Newly-elected President George Weah promises to protect freedom of expression

On 22nd January 2018, George Weah was sworn in as Liberia's successor to the presidency following Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's president from 2005 to 2018. Weah prevailed in the presidential run-off between himself and Joseph Boakai on 26th December 2017 gaining 61.5 percent of the votes. The second run-off was initially planned for 7th November but was delayed by a Supreme Court decision over allegations of electoral fraud by one of the losing presidential candidates. Following the December run-off, however, Liberians witnessed, for the first time since 1944, one democratically-elected leader voluntarily making way for another. 

Expression

In his inauguration speech, President Weah affirmed his commitment to encourage and support freedom of expression and assembly, stating that: 

"We could not have arrived at this day without our voices been heard loudly, and all our views, no matter how critical, being freely expressed in an atmosphere void of intimidation and arrest.This was only made possible by the tolerance of my predecessor, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who protected the rights to freedom of speech as enshrined in our Constitution. Now, in my turn, I will go further to encourage and reinforce not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of political assembly".

This declaration was lauded by civil society actors in Liberia, especially press associations. Media houses immediately called on the newly-elected president to show his commitment by repealing restrictions on freedom of expression, in particular, those found in the Criminal Code. As reported previously on the Monitor, President Sirleaf submitted a bill to parliament to decriminalise press offenses, particularly in cases of libel, on 20th July 2017. Parliament, however, was unable to consider the “Act to Amend the Liberian Codes Revised, Penal Law of 1978” before the end of its term. Media have additionally called on the new government to remove tariffs on media-related equipment imported into the country.

On 9th March 2018, after a week-long visit to Liberia at the invitation of the Liberian government, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye praised the new government's commitment to freedom of expression, but also stated that:  

"At the top of the priority list, should be the decriminalization of defamation, in keeping with basic international and regional standards, and the transformation of the state broadcasting system into an independent public broadcasting service. Legislation for both is already pending in the legislature, and their quick enactment at this early stage of a new administration would signal to Liberians and the international community a basic commitment to rule of law and media pluralism”.

Kaye also noted other challenges and recommendations related to the freedom of expression, including the situation of women journalists  in his preliminary observations

In the meantime, in March 2018 the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) condemned what it calls an "upsurge in official intimidation of journalists", including the public comments made by President Weah towards journalist and BBC Liberia correspondent Jonathan Paye-Layleh during a press event on 22nd March 2018, accusing Paye-Layleh of being against him and undermining his (President Weah's) work for human rights in the country. A later official statement from the Office of the President outlined that the president was not against the journalist but that while he was advocating for justice and creating awareness of the gross human rights violations perpetrated against the Liberian people during the fourteen-year civil conflict, he (Paye-Layleh) and others were bent on undermining his efforts by depicting a positive image of the carnage". Paye-Layley left the country out of fear for reprisals from Weah's supporters.

Peaceful Assembly

A series of protests were organised by students over registration issues at the University of Liberia. On 15th November 2017, about 100 students protested to demand the reopening of the registration process for the first semester of the 2017/2018 academic year. The demonstration was led by the Fendell Students Association, claiming that over 5,000 students were left out of the registration process. On 2nd January 2018, University of Liberia students protested again, demanding the removal of the university’s president, Dr. Ophelia Weeks. The protest allegedly turned violent when students burned tires and disrupted traffic. Students expressed frustration over the delays in registering for courses, even though they had paid all tuition fees. About 35 students gathered in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 5th February, and allegedly threw stones at police officers, while police officers used tear gas to disrupt the crowd. 

On 14th February 2018, riot police were deployed to control a protest by Liberian contractors. The workers who provide services to Chinese-funded construction sites demanded better treatment and the payment of arrears. Protesters set roadblocks on a main route leading to Monrovia, and allegedly objects were thrown at moving vehicles. 

On 20th February, residents of the Township of Caldwell demonstrated over the lack of electricity in their area for over two years, demanding that the Liberia Electricity Corporation provide access to electricity. Protesters blocked the major road in the area.