FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

2 December 2013

Liberia: Corkrum Gag Order Off the Mark - Liberian Govt. Must Adapt to Modern Media Technology

We find it difficult to understand why this government in this day and age is yet to comprehend the fact that modern technology has made it almost impossible to silence the media from doing its work.

ACTING ON A BILL of Information filed by the Ministry of Justice, the Criminal Court C, First Judicial Court, Montserrado County under the mantle of Judge A. Blamo Dixon has ordered media institutions operating in the Republic of Liberia to refrain and desist from publishing or airing any of the recordings relating to the ongoing controversy involving the fugitive former head of the Liberia Airport Authority, Ellen Corkrum.

THE COURT'S ORDER READS:

By Directive of His Honor A. Blamo Dixon, Resident Circuit Judge presiding , Criminal Assiszes C, First Judicial Court, Montserrado County, Republic of Liberia, sitting in its November Term, A.D. 2013, you are hereby ordered to refrain and desist from any and all further publication of any matter relating to the activities of Co-Respondent Ellen Corkrum in Liberia as Former Managing Director of RIA including meetings and discussions of Officials of the Government of the Republic of Liberia as it relates directly or indirectly to this case. You are further prohibited from holding any Radio Program including Talk Shows, publication, broadcasting or disseminating by radio, press and electronic media, any interview, discussions or tapes and or any recording, made by Ellen K. Corkrum while serving as Managing Director of the LAA which directly or indirectly touches on this case. You are hereby ordered not to broadcast on you radio station/or publish in your newspaper this order.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA and other media institutions have already been served the order which the government hopes will curb discussions about the case. "You can play the recording but the(Ellen Corkrum and Melvin Johnson) cannot get into discussions about the case," a Justice Ministry official told FPA on condition of anonymity.

GAG ORDERS on media institutions are not new but have been resisted on a number of occasions. In South Africa for example, South African newspapers published photos of President Jacob Zuma's home in defiance of a verbal ban by the country's state security minister. "No one, including those in the media, is allowed to take images and publicize images even pointing where the possible security breaches are," State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele had warned the media.

IN RESPONSE, South African daily, The Star splashed its front page with a picture of the scenic home with the caption "Look Away" in bold across the top and a sub-headline that reads "Even the White House has its own virtual tour." Another popular local paper taunted authorities with the headline "So arrest us," along with a snap of Zuma's sprawling estate in the town of Nkandla, southeast of the capital.

OTHER MEDIA institution took to microblogging site Twitter to express their outrage about what they say is a move to restrict free speech by the African National Congress government, including journalist Barry Bateman, who tweeted the Google coordinates to the President's home and urged his followers to use the satellite imaging service to view it.

WE FIND IT difficult to understand why this government in this day and age is yet to comprehend the fact that modern technology has made it almost impossible to silence the media from doing its work.

THE UNITED STATES Supreme Court for example has repeatedly made it clear that the courts may rarely, if ever, prevent the press from reporting on court proceedings and documents. The Court ruled in Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 559 (1976) that "prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights" and are presumed to be unconstitutional.

ACCORDING TO THE COURT, such a gag order is a "most extraordinary remedy" that may be used only in "exceptional cases" where "the evil that would result from the reportage is both great and certain and cannot be mitigated by less intrusive measures." CBS Inc. v. Davis 510 U.S. 1315, 1317 (1994) (Blackmun, J., in chambers) (citations omitted). Prior restraints on covering court proceedings and records may indeed never be permissible, because "[w]hat transpires in the court room is public property ... . Those who see and hear what transpired can report it with impunity." Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367, 374 (1947). Indeed, courts have refused to gag coverage of court proceedings even when a media organization is a party to the underlying case. The court in Freedom Communications v. Superior Court, 167 Cal. App. 4th 150, 152 (2008) thus overturned "an order enjoining [a media company] from reporting on trial testimony in a case in which it is the defendant." But in Seattle Times Company v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20, 33 (1984), the Supreme Court noted that a newspaper party could not publish information it obtained in discovery because "pretrial depositions and interrogatories are not public components of a civil trial."

WE HOPE strongly that the Criminal Law Court in Liberia will reexamine its decision to keep the media from effectively carrying out its job and reporting on the Ellen Corkrum saga.

IN ANY SENSE, multiple media avenues are available anyway for Liberians and international partners to adequately and effectively have access to the recordings. More importantly, the last time we checked, secret recordings were not admissible during court proceedings. So why is the government afraid of what is already widely circulated in the public domain?

HOWEVER THIS saga plays out, one thing remains certain: Issuing a gag order on media institutions will only hurt this government's image locally and internationally as a proponent of anti-media. This is a wrong move which needs to be corrected in the interest of free speech and freedom of the press.

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