Cape Town — The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern over a $500,000 civil defamation lawsuit filed against the Roots 102.7 FM radio station and two of its hosts by the Liberian minister of state for presidential affairs, Nathaniel McGill.
On April 15, McGill filed the suit against Roots FM, a privately owned radio broadcaster based in Monrovia, and Henry Costa and Fidel Saydee, two hosts of the station's popular Henry Costa Show, according to Costa, who spoke with CPJ, and a copy of the filing, which CPJ reviewed.
Liberia repealed its criminal defamation laws in February, but civil suits demanding large damages can still result in the closure of news outlets and jail time for the accused for nonpayment, according to CPJ reporting and Tiawan Gongloe, a Monrovia-based human rights lawyer, who spoke with CPJ.
Liberia's gross national income per capita in 2017 was $620, according to the World Bank.
"Civil defamation lawsuits involving massive claims for damages remain a major challenge to press freedom in Liberia," said Angela Quintal, CPJ's Africa program coordinator, from Johannesburg. "Nathaniel McGill should stop trying to harass or bankrupt Roots FM and its journalists, and the government of President George Weah should build on its successful repeal of criminal defamation and sedition from Liberia's penal code by reforming civil defamation laws."
The suit, filed in the Montserrado county civil court, alleges that Roots FM, Costa, and Saydee "slandered, badmouthed, vandalized and vilified" people for political gain by alleging financial improprieties surrounding the 2017 Liberian elections. The filing calls the Henry Costa Show "a very divisive program that rivals the pre-1994 Radio Rwanda style of broadcasting."
McGill told CPJ via WhatsApp that he filed the suit to clear his name and denied that the show's claims fell under the umbrella of press freedom.
Costa told CPJ that he and Saydee have hired lawyers and will fight the case.
The case is scheduled to be heard at the Monrovia Temple of Justice courthouse on June 17, according to the summons.
Liberian Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe told CPJ that the government was considering placing "reasonable limits" on damages in civil defamation cases, and said that such cases should not result in imprisonment, but added, "freedom of speech is not freedom to destroy character and malign people."
His comments echo the concerns of a 2018 report by David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which called on Liberia to "establish strict limits on damages available" in defamation suits.
In two instances earlier this year, Roots FM was temporarily forced off-air after its radio transmitter was sabotaged and then stolen, as CPJ reported at the time.