Executive Branch Should Cease and Desist from Media Harassment and Intimidation
A Press Release Issued by LIPI
On March 24, 2014
The Liberia Institute for Public Integrity (LIPI) expresses deep concern with the rapid decline and steady erosion of the rule of law and free speech - including freedom of the press in Liberia. More importantly, LIPI is gravely appalled about the subservient 'loyalty and willingness' of the Liberian judiciary - to knowingly or unknowingly implement- the - deeds of the Executive Branch which contravenes the laws of Liberia in silencing, harassing and intimidating journalists and civil society actors - who are watch dogs of society.
In spite of the President of Liberia signing the Table Mountain, press freedom is continuously being eroded due to severe self-censorship for fear of draconian libel laws and arbitrary jailing of media professionals in Liberia. While Liberians are just recovering from the lifetime sentence imposed on FrontpageAfrica's Editor-in-Chief, Mr. Rodney D. Sieh for reporting on official corruption from a state sponsored audit, we are seeing yet another prominent journalist dragged to prison on the weekend and during afterhours, in contravention of the laws prohibiting jailing a person in Liberia after 6PM.
LIPI says the current course of conduct of the Liberian judiciary in which the judiciary uncritically condones and romantically entertains bogus and unmeritorious charges, unsupported by probable cause as required by law, to be filed against journalists by officials of the Executive Branch is an insult and dishonor to the memory of the legendary Albert Porte, Charles Gbeyon and thousands of Liberians who shed their blood in defense of press freedom. Such conduct also insults and dishonors the memory of Jurists Louise Arthur Grimes and James A. A Peirre.
LIPI says this continued trend by the Executive Branch is a cleverly designed scheme to deflect attention from appalling national issues of thievery but - criticisms of press freedom as violation away from the Executive Branch under the pretext of following due process of law, but in effect makes the judiciary - appear like the real violator and abuser of press freedom. All this has contributed to the U.S. Department of Statement Human Rights Report's year over year stating that in Liberia "justice is for the highest bidder."
In this regard, LIPI condemns the arrest, the refusal of the court to admit to bail and the subsequent detention of journalist and radio-talk show host Henry Costa based on complaints of Terroristic Threats, Menacing and Criminal Coercion by the Director of the National Security Agency and son of Liberia's President, Mr. Fombah Sirleaf. These charges against Costa appear as nothing but cover-up retaliatory strikes for Costa's unwavering and unrelenting stance of exposing corruption, nepotism and abuse of political power in the current administration.
Mr. Costa has being exposing corrupt practices and abuse of power in the Liberian Government. News reports indicates that he was abruptly shut off the air while broadcasting his morning show on February 26, 2014. According to media reports, he resigned in protest from the Hot FM and decided to open his own radio station. He was set to begin broadcasting on Voice FM 102.7 on Monday, March 24, 2014. And finally, the drama kicked off around 2:15 pm local time Friday, March 21, 2014 when plain clothes officers from the National Security Agency (NSA) showed up at Costa's office on Ashmun Street to issue him a Writ of Arrest.
We cannot understand why Costa's arrest was effected by agents of the NSA (where the complainer is the head of the NSA) and not the police as is customarily the practice. Ironically the justice system has been punishing journalists like Mr. Costa for exposing corruption in government, while allowing corrupt to go with impunity. The President has maintained for 8 years through various speeches and state of the nation addresses that her Government has not been able to prosecute officials booked in audit and anti-corruption reports and reports from various presidential commissions because she claimed the judiciary is "corrupt." But the same "corrupt judiciary" is capable of prosecuting journalists.
The Justice Ministry's decision to charge Mr. Costa with such crime is an abuse of the Ministry's charging discretion which must only be exercised based on - evidence of probable cause. LIPI further cautions that judges and magistrates be prohibited by law - to disallow the arrest and detention of a citizen without a showing or prove of probable cause, a basic requirement which has been breached in the Costa's case. Probable Cause to charge and detain a human being requires the magistrate to have trustworthy evidence that would make a reasonable person to think more likely than not that charges Costa is accused are justified. LIPI denounces such rapid deterioration of the judicial system thus placing the emerging democracy at a self-facilitated threat by the Sirleaf's administration
LIPI says when Mr. Costa, openly and on his radio talk show, "challenged the head of the National Security Agency(NSA) Fombah Sirleaf, to a duel on Broad Street on Friday, February 28 at 4PM, in order to afford the NSA boss the opportunity to make good on several threats, Costa says, had been made toward him through intermediaries", he (Costa) may have been uttering a protected speech quintessentially intended to state that he would effectively, if confronted, defend himself against threats of attack allegedly made against him by Mr. Fombah Sirleaf.
By verbally inviting Mr. Sirleaf (through radio message) into a violent fight - an invitation or challenge that could as well be declined by Mr. Sirleaf by simply not appearing in the fight on Broad Street on February 28 at 4pm, it is clear that Mr. Costa was not threatening to commit any crime of violence with the purpose to terrorize Fombah Sirleaf, for which Costa should be charged under. It is called free speech, which protected by the Constitution of Liberia. The proof is not evident and the presumption not great that Mr. Costa's statement was intended, or that he acted with the purpose or intent to harm, injure or place Mr. Fombah Sirleaf in reasonable fear of substantial bodily harm so as to support the finding of probable cause to sustain that charge of Terroristic Threat and Menacing.
Under such circumstances, a judge or magistrate should and may not permit the issuance of the writ of arrest; and even if the issuance of the writ of arrest already occurs, the Magistrate is permitted by law to admit Mr. Costa to bail. And to the extent that Mr. Costa could not afford sufficient bail, the magistrate could, on his own cognizance, have released Mr. Costa to the custody of the President of the Press Union of Liberia or any other reputable citizen.
Even if the government argues that Costa's comments are unprotected free speech because the statements constituted illegal 'fighting and hostile words' directed to Mr. Fomba Sirleaf with the likelihood of producing violent response from Mr. Sirleaf, or that Mr. Costa's statements were intended to incite - illegal violent activity, the government cannot and will not be able to prove that Mr. Costas' statement presented clear and present danger, or that his advocacy was going to incite public violence. Mere discussing of violence or advocacy of force is not enough to fall within the clear and present danger doctrine. There must be a clear and present danger that the speech will lead to a violation of law. It would be hard to argue how challenging someone to duel will be considered a terroristic threat, when the person being challenged (Mr. Sirleaf) could decline to participate.
The United States Supreme Court employs the "clear and present danger" test to determine whether speech and/or expression is unprotected incitement. Under this approach, speech allegedly inciting illegal conduct can only be punished when there is a "clear and present danger" that the speech will lead to imminent illegal conduct and the speech is directed to causing imminent illegality. Abstract teachings or general discussions of violence (or other illegal conduct) is not enough to constitute unprotected incitement.
The courts of Liberia which are the last hope for protecting citizens' fundamental rights should not allow themselves to be used by the elements in the Executive Branch to violate the rights of people. In furtherance of its objectives in enduring the rights of the Liberian people are protected and to guarantee peace and harmony, LIPI will, in this medium submit a copy of this release to international media houses, members and stakeholders of the Table Mountain Declaration and other international groups to present how the government of Liberia has once embarked on devilish schemes to suppress free speech and trample on the rights of the people.
LIPI calls on the leadership of the Liberian Judiciary (most of whom are former human rights advocates) to remind and require lower court judges and magistrates to reject and resist these dangerous maneuvers from officials of the Executive Branch. Chief Justice Francis Kokpor is former Chairman of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC). Associate Justice Kabineh Ja'neh is former human rights lawyer - also associated with the JPC. Associate Justice Jamesetta Wollokollie is former women rights advocate and executive of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL). Associate Justice Sie-A- Nyene Youh is also a women's rights advocate and executive of AFELL.
LIPI notes the foundation of every democracy hinges on the independence and of their political views. We are concerned that the judiciary has persistently opted to reduce itself to a subservient body to the Executive Branch to the effect that it has become the "slaughter house" of free speech and independent voices in Liberia. The trend and pattern which president Sirleaf and her government use to stifle independent voices through the judiciary has become a culture and has invariably weakened the doctrine of separation of power and rule of law.
In its previous release on the jailing of journalist Rodney Sieh, LIPI maintained then and as it do now, that the current administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is employing tactics and other draconian means to silence the media or force the media in "self-censorship" as repeatedly indicated in the US State Department Reports. LIPI calls for the unconditional release of journalist Henry Coasta.
In a related issue, LIPI also calls on the President to drop the threat of lawsuit against journalist Philbert Brown and his Chronicle newspaper. This is the third time the President of Liberia has sued or threatened to sue a newspaper, including the New Democrat and the Broom. The President cannot promise to work with the Legislature to remove draconian libel laws while at the same time taking the lead to sue journalists and newspapers. This is paradoxical!