Letter to Justice Minister

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Photo: Ken Harper, Creative Commons.


September 4, 2014

The Honorable Christiana Tah
Ministry of Justice
Monrovia, Liberia

Dear Minister Tah:

We present the compliments of the Press Union of Liberia, and wish to apprise you of the following developments within the Liberian media space that have become of increasing concern to us. We are increasingly concerned about the rapid deterioration in fundamental freedoms in Liberia upon the action and or inaction of government actors. This runs contrary to the constitutional obligations to protect these rights.

The Press Union of Liberia recognizes the nature of the health emergency in our country and respects the number of measures that have been taken to address them, both by government, as well as local, civic and international development partners. We however believe that nothing under the circumstances created by this emergency shall be used as an alibi to undermine the rights and freedoms of Liberians, especially and including journalists, lest to mention the obligation of the government to ensure that all Liberians have full guarantees of these rights.

Strategically, the Press Union of Liberia has insisted upon its membership in the National Ebola Task Force, though the role of the Task Force has itself been merely a forum for the sharing of information from organs that are implementing activities. This participation continues to inspire journalists, media institutions and civil society organizations that this is a national obligation that should involve all persons.

Minister Tah,

The Press Union of Liberia’s attention is specifically drawn to several circumstances that do not only restrain journalists in their obligation to seek out and share useful news and information with the public, but significantly threaten even media participation in the global fight against ebola. By all accounts, the media space in Liberia has been a significant partner in the fight to strengthen awareness in our society about the impact and challenges of the epidemic. Notwithstanding the loss of revenue due to the emergency nature of the epidemic and the effect on general life, the media has remained committed to this fight.

Unfortunately, several actions against media by government actors, especially during these times, have simply given room to growing skepticism about the disease, and further exacerbating the denials within the community. We think this is unfair and improper. We especially wish to draw your attention to the following episodes which note the severity with which disregard for the freedom of media is becoming:

1. Closure of The National Chronicle

The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) has protested the Thursday, August 14, 2014 forced and illegal closure of the National Chronicle Newspaper, as well as the arrest of several staff, including News Editor Emmanuel Mensah and IT Officer Emmanuel Logan, and the manhandling of Philibert S. Browne, Jr. Since then, the paper’s publisher Philipbert Browne has been subjected to nearly daily questioning at the Liberia National Police Headquarters.

The Press Union sees these actions as a further expression of intolerance, an unwarranted attack on the free press and a failure by the government to utilize due process. We seriously believe this action strengthens the distrust between the government and the media, undermines the rule of law and lays to waste the fruitful collaboration that has existed between the media and the government.

2. Ignoring Media in Imposition of Curfew

On August 19, 2014 President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced the imposition of a 9-hour curfew, effective as of August 20, 2014. Early on August 20, 2014, we engaged the government about the curfew, indicating the necessity to have a reprieve for journalists. Later that very day, an exemption list was issued, absolutely ignoring the media. We had to take further action to get the exemption for journalists clarified.

This does not speak to the partnership that both the government and the Press Union of Liberia have repeatedly spoken about on various occasions. The truth is – no journalist or anyone for that matter would want to be outdoors, when all of their associates are indoors. Our insistence upon a curfew exemption was not as a matter of having an undeserved privilege, but rather to ensure that the work of gathering and disseminating news and information is not obstructed at any point. You will agree with us that any disruption of the free flow of news and information, whether anticipated or not, will project a scenario of doom and accelerate falsehood, which does not make the crisis any easier.

3. Harassment of Women Voices Publisher

On the evening of Friday, August 29, 2014, the Press Union of Liberia received a call from the Management of the Women Voices Newspaper that they were being invited to the Police. We intervened and said we will accompany them with a lawyer. When it became obvious that a lawyer would not be available because of the time, we reached an understanding with the Police for a rescheduling at noon on Saturday, August 30. At the police station, Ms Nah was informed that she was under investigation for a newspaper story, which had alleged corruption in the police. Before we knew anything, the police had demanded a mugshot and fingerprints. This surprised us, given that this was simply an invitation that had turned into an investigation, and now we see aspects of criminal procedures being applied. In our resistance, we were advised by our counsel to accept their ploy and seek remedy through law.

By all means, had this been a criminal matter, mugshots and fingerprints would have been seen as normal. But introducing these in a matter that is yet so civil, and being enforced under the threats of imprisonment is bad faith, harassment of a peaceful citizen, a further action to humiliate journalists and prevent them from the lawful discharge of their duties.

4. Front Page Africa Generator Blockade

On Monday, September 1, 2014, the Press Union of Liberia got a call that personnel from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), accompanied by Police Officers had called at the premises of the Front Page Africa Newspaper to enforce an action to stop the paper from using their generator on environmental grounds. When we tried to enquire the action, the officers left. Again on the evening of September 3, we learnt that the team returned, but this time with a folk lift to remove the generator. While the generator was eventually not moved, due to community resistance, our issue here is why would government officers get involved in enforcing an action in the absence of due process of law? This takes away from the greater responsibilities that they have to do, given the current circumstances in our country.

Minister Tah,

The sequential order of these actions is telling us a story different from the public statements that have been made at various levels of government about some commitment to a free press and a democratic society. We see these as deliberate actions to limit the role of the media in the national discourse, under the guise of a state of emergency. Fortunately for us, the authors of our current constitutions were very mindful of sad episodes in our previous history, and were determined not to leave any loopholes for infringements of rights. As a result, they made lots of safeguards to prevent those who would eventually assume national leadership positions from abusing the rights of citizens, and as such the current state of emergency does not give any room for arbitrary actions that would limit individual freedoms, insofar as rights and obligations are concerned.

The actions enumerated here – whether in the case of The National Chronicle, The Women Voices and The Front Page Africa – have tacitly threatened and limited these organizations in enjoying these fundamental freedoms. By no means have these media opted to limit the role of the government or other partners in addressing the purpose of the current emergency in our country. We therefore request that you denounce these actions by the Police and, especially in the case of the Front Page Africa – the Environmental Protection Agency, as foolhardy and unlawful. We also request that you take appropriate actions to remedy the harassment and intimidation of the journalists, by simply reaffirming their rights to enjoy their freedom of expression, as guaranteed by our constitution. We further request that you take appropriate disciplinary and remedial actions to curb future unlawful actions by those involved.

Awaiting your kind regards in the premises, we remain.

Best regard,

Sincerely yours,

Press Union of Liberia

K. Abdullai Kamara

Cc : The Minister of Information, Culture & Tourism, Liberia
: The Ambassador, Embassy of the United States of America, Liberia
: The Ambassador, European Union Delegation in Liberia
: National Commission on Human Rights
: National Civil Society Council of Liberia
: Members, Press Union of Liberia

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