6 June 2018

Liberia: Attempting to Decriminalize Speech - a Bold Step Worth Commending

TUESDAY, JUNE 5, the Press Union of Liberia President, Mr. Charles Coffey, told this newspaper -- FrontPage Africa -- that Liberia was entering into a "new day," following the news that the Executive Mansion had re-submitted to the 54th Legislature, a bill to repeal some sections of the Penal Law of Liberia.

IN THE BILL PRESIDENT George Manneh Weah submitted to the lawmakers on Thursday, May 31st, he is asking the people's representatives "to decriminalize free speech and create an unfettered media environment," according to an Executive Mansion release.

THE BILL ALSO SEEKS to amend Chapter 11 of the Penal Law of 1978, repealing Sections 11.11 on Criminal Libel against the President; 11.12 on Sedition and 11.14 on Criminal Malevolence.

THE LIBERIAN LEADER described the action as a proof of his government's commitment to uphold the Constitution, Table Mountain Declaration and other International Treaties relating to the Press and press-related activities.

BELOW ARE THE SECTIONS of the Panel laws that the President is requesting the lawmakers to repeal:

§ 11.11. Criminal libel against the President

1. OFFENSE. A PERSON has committed a first degree misdemeanor if he exposes to the public any writing, or makes any public broadcast, in which he has accused the incumbent President of the Republic of Liberia of conduct, which constitutes the commission of a crime, provided, that at the time of such publication: (a) The conduct charged is untrue and the actor knows it to be untrue; and (b) The purpose of the actor is to thereby injure the President in his reputation.

2. Definitions. As used in this section, (a) "Writing" means any writing, written production, engraving, drawing, or effigy of the President; and (b) "Public broadcast" means any dissemination through public channels, by sound or picture.

§ 11.12. Sedition

1. Offense. A person owing allegiance to Liberia, has committed sedition, a felony of the second degree, if (a) He advocates by word-of-mouth, writing or otherwise, sectionalism, countyism, tribalism, parochialism or the like, with the intent in so doing to incite the people to hostility, create disunity among the people and divide the Nation; or (b) He advocates rebellion, incites or in any way promotes insurrection against the authority of the Republic; or (c) He writes or inspires the writing of any document to a foreign government or concern or any official thereof, making representation on any matter or matters properly the subject of internal inquiry and adjustment; or (d) He accuses the incumbent President of the Republic of Liberia of conduct which constitutes a violation of his oath of office, provided, that at the time of such accusation; (1) The conduct charged is untrue; and (2) The purpose of the actor is to thereby injure the President in his reputation and create contempt for the Presidency. 2. Grading. Any person convicted of sedition may be sentenced to imprisonment as provided in Sections 50.5 and 51.3.

§ 11.14. Criminal Malevolence

1. Offense. A person has committed a first degree misdemeanor if he accuses any executive authority, judicial authority, member of the Legislature or any other public authority either by word-of-mouth, writing or by public broadcast, of conduct which constitutes the commission of a crime; provided, that at the time of such accusation: (a) The conduct charged is untrue and (b) The purpose of the actor is to thereby injure the official in his reputation and undermine his official status. (c) "Word-of-mouth" means spreading or making known by verbal communication; (d) "Writing" means any writing, written production, engraving, drawing or effigy of a government official; and (e) "Public broadcast" means any dissemination through public channels, by sound or picture

THIS IS A WONDERFUL NEWS for the Liberian Media Community, some of whose members have suffered and continue to suffer from these draconian laws under tyrannical regimes in the past.

MR. COFFEY TOLD THIS newspaper that the resubmission of the bill is a clear manifestation of the new day that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation for democracy in Africa.

"SO THE DUTY OF JOURNALISTS is to further these ends by seeking truth and providing fair and comprehensive accounts of national issues."

HE, HOWEVER, ADDED that in the midst of these repressive media laws, including libel, defamation of characters, sedition, etc, they create impediments that are too bad for journalists to operate freely; adding: "I think this is a new day. It will allow the media to provide more enlightenment on justice and the foundation of democracy."

THE PRESIDENT, IN HIS two major speeches -- Inauguration on January 22nd and Address to the Nation on January 29th, -- he hardly mentioned the topic. It left some journalists to wonder if his administration would ever put it on the frontburner.

SPECIFICALLY, IN HIS inauguration speech, he stated somewhat scantily how in his regime he will go further to encourage and reinforce not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of political assembly.

INDEED, WE WANT to join the PUL president in commending President Weah for this move even though this is not the first time this bill has been submitted to the legislature.

AT THE DYING MOMENT of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's regime, the bill was submitted to the 53rd Legislature. We think this was just a trick to remove shame from Madam Sirleaf's face and wasn't genuine indeed. She had received all the accolades and praises from our international partners, so going without having this bill passed wasn't a good legacy. Unfortunately, the time she submitted it for passage into law was not proper, politically. All throughout her 12-year reign, leaderships of the PUL urged her administration to introduce the bill. She didn't do so because she wanted to use these barbaric laws to muscle free press and expression.

EVERYONE KNOWS what happened during her tenure to some media institutions and personalities, including the Managing Editor and Publisher of this newspaper, Mr. Rodney Seah, Mr. Henry Costa of Voice FM 102.5, etc.

BUT THIS ADMINISTRATION, which somehow started on a bad footing with the media, is trying to make amends and doing one of the right things by the media community in Liberia.

SUBMITTING the bill to House Speaker Dr. Bhofal Chambers, the Liberian leader said: "Honorable Speaker, Chapter 111, Article 15 of the Constitution provides for Freedom of Speech and Expression and a caveat of an abuse thereof."

HE also reminded the Speaker that Liberia is a signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration, which demands that African countries abolish insult and criminal defamation law.

HE further reminded the Legislature of the legal instruments on press freedom in Liberia such as the Freedom of Information Law (FOI) and the Independent Information Commission.

ACCORDING TO PRESIDENT Weah: "Liberia, in anticipation of fully adhering to these legal instruments; enacted the Freedom of Information Law and established the Freedom of Information Commission."

HE STATED THAT IN SPITE of these instruments and institution, those draconian laws that he's asking them to repeal, are still challenges impeding freedom of speech and expression and acts committed thereof are considered to be criminal.

IF ENACTED INTO LAW, the Act will be known as the Kamara Abdullai Kamara Act of Press Freedom, in honor of deceased journalist Kamara Abdullai Kamara, former President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). This is another laudable gesture from the President.

MR. KAMARA PLAYED a pivotal role in convincing national government to repeal provisions, which impede freedom of speech and independence of the press, from the Penal Law of Liberia. He didn't live long enough to see it happened. But his advocacy didn't die with him. It is alive in the current leadership of the union.

WE WANT TO BESEECH the legislature to act swiftly and pass that Bill into law so that Liberia can be seen as truly championing and upholding freedom of expression and speech.

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