In a major act of statesmanship before leaving power at the end of the year, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia on July 20, 2017, submitted to Parliament a bill to decriminalise press offenses, particularly, libel.
Titled "An Act to Amend the Liberian Codes Revised, Penal Law of 1978," the bill is expected to be considered by the legislature and passed before members take their annual leave ahead of Liberia's October 2017 general elections.
One of the offensive sections of the Penal Law - 11:11(b) - which the bill seeks to amend, defines as a "misdemanor" any publication which imputes crime to the President if "The purpose of the actor is to thereby injure the President in his reputation." Section 11:14 also defines as a "first degree misdemeanor" any such accusation "either by word of mouth, writing or by public broadcast" against any executive authority, judicial authority and member of the Legislature.
The media in Liberia and civil society organisations in and out of the country such as the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), have been lobbying since the post-conflict transition to have these portions of the criminal code repealed. In March 2014, a delegation from the MFWA, CEMESP and World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (or WAN-IFRA) held discussions with then Minister of Information, Lewis Brown, during which these organisations impressed on the Minister to scrap the criminal libel laws. In line with the Minister's assurances, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stated in her State of the Nation Address in January, 2015 that Liberia was ready to decriminalise press offenses and urged Parliament to approve the bill as soon as it is submitted.
"After lengthy debates and reviews by stakeholders, we are ready to submit, and will urge you to speedily pass into law the decriminalisation of media offenses because it is the right thing to do," President Sirleaf said during the annual account of her stewardship.
The promised submission, however, had to wait for another two and half years before it was finally done on July 20, 2017.
"Though it is long overdue, we highly welcome the submission by President Sirleaf. We are therefore calling on the National Parliament of Liberia to pass the bill before taking their annual leave," said an excited Malcolm Wleemogar Joseph, Executive Director of the Centre for Media Studies and Peace-building, CEMESP, a media rights organisation and national partners of the MFWA.
The introduction into Parliament of the bill comes barely a week after President Sirleaf assured Liberia's media executives that it would be done.
"My government remains unrelenting in its efforts at addressing anti-free speech and related instruments that are still part of our statutes", declared the President in response to concerns raised by the leadership of the Liberian media over the criminal libel albatross.
This was during a ground-breaking, one day-long retreat on July 14, 2017 in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, between the government and the media to exchange views and make recommendations for improving the work of the media.
A signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration which calls for an end to criminal libel, and having already passed a Right to Information Law, Liberia is on the threshold of a hat-trick of progressive legal instruments necessary for a vibrant media and civil society empowered to demand accountability and efficient public service delivery.
The MFWA wishes to commend the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the media and civil society organisations in Liberia for working together to come this close to ridding the legal environment of the country's media of a major toxin.
We wish to add our voice to the appeal by our national partners, CEMESP to the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Liberia's Parliament, to pass the bill. We are hopeful that the Senate will in turn endorse it to pave the way for President Sirleaf not only to sign it but also sign off her tenure on a progressive note.