One aspect of political despotism in Liberia's dark past was the intolerance of public officials to public scrutiny – even if there were reasons for suspicion. They used two tactics: silence critics through repressive laws and drive the media, the critics' conduits, into self-censorship and praise singing. The recent enactment of the Freedom of Information Act promises hope for change; but it seems old habits die hard and even the liberal media has no hiding place. Unfolding events at the Civil Law Court in Monrovia involving a presidential advisor, two newspapers, and an opposition figure in a libel duel indicates that political heavy-handedness is still with the Liberian people. The Analyst, reports.
The Presidential Advisor and Chairman of the Board of Director of the National Oil Company, Robert Sirleaf, has sued The Independent newspaper, The Analyst newspaper, and the Head of Axillaries of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), Mr. Jefferson Koijee, for libel and disparagement.
If Judge Yussif D. Kaba of the Civil Law Court of Monrovia for the Sixth Judicial Circuit sitting in its 2012 March Term decides on April 7, 2012 that the trio is guilty of libel and disparagement, Mr. Sirleaf would be US $11.0 million richer.
Observers say if that happened, there is no telling what the fates of the trio would be, given the state of Liberia's economy and the earning powers of individuals and Liberian-owned businesses, mainly the media.
In the court's writ issued Wednesday, last week under the signature of Clerk Ellen Hall, the presiding judge ordered Sheriff Clara N. Kpaingbai to summon The Independent newspaper through, Messrs. Alfred Sebah and Managing Editor Helroz Zorleh; The Analyst newspaper, through its Managing Editor Stanley Seakor and business manager; and CDC Axillaries Chairman, Jefferson Koijee for an action of damage for libel.
The defendants or respondents are to appear before the Civil Law Circuit Sixth Judicial Circuit Court, Montserrado County, on April 7, 2012 at 10:00 a.m.
Upon the failure of the defendants or respondents to appear as scheduled, the court warned, it would render judgment by default against them.
The civil law court predicates its summons on a complaint filed on behalf of Mr. Sirleaf by his counsel, Cllr. Milton Taylor, of the Taylor & Associates Inc. Law firm.
"Our legal and professional services have been retained by Mr. Robert F. Sirleaf who complained to us referencing a front Page Article carried in Volume Number 209 edition of your paper captioned, 'SIRLEAF'S OIL OR LIBERIANS OIL? AS SIRLEAF HIJACKS FIVE OIL BLOCKS'," the counsel said in a communication to The Independent newspaper's Managing Editor Alfred Sebah.
The counsel said Mr. Sirleaf expressed "surprise and great indignation over the fact" and concluded that the paper's action must be deliberate.
"It is abundantly clear that the article is published with sinister motive of exposing Mr. Sirleaf to public ridicule, disgrace, hatred, security risks and above all, to disparaged his character and reputation both locally and internationally."
In the communication, a copy of which was reportedly sent to the Press Union of Liberia, the counsel said while it was aware of the paper's right under Article 15 (c) of the Constitution of Liberia, it demands that the paper "provide forensic evidence leading to your publication".
It is not clear if the counsel addressed similar communication to the other two respondents – the management of The Analyst newspaper and Mr. Koijee – but the civil law court's summons noted that Mr. Sirleaf is suing for a total of US $11.0 million in damage.
He is praying the court to award him – "for exposing him to public ridicule, disgrace, hatred, and security risks – US $8.0 million from The Independent newspaper, US $2.0 million from The Analyst newspaper, and US $1.0 million from Mr. Jefferson Koijee, the writer of the supposed libelous article.
In his complaint to the court, Mr. Sirleaf, through his counsel, said as a bona fide citizen of Liberia and a son of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, he has conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen who has built a good reputation for himself over the years.
He said his mother appointed him in government as advisor and board chairman of the National Oil Company, based on his qualification and good deportment, but that instead of recognizing his achievements, the newspapers, now respondents or defendants, chose to publish an article with motive calculated to debase him.
The presidential advisor further told the court through his counsel that attempts, through a communication dated March 20, 2012, by his counsel to make The Independent newspaper to retract its story had failed, prompting the court action.
What perhaps angered the advisor, according the complaint to the civil law court, was that The Independent newspaper carried headlines that equated him to the son of the President of Equatorial Guinea, who reportedly has US $50.0 million in oil asset.
Moreover, he said, the paper alleged in its article that he 'hurriedly formed a team to take over five oil blocks reportedly as reserves and has dispatched his friend, former Minister at the Executive Mansion, Samuel P. Jackson to South Africa to source partners to take over the concession'.
For its part, the summons said, The Analyst newspaper ignored the diabolical nature of the article The Independent newspaper published and republished it under the headline "WHERE ARE THE PROGRESSIVE? Wonders CDC Auxiliaries Chief in Light of Robert Sirleaf's Influence, Wealth".
"Plaintiff says that the article as carried in the Analyst Newspaper 2nd Defendant, was a product of one Jefferson Koijee, who claimed to be an Auxiliary of the Congress for Democratic Change," Mr. Sirleaf's complaint to the court conceded.
Despite the concession of Mr. Sirleaf's counsel that Mr. Koijee is the originator of the article The Analyst published, he argued that The Analyst's sin is that it "failed to exercise the degree of responsibility associated with the field of journalism in that from all indication".
"Defendant knew and had reason to know that the information provided them for publication by the 3 Defendant, Jefferson Koijee was never supported by any evidence. In any event, any rational person can deduce that the intended objective to allow a publication which has the propensity to impugn and besmear the reputation of prominent person, especially someone associated with the presidency, is to bring into public ridicule and exposed the office of the presidency to hatred and shame," the counsel supposed, surprising professional media observers.
Regarding Mr. Koijee, Mr. Sirleaf's counsel said he alleged that the presidential advisor "begged his mother for the job in anticipation of a 20% NOCAL has the power to apportion to Liberian free of charge".
"In view of the these, Mr. Sirleaf's counsel prayed that 'Damages for Libel per se shall lie where the Defendants' conduct with deprave minds calculated to embarrass and malign the reputation and character of the Plaintiff publish and broadcast damaging article that is intended to put the public against the Plaintiff'," the counsel's complaint to the civil law court said.
Up to press time last night, it is not clear whether the plaintiffs have filed their returns to the Civil Law Court of Monrovia.
However, The Analyst's Managing Editor Stanley Seakor said over the weekend that his paper could not be held liable because it counterbalanced what Mr. Sirleaf's counsel is now regarding as failure "to exercise the degree of responsibility associated with the field of journalism".
"We carried Mr. Jefferson Koijee's views and subsequently carried Rep. Rufus Neufville's rebuttal to the view on behalf of Mr. Robert Sirleaf and the progressives. This is a basic requirement of journalistic responsibility. Had we had any sinister motive for publishing that article, we would not have carried the rebuttal.
"The dilemma here is we could not have overlooked or buried the views of a key opposition figure against a top public official, even if we have any inkling about insufficient facts. That would have been a disservice to the government and the Liberian people, who are anxious to get to the bottom of all issues relating to corruption and graft. This is not about Mr. Sirleaf," Mr. Seakor said.
However, he said The Analyst would prefer to meet with Mr. Sirleaf to address his qualms and concerns rather than rushing to court.
"What dialogue can achieve, the court might never achieve half of it," he noted.