Liberia: Chief Justice Korkpor Stifles Free Expression?

To the shock and amazement of the audience, Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor angrily insisted that Gongloe cut short his remarks at the podium and return to his seat.

-- Interrupts LNBA President Gongloe's remarks in unprecedented fashion

Rough edges allegedly subsisting between Chief Justice Francis Korkpor Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA) President, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, arising from Gongloe's critical stance against the Supreme Court for its handling of Justice Kabineh M. Ja'neh's impeachment and removal office, took a sharp twist on Monday with Chief Justice Korkpor abruptly halting the full delivery of Gongloe's remarks at an official program marking the seating of newly appointed Associate Justice Yussif Kaba on the Bench of the Supreme Court.

In his remarks at the ceremony in the presence of members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of the United Nations, as well as judges and lawyers, Gongloe maintained that the removal of Ja'neh was "unconstitutional."

But to the shock and amazement of the audience, Justice Korkpor angrily insisted that Gongloe cut short his remarks at the podium and return to his seat. And this was when Gongloe was mid-way through his written remarks. "If you don't have anything to say, then you must sit down," Korkpor was heard telling Gongloe, adding, "I maintain that you sit down."

Korkpor continued: "If you are called to speak, you have to talk what is at hand, when the bar is requested to address any function of the courts, you can voice out your concern. Your remarks have to stay within the limit of the program or what is being said, but to take the opportunity and say something that is not the issue is wrong, and so we are not going to allow that from you anymore," Korkpor said as Gongloe reluctantly left the podium.

Further, Korkpor told the startled audience that Gongloe, who is the president of the bar "is becoming provocative, and if you continue with this attitude, I will ask you not to speak at any functions of the judiciary.

"If you don't have anything to say during this joyous occasion you just have to sit down and behave; that you have nothing to say at all as president of the bar," Korkpor declared in a very stern tone.

In Gongloe's statement that was cut short, he emphasized that the official position of the LNBA has been and still is that the removal of Ja'neh was unconstitutional.

"The LNBA maintains that the bill of impeachment was a product of the violation of a court order, that the impeachment was done without a procedure prescribed by the legislature as required by Article 43 of the Constitution," Gongloe noted, adding, "and that by the removal of Ja'neh for performing his legal duty, the Senate violated Article 73 also of the constitution."

According to Gongloe, the removal of Ja'neh for performing a legal duty creates a precedent that has the potential of making other judges, especially of subordinate courts to be afraid of freely preforming their legal duties when it comes to cases in which the interests of government or powerful persons or entities are involved, which he stressed "defeats the purpose for which courts exist in our system of government".

Cllr. Gongloe: "I cannot [celebrate], because another former student of mine, Justice Ja'neh was removed unconstitutionally. Officially, as president of the LNBA, I cannot celebrate because to do so will be contrary to the official position of the bar."Given reasons for his presence at the program Gongloe indicated, "our presence here is not an approval of the reason for which we were cited, for the constitution does not require such." He added, "We are here because a failure of a lawyer to appear and perform any service required by the Court is contemptuous".

Personally, the LNBA president noted that he should be in what he called a joyous and celebratory mood owing to the fact that his former law student, Yussif Kaba had been elevated to the Bench of the Supreme Court. "I should be in a joyous mood and celebrating for the elevation of Justice Kaba, as my former student during his undergraduate studies at the University of Liberia (UL) in the 1980s."

However, Gongloe, declared he could not celebrate because another former law student of his, former Justice Kabineh Ja'neh had been removed unconstitutionally and, because that action ran contrary to the position of the LNBA, he thus found himself constrained to refrain from celebrating what should have otherwise been a very happy occasion for him.

"I cannot because another former student of mine, Justice Ja'neh was removed unconstitutionally. Officially, as president of the LNBA, I cannot celebrate because to do so will be contrary to the official position of the bar."

Meanwhile several lawyers spoken to by this newspaper (names withheld), have slammed Chief Justice Korkpor for what they call his arbitrary and heavy-handed attitude which, according to them, borders on gross disrespect to the President of the LNBA and a virtual attempt to stifle free expression, which is in violation of the Constitution.

It can be recalled that recently at the close of a five-day capacity building workshop of Judicial reporters at the Temple of Justice, Chief Justice Korkpor lashed out at the media accusing journalists of engaging in unbalanced reporting which according to him can create negative public perceptions of Judges which causes the public to lose confidence in the country's justice system. Justice Korkpor's remarks were reported in the April 22, 2019 edition of the Daily Observer under the headline "Judges Are Targets of Negative Media Reporting".

But the Daily Observer, not taking Justice Korkpor's accusations against the media lightly, was constrained to remind the Chief Justice in its April 23, 2019 editorial that "the chronic lack of access by most Liberians to unadulterated justice coupled with blatant corruption in the judiciary are the chief culprits serving to undermine public confidence in the judiciary and not the perceived negative press reportage".

The editorial further noted that the Judiciary must do much more to inspire public trust and confidence which can be done only "if those in leadership of the Judiciary can remain above partisan and base pecuniary interests". Now with this latest and unprecedented gag action by the Chief Justice, the public is left wondering whether the nation's judiciary under the leadership of Chief Justice Kporkpor can be counted on to defend the civil liberties of the people, particularly, the freedom of expression so jealously guarded and protected under the Constitution of Liberia as provided for in Article 15 which reads as follows:

Article 15

a) Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution.

b) The right encompasses the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to knowledge. It includes freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge and information and the right of libraries to make such knowledge available. It includes non-interference with the use of the mail, telephone and telegraph. It likewise includes the right to remain silent.

c) In pursuance of this right, there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries.

d) Access to state owned media shall not be denied because of any disagreement with or dislike of the ideas express. Denial of such access may be challenged in a court of competent jurisdiction.

e) This freedom may be limited only by judicial action in proceedings grounded in defamation or invasion of the rights of privacy and publicity or in the commercial aspect of expression in deception, false advertising and copyright infringement.

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