this newspaper’s defense, free of charge!

The Daily Observer won the case before the Justice in Chambers, His Honor Emmanuel Koroma. But the state, under the leadership of the infamous Attorney General, Jenkins Scott, shamelessly took appeal to the full bench of the Supreme Court.

All of the Justices on the Supreme Court bench were seen laughing as Counselor Laveli Supuwood, representing the state, floundered while presenting his legal arguments. We the Observer staff present, and our lawyers, knew we had won the case again.

Alas, on the day of judgment, Chief Justice Emmanuel Gbalazeh did not have the courage or integrity to place the case on the docket. When, during the Supreme Court’s first recess, Counselor Horace asked him why the Observer case was absent from the docket, the CJ replied, “You think I’m stupid? You want me to lose my job?”

Having surrendered his constitutional, judicial authority to the Executive, in clear violation of the “separation of powers,” Chief Justice Gbalazeh was himself listening to the radio on July 26, 1984, when Head of State Samuel K. Doe announced the reopening of the Daily Observer newspaper.

We submit that PUL should not wait for government alone to take the repeal initiative, though it should. But we in the PUL, too, should marshal our own team of erudite and patriotic lawyers to join in the repeal process, and work diligently until all these draconian laws are repealed.

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