Liberia: 'Govt Closure of Roots FM Radio Station Unconstitutional'

Local radio station Roots FM

Says Supreme Court lawyer

A Supreme Court lawyer has described as unconstitutional the Thursday, October 10, 2019, action by authorities of the Ministry of Justice, to order the closure of Roots FM radio station in Monrovia.

In addition to taking the radio station off air yesterday morning, the Ministry also seized all of its broadcast equipment on a complaint reportedly filed by authorities of the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA) for the station's defaulting to renew its license.

However, the senior lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the current practice of closing media houses down, because of an allegedly expired license, is "unconstitutional and unlawful."

"Any such provision in the Liberia Communications Authority Act of 2007 is unconstitutional and illegal," the lawyer believes.

The Supreme Court lawyer said that the LTA should have filed their complaint against the radio station, either to the Tax Court for (maybe) tax evasion or the Civil Law Court for an injunction, and should not have used the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

"Tax evasion is not a criminal matter for the LTA to have taken it before the MoJ, because tax evasion does not amount to any criminality in this case; and so, the ministry's action is illegal and unconstitutional," the lawyer repeatedly said.

The LTA is supposed to be independent and is supposed to work with media houses to ensure their independence, whist regulating their professional standards.

According to the lawyer, the LTA has a duty to promote and uphold; however, sending a communication to the MoJ rather than to any of the courts -- Civil Law or Tax Courts -- clearly violates the letter and spirit of the 1986 Constitution.

Article 15 of the 1986 Constitution provides that "Freedom and independence of the media are hereby guaranteed."

It is provided further that "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 the government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution. 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. In pursuance of this right, there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries."

It also states: "Access to state-owned media shall not be denied, because of any disagreement with or dislike of the ideas expressed. Denial of such access may be challenged in a court of competent jurisdiction. 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."

In the LTA's complaint, dated October 8, 2019, and signed by Ivan G. Brown, chairperson of the Board of Directors of the LTA, a copy of which is with the Daily Observer, reads: "The Board of Commissioners of the LTA informed you that some individuals/entities are operating radio stations in the country without a valid license and authorization from the LTA in contravention of Section 15 of the Telecommunications Act of 2007."

The Act, the letter says, states that "No person shall own or operate a telecommunications network used to provide a telecommunications service to the public for direct or indirect compensation, except under and in accordance with a license or an exemption order issued by the LTA."

The LTA's complaint further says, "In our frequency harmonization process, we discovered frequencies occupied by (a) 102.7 (b) 102.5 and (c) 102.1 and these individuals /entities are operating in the country without a valid license and deemed it necessary to bring it to the attention of the government through the Justice Ministry."

Their failure, the letter said, "To obtain valid license and authorization, and to pay for radio frequency authorization fee to the government through the LTA is denying the government of its required revenue."

In conclusion, the complaint said: "We look forward to your cooperation and support in this regard as we work towards discharging our statutory responsibilities to achieve a robust telecommunication sector in Liberia."

However, evidence also in the possession of the Daily Observer reveals that more than eight weeks ago, on August 2, 2019, the Roots FM General Manager Henry P. Costa wrote the LTA requesting a renewal of license for the 102.7 frequency, while a letter to the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT), requesting renewal of the station's broadcast permit for the same frequency.

A source at the LTA did confirm to the Daily Observer yesterday that the license renewal process for Roots FM "had not been completed", presupposing that the renewal request was being processed, though the regulator did not say how far along in the process the station's request had reached.

Meanwhile, following LTA's complaint to the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry on Wednesday, October 9, 2019, petitioned the Monrovia City Court for a search warrant of Roots FM.

Justifying their action, which was backed by Magistrate Ernest Bana, the ministry argued that it has currently experienced an upsurge of numerous radio stations and print media institutions as well as the despicable usage of social media without any broadcast(s), social media user(s) and journalists being arrested, "despite all the negative insinuations and comments against the government."

The ministry also claimed that media houses, in order to perpetuate their acts against the Republic of Liberia willfully and illegally, elected and decided also to criminally use their broadcast equipment for the commission of crimes against the country and the peace-loving people of Liberia.

"By inciting, rioting and violently broadcasting hate messages against the government, public nuisance, disorderly conduct, aiding consumption of crime, advocating armed insurrection, criminal attempt, criminal facilitation, criminal conspiracy and other criminal acts intended to instigate subversion against the government is wrong," the ministry alleged.

MoJ continued, "The criminal act by radio stations have created a serious security risk in the country and, moreover, said criminal act by them has created a gloomy cloud in the investment atmosphere."

An employee of Roots FM, who asked to remain anonymous, told this newspaper that prior to the violent closure of the radio station in August this year, they had made several efforts to engage the LTA for renewal of their licensee, but to no avail.

"This is discrimination because the LTA's continued and deliberate attempt not to renew our license breaches the 2007 Act of the LTA that regulates how discretionary powers must be used by public officials," the angry employee said.

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