opinionBy Dr Hildebrand Shayo
Dr Hildebrand Shayo goes on with the part two of his analysis on CCM vowed fight against corruption and the scourge's evil in the development of true democracy.
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As part of the efforts to build a democratic and clean society, it is important that these anti-free expression laws be repealed.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 faeces of other inmates with his bare hands, marsh them with his bare hands as if he was preparing a palmbutter sauce and to walk in the streets of Monrovia naked and with his face splattered with faeces 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 whiskydrinking 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 Liberian 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 press room 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 armoury 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.
Dr Hildebrand Shayo is Senior Lecturer at The Open University of Tanzania. +255 765 76 45 53