documentBy Tiawan S. Gongloe (Cllr.)
In a democratic society, the people participate in the governance of their country through two basic ways. The first is by voting for persons among contestants for public posts, that they consider best suited to perform the functions of the offices for which they are contesting. The decision to vote for a person to occupy a public office is based, or better still, should be based on the past record of that person. This is the first way in which people participate in their own governance.
The second way by which people participate in their own governance is by advocating for what is good for their country. These two ways seem to be complementary. If the people vote for leaders based on their past records of saying and doing what the people consider to be in the interest of the public good, then the chances are that the people will spend less time advocating for the public good. Conversely, if the people elect persons to public offices who have no record of commitment to what the people consider to be in the interest of the public good, then the chances are that they, the people, will spend more time advocating for the public good. In Liberia, today, the fight against corruption is considered by both the government and the people to be the most important task in the transformation of Liberia to become a peaceful, just, humane, progressive, productive and prosperous nation.
Our President has identified corruption as the number one enemy of Liberia. There is nobody in Liberia that has disagreed or will disagree with our president that corruption is our number one enemy. The people are the ones that feel the pain inflicted by corruption, as corruption prevents them from having basic necessities of life such as, food, good health, sound education, safe drinking water, electricity, communication, good and affordable public transport system, housing, amongst others. In her inaugural speech in 2006, the president assured us that she would lead by example in her effort to change Liberia for the better, including her fight against corruption.
This for me should be the focus of all advocates against corruption in Liberia, today. We should help the President to be an excellent example in the fight against corruption. We should help her to be a respected general in our national battle against corruption. In a battle, the army can have the best plan, strategy and tactics to win a war, but if the general shows any form of weakness, the army loses its morale and become a weak force against the enemy. The best army can fail in its mission, if it is not properly commanded.
Those of us who lived in Monrovia during the early 1990s observed this situation with ECOMOG (the Economic Community of West Africa Peace Monitoring Group). We observed a weak ECOMOG, when it was commanded by generals Arnold Quinoo, Rufus Kupolati, Ishaya Bakut, and John Iniengar on the one hand, and when the same force was commanded by Generals Joshua Dogonyaro and Adetunji Olurin. Under the first named generals, ECOMOG was a very weak peacekeeping force. Under the last two named generals, ECOMOG was a credible and well respected peacekeeping force. Under the leadership of these two generals all of the various unit commanders of ECOMOG were strong, feared and respected by the parties to the Liberian conflict. I can say without any fear of contradiction that it is for these two generals that ECOMOG is still and will continue to be remembered in Liberia. When Liberians say Thank God For ECOMOG, it is because of the leadership of these two generals. The leader is, therefore, important in every battle and every national initiative. Former Vice President of Liberia, Bishop Bennie Warner once said, "the fish starts getting rotten from the head".
In terms of plans and strategies for combating corruption, many good initiatives have been undertaken by the government of President Sirleaf such as the Anti-Corruption Strategy produced by the Governance Commission, the establishment of the General Auditing Commission and advocating with partners for strengthening its capacity and independence, the establishment of the Anti-corruption Commission, the passage of the whistleblowers' Act, the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the tolerance of press freedom, amongst others. However, if the President, members of her cabinet, her family members, confidants and close associates conduct themselves in manners that have the potential of undermining the fight against corruption, the soldiers in this battle, such as law enforcement officers, auditors, prosecutors, anti-corruption investigators will lose their morale. In the end, the people of Liberia will be defeated in the war against their number one enemy, corruption.
The role of advocates is not to let this happen to Liberia. It is the role of advocates to use the enabling laws to keep constantly reminding the President and her cabinet about what needs to be done and suggesting ways to do the things that need to be done. For example, not much is heard anymore about the email scandal. Yet this was the first major test to the President's commitment to the fight against corruption, given that some of her close family members and associates were involved. The press does not say anything about it anymore. It is no more on the top agenda of civil society advocates. One report of the GAC had detail account of how public money was used by the Chairman of the Board of NOCAL to bribe members of the Legislature. According to that report the Chairman admitted to spending public money in such a criminal manner. Yet nothing has happened. The press and civil society advocates who initially showed so much interest in these matters are no more interested. If the battle against corruption must be won then the fighters including the press, the civil society and functionaries of government with assignments at the battlefront must be persistent, consistent and insistent in not only identifying the enemy but in their battle against the enemy until final victory is achieved.
The Freedom of Information Act is a major weapon in the fight against corruption. The President of the Press Union of Liberia, other civil society organizations, our international partners and the members of the 52nd Legislature deserve the unending gratitude of the Liberian people for this great achievement in the search for the truth in Liberia. Truth is a necessary condition for an effective war against corruption. To know the truth that corruption exist in a public office or in the use of a public resource by a private entity; to know the truth of the nature of the corrupt act; to know the truth of the degree of corruption that is taking place; to know the truth of how corruption is invading a public institution and to know the truth of who is engaged in corruption are all important steps in the war against corruption. Yet since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act there have been complaints by some members of the civil society and the press that some public officials to whom requests have been made for the disclosure of information not exempted by the act, have either out rightly refused to disclose the required information or have been evasive and baffling in their disposition. If this kind of attitude persists, then the Freedom of Information Act will be meaningless. But the press and advocates must not let this happen to Liberia. The more resistant public officials become to obeying the Freedom of Information Act, the more determined the press and civil society advocates should be in getting the information that they want. One way of getting information that is not exempted by law is to petition the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to compel public officials to disclose information, if they refuse to do so upon request. Let me offer my free legal service in this regard.
While we applaud the President, the Legislature and everyone else for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, it must be noted that the existence of certain anti-press laws in Liberia undermines the advocacy against corruption in Liberia. Sedition, Criminal Malevolence and Criminal Libel Against the President as are found in chapter 11 of the Penal Law of Liberia make it difficult to advocate against the President and any official of the government in the legislative, executive and the judiciary branches of government on matters of corruption. This difficulty is likely to increase as a result of the developing tendency of refusal to disclose information by public officials. As part of the efforts to build a democratic and clean society, it is important that these anti-free expression laws be repealed.
Without repealing these laws it would be difficult to know, for example, whether the President is no more influencing the other two branches of government as was done in the past. It is difficult to fight corruption if the President virtually controls the legislature and the judiciary as have always been the case in this country.
The failure of Liberia to build a democratic and clean society in the past was partly based on the existence of anti-free expression laws and the virtual control of the legislature and judiciary by the President of Liberia. Journalist Tuan Wreh, for example, was sentenced by the legislature to six months of imprisonment for legislative contempt, made to collect the feces of other inmates with his bare hands, marsh them with his bare hands as if he was preparing a palm-butter sauce and to walk in the streets of Monrovia naked and with his face splattered with feces just for writing an article with the title, "Inside Politics: Why you should not vote for Tubman" in the Independent, a newspaper owned by the Independent True Whig Party in 1955. Following Tuan Wreh's arrest and detention, the Independent carried very critical articles including one with the caption, "Monrovia behold the Evils of Tubmanism". The paper's editor, Bertha Corbin was later found guilty of legislative contempt, also and fined $5,000 for an article in the Independent article that said, "The Liberian Legislature has become a phantom body of usurpers and cringing servants. They convoke special sessions for reasons of no means to the country. For example: Granting the President an amount to purchase a pleasure-riding boat costing $1,000,000, granting the President leave of absence to make a merry-go-round visit as social exhibit to foreign nations, granting the President emergency powers to suspend the writ of habeas corpus..." The article went further, "The Independent True Whig Party...conducted their county conventions in various counties for the purpose of selecting men to oppose this self-imposed body of whisky-drinking braggadocios, bent on the wishes of a world-famous dictator..." What Tubman really wanted was for Bertha Corbin to be deported to the United States, her former country. But she was a Liberian by her marriage to a Liberia because the Alien and Nationality Law of Liberia at that time provided that an alien black woman could became a citizen of Liberia, immediately upon her marriage to a Liberian man. Since she could not be deported under that law, Tubman influenced the legislature to amend the law and it was done. Under the new law marriage alone was not sufficient to grant citizenship to an alien black woman. After the amendment of the law, Mrs. Corbin was deported.
Many other journalists have suffered for being critical of the Government of Liberia and its functionaries, especially the President of Liberia. They include , the venerable Albert Porte, jailed by Tubman in 1946, the most, unwavering, tireless, consistent and persistent advocate in Liberian history; C. Frederick Taylor, editor of the African Nationalist(1948) Rev. T. A. Richards, founder and editor of the Friend, whose pressroom was ransacked and its printing press smashed on September 9, 1954, Abrahim Kamanda, news editor of the Independent after Bertha Corbin, who had to flee to Sierra Leone, after his arrest was ordered by government in 1955; Aston S. King and Bertram Rudlow Walker, editor and reporter respectively of the Liberian Age, owned by the True Whig Party, in May 1966 and Judge Lewis K. Free jailed on the charge of sedition for revealing to the press that the three jurors in an embezzlement case that was on-going had been taken to the Executive Mansion to see the President. There were others who suffered under Tubman for their roles as journalists such as J. Benedictus Barr, Stanton Peabody, Roland Mucorlor, Rufus Darpoh, and Abigail Urey (although in her case it was for a few hours).
Under President William R. Tolbert, the independent press had virtually been killed by the True Whig Party, therefore, only student advocates/journalists and Albert Porte suffered from repressive actions of government. What happened to journalists, advocates and media institutions were virtually repeated under the rule of Samuel Kanyon Doe and President Charles Taylor.
The memories of those periods are still fresh in the minds of nearly everyone present here today. Many of the advocates for the Freedom of Information Act may have been invigorated by the memory of the past, especially the era of Tubman, Doe and Taylor in their advocacy for this act. We cannot successfully combat corruption unless we have a true Liberia, a land of liberty for all in which every fundamental right is respected, promoted and protected by law. While rights may be limited by law, such laws must be for the purpose of respecting the rights of others and for the protection of the common good. In this regard, the law on Criminal Libel Against the President, Criminal Malevolence and Sedition cannot to any degree of reasoning be considered be for the interest of the common good. If the Freedom of Information Act must be effective in our effort to build a free, peaceful, secured and democratic country- a true Liberia; if the Freedom of Information Act must be a serious weapon in our armory for the war against corruption, then these laws that inhibit the ability of the press and advocates to inform the people about the custodians of public trust, must be repealed.
Historically, sedition, criminal malevolence and criminal libel against the President were meant to protect despotism and to prevent the building of a democratic society. If we are not pretentious about our commitment to rebuild Liberia on the foundation of democracy, then it should not be difficult for us to reach a consensus on the repeal of these draconian gag laws. Now is the time. Let us prevail on the 53rd Legislature to repeal these laws as a first order of priority on their return to the Capitol Hill next January.
I thank you.