FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

29 November 2013

Liberia: GAG Order Issued in Ellen Corkrum Saga, Media Warned Against Airing Tapes

Looking to curb the wave of secret recordings being unleashed by Ellen Corkrum, the fugitive former head of the Liberia Airport Authority, and her fiancé Melvin Johnson, Liberia's Ministry of Justice has reportedly filed a Bill of Information at the Criminal Court C in Monrovia, preventing media institutions from playing, publishing or discussing the recordings.

FrontPageAfrica has not received an official notification from the court and several media institutions have also not received the citations. But a senior Justice Ministry official confirmed to FrontPageAfrica Friday that the bill has been filed because the government does not want the case to be discussed. "You can play the recording but the(Ellen Corkrum and Melvin Johnson) cannot get into discussions about the case.

Mamadee Diakete, station manager at Truth FM posts on his Facebook page that he had received a copy which reads:

"You are further prohibited from holding any radio program including talk-shows, publication, broadcasting or disseminating by radio, press and electronic media, any interview, discussion or tapes and any other recording, made by Ellen K. Corkrum while serving as Managing Director of the LAA which directly or indirectly touches on this matter (Republic of Liberia versus Ellen K. Corkrum - Crime: Economic Sabotage, Theft of Property)".

This, according to Justice ministry officials would mean anyone going against the court order would be in violation of the court order which is punishable under the law.

Frank Sainworla, Station Manager at Radion Veritas read a text message from Deputy Minister of Information, Isaac Jackson that a writ was on the way but has not officially received a copy.

A gag order, also known as a gagging order or suppression order, is an order, typically a legal order by a court or government, restricting information or comment from being made public, or in some cases, passed onto any unauthorized third party. The phrase may sometimes be used of a private order by an employer or other institution.

In the case of the current controversy, Justice Ministry officials say they are hoping to prevent a potential jury pool from being tainted.

Critics say gag orders restricts and limits may limit freedom of the press by instituting censorship or restricting access to information.

Legal experts say gag orders may be abused as a useful tool for those of financial means to intimidate witnesses and prevent release of information, using the legal system rather than other methods of intimidation.

Under U.S. laws, used by Liberia as a legal guide, a court can order parties to a case not to comment on it but has no authority to stop unrelated reporters from reporting on a case. "Thus, information concerning a case is often leaked to the media, and the media often chooses to publicly report this leaked information after receiving it. In addition, this information can be used to the media's advantage, as they can decide to post negative information about a person who is involved with a case and who has been issued a gag order, knowing that that person cannot comment on the publicly reported information due to the gag order being imposed on this person."

More recently, a U.S. federal district court judge ruled that the top-secret national security letters used by federal law enforcement as part of their surveillance program violated the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the government to stop issuing national security letters (NSLs). The order declared the non-disclosure provisions accompanying these letters were unconstitutional, as they "significantly infringe on speech regarding controversial government powers.

In her ruling, Illston said the fact that the gag orders were indefinite and did not expire, making them "overly broad." The only way the non-disclosure provisions could be removed was for the telecomm provider to go to the court and ask the order be lifted. Consider how expensive a court case could be, this was essentially a "permanent ban on speech," Illston noted.

A blanket prohibition on disclosure "creates too large a danger that speech is being unnecessarily restricted," she wrote. About 97 percent of more than 200,000 NSLs issued had a gag order, according to figured provided by the Justice Department. The "pervasive use" of gag orders and the FBI's failure to show why the letters are needed to protect national security "creates too large a danger that speech is being unnecessarily restricted."

The pair has so far played recordings of President Sirleaf, Defense Minister Samukai, Minister of State Dr. Edward McClain and LAA Board Chair Musa Bility.

The recordings have spurred interests from both Liberians and the international community prompting the lower house of the national legislature to query the matter. On Wednesday, the leadership of the House of Representatives' announced that its attention had been drawn to unfolding developments in Monrovia, amidst the release of documents linking the Presidency and other senior officials of government to allegations of misconduct and other issues with purported economic and national security implications. "The leadership of the House of Representatives, while actively involved in a nationwide solicitation of the peoples' input on the draft Petroleum Laws, is deeply concerned about these developments. Please be assured that we are currently in the process of taking significant steps to obtain the appropriate information from broad consultations on the matter, to inform our own deliberations."

In August, the Liberian government announced an indictment of Cockrum and her fiancé, accusing the pair with the crime of Economic Sabotage, Theft of Property, criminal conspiracy and misapplication of entrusted property. Cockrum was indicted along with LAA board chair, Musa Bility, Diaspora Consulting LLC thru Moamar Dieng.

The indictment alleged that the accused conspired to and did do and commit the crime of economic Sabotage in flagrant violation of Chapter 15, sub-chapter "F", section 15.81(a)(b)(c), Misapplication of Entrusted property in violation of Chapter 15, sub-chapter "D", sections 15.56; Theft of Property in violation of Chapter 15, sub-chapter "D", section 15.51 (a)(c); Criminal Conspiracy in violation of Chapter 10, sub-chapter "D" section 10.4 (1)(2)(3)(4) of the penal code of Liberia.

Political observers say the government's attempt to curb the unleashing of the secret recordings is a signal and government's subtle admission that it may have lost the public relations war in the ongoing Corkrum saga.

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