Africa

President Weah Applauded for Resubmission of Bill to Repeal Anti-Free Speech Laws

Washington, D.C.- June 19, 2018: As a former leader of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), who served in several capacities including Secretary General and Acting President from 1987- ‘93, I join the PUL in applauding President George Manneh Weah for the resubmission to the National Legislature, a bill seeking to repeal some sections of the Penal Law of Liberia in an effort to decriminalize free speech and create an unfettered flow of news in the media environment.

Logo of Press Union of Liberia

The passage of the bill into law by the National Legislature would be another milestone for freedom of speech and of the press in Liberia, and also, one that would further strengthen Liberia’s nascent democracy.

Over the years, laws relating to defamation, libel and sedition have been used to criminalize freedom of speech and of the press and to penalize the media and those who dared to exercise their right to free speech.

This action by President Weah, just four months following the inauguration of his government, is a very encouraging sign that the new government is building upon the democratic gains of the past administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and that Liberia is continuing on a forward course of democratic governance, peace and progress.

One of the major accomplishments of the past administration is the tolerance of dissent, which has birthed an unprecedented level of freedom in Liberia. This is manifested by the fact that in 2010, Liberia became the first country in West Africa to pass into law a Freedom of Information (FOI) act – a law that grants public access to documents or other data in the possession of a government agency or public authority, unless the information falls into a certain category that is specifically excluded from the terms of the legislation.

President George M. Weah.

This was followed by Liberia becoming a signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls for the repeal of criminal defamation and “insult” laws across the African Continent, and was adopted at the World Newspaper Congress held in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2007.

Despite these accomplishments, freedom of speech and of the press remains under threat in Liberia while the laws on libel, defamation and sedition, which are inimical to free speech, are on the books.

Having served during the first four years of the Sirleaf administration as Assistant Minister and Deputy Minister for Public Affairs, respectively, at the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, tasked with the critical responsibility to manage the media and public expectations, I am grateful to God for the opportunity to help institute the necessary reforms that created the enabling environment that has brought about the gains made toward freedom of speech and of the press in Liberia.

However, I am on record for stating that the gains made toward freedom of speech and of the press in Liberia are under threat as long as there are laws on the books that criminalize these fundamental rights.

As a former leader of the PUL, I recall the many journalists and others who have suffered and sacrificed over the decades, some losing their livelihoods and their lives in the process, due to the imposition of draconian laws such as provisions of the laws on defamation, libel, and sedition, among others.

To cite a few historical examples among the many tales of repression, I specifically recall Liberia’s 1925 False Publication Act, which stipulated heavy penalties for “harmful and false” statements against the President and other government officials; I recall  legendary pamphleteer Albert Porte, who endured constant harassment and imprisonment for his advocacy for good governance; I recall in the 1950s, C. Frederick Taylor, editor of theAfrican Nationalist newspaper, who languished in prison for nearly 15 years for publishing what the establishment did not like; as well as editors Bertha Corbin and Tuan Wreh of the Independent Weekly, who, like Mr. Taylor, also served prison sentences for criminal libel of the political elite, including the President.

An American born but naturalized Liberian, Ms. Corbin was denaturalized and deported to the United States, while Mr. Wreh was severely tortured and reportedly forced to clean feces and toilets with his bare hands in prison.

Map of Liberia

I also recall that the PUL was founded in 1964 by a group of journalists to advocate for their collective interest, following the arbitrary detention of Stanton B. Peabody, then editor of the Liberian Age, for publishing an article that angered some establishment elites.

This is why I join the PUL and others in applauding President Weah for the resubmission of the bill to decriminalize free speech, and I pray that the National Legislature would undertake a speedy passage of the bill.

According to an Executive Mansion release, the bill to the National Legislature, which was resubmitted on May 31, 2018, seeks to amend Chapter 11 of the Penal Law of 1978, repealing Sections 11.11 on criminal libel against the President; 11.12 on Sedition; and 11.14 on Criminal Malevolence.

House Speaker Bhofal Chambers

In his letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dr. Bofal Chambers, President Weah noted that Chapter 111, Article 15 of the Constitution of Liberia provides for Freedom of Speech and expression and a caveat of an abuse thereof.

Additionally, he added, Liberia is a signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration, which demands that African countries abolish insult and criminal defamation laws.

The President also reminded the National Legislature of the legal instruments on press freedom Liberia established, such as the passage of the Freedom of Information Law, followed by the establishment of the Independent Information Commission.

According to President Weah, “Liberia, in anticipation of fully adhering to these legal instruments; enacted the Freedom of Information Law and established the Freedom of Information Commission. However, there appears to be challenges in the full implementation of these as Section 11.11: Criminal Libel against the President; Section 11.12: Sedition; and Section 11.14: Criminal Malevolence of the Penal Laws of Liberia tend to impede freedom of speech and expression and acts committed thereof are considered to be criminal.”

If enacted into law, the Act will be known as the Kamara Abdullai Kamara Act of Press Freedom, in honor of deceased journalist Kamara Abdullai Kamara, former President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL).

I also thank President Weah for naming the proposed act in memory of Mr. Kamara. Before the end of his tenure as President of the PUL, I met Mr. Kamara, who headed a PUL delegation from Liberia at the 2017 annual convention of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. During that event, I inquired from Mr. Kamara as to what the PUL was doing to repeal anti-media laws on the books. He briefly explained to me efforts that were being made and challenges that were faced.

Late T. Nelson Williams Sr.

May I also use this opportunity to extend condolences to the bereaved family of Professor T. Nelson Williams, former President of the PUL and former Chair of the Mass Communications Department of the University of Liberia, who died in the U.S. on May 28, 2018, in his 84th year.

Professor Williams played a critical leadership role in the establishment of the UL Mass Communications Department. May we be inspired by his contributions to the cause

of press freedom and democracy in Liberia.

Gabriel I. H. Williams

Minister Counselor and Press Attaché

Embassy of Liberia

Washington DC, USA