Government of Liberia Suspends Media Licences

Expression


On 18th June 2018, the Government of Liberia suspended licenses issued to media operators between 1st January and 18th June, 2018, with immediate effect. Two days later, the government began the process of reviewing the regulatory regime used to issue licenses to the media in Liberia. According to the authorities, the review is needed because of technical and administrative anomalies, including duplication of frequencies assigned to radio and television operators. However, some critics believe this is a move to enforce restrictions on media houses that criticise the government. The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) issued a statement expressing its "shock" at the government's actions and saying the move was "arbitrary and targetted". The PUL further recalled the "old government tactics used to intimidate sections of the media into silence", highlighting that:

“Two radio stations remained shut down after a crackdown successfully executed by the government under the guise of tax collection enforcement.”

Critics of the move also argued that this process was being used to prevent the opening and operation of PUNCH FM and Television, which is owned by journalist Patrick Honnah, a staunch critic of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change. On 2nd July 2018, PUNCH FM's owners One Media Inc. wrote to the US Ambassador to Liberia calling on her to "swiftly intervene" with the government's decision and allow the station to begin operating. Despite a commitment by President Weah in January 2018 to uphold freedom of expression, observers continue to be concerned about multiple challenges to free speech and media freedom in the country.

Liberian parliament moves to decriminalise libel

On 3rd July 2018, the Liberian House of Representatives addressed one of those challenges when it approved a bill repealing certain sections of the Penal Law of 1978. The Bill seeks to repeal sections of the Penal Code that provide for criminal libel against the president, sedition and criminal malevolence, and has been forwarded to the Senate. As reported previously on the Monitor, President Weah had resubmitted the bill on 31st May 2018.  If passed into law, it will be named after the late Kamara Abdullai Kamara, the former president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), in recognition of his contribution towards press freedom in Liberia.

The co-chairman of Joint Committee on Information, Culture, Tourism and Judiciary, Fonati Koffa, urged the Plenary of the House to repeal the provisions of the law because they impede freedom of speech and expression. He said:

“It has been determined that the Penal Law of Liberia contains some provisions, which have the tendency to impede freedom of speech and expression, contrary to the spirit and intent of the Table Mountain Declaration and other international conventions. We therefore recommend that the Plenary of the House of Representatives repeal the Law.” 

The law's repeal was welcomed by the Executive Director of the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP), Malcolm Joseph. According to him, repealing and amending Chapter 11 of the Liberian Codes Revised, Penal Law of 1978 is necessary to promote free speech and expression. According to the Press Union of Liberia, Liberia will now become the second country in West Africa to have decriminalised libel, after a similar move by Ghana in 2001. 

Peaceful Assembly

The Liberian Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has prohibited any form of "unauthorised" public assembly following a call for a national boycott of the 171st Independence Day celebrations on 26th July 2018. The call for a boycott was issued by leaders of the Student Unification Party (SUP) at the University of Liberia. The protest was called to challenge an alleged failure by government officials and President George Weah to declare their assets as required by Section 10.1 of the Code of Conduct. The protest was also intended to highlight the economic hardships prevailing in the country.

In a statement, the Ministry of Justice warned the general public that any person or group intending to stage a march or protest is required to first obtain a permit from the Ministry in accordance with the Act Requiring the Obtaining of Permits for Public Marches and Demonstrations, 1975 and Section 22 of the Liberia National Police Act, 2015. The Ministry also warned that it would not issue a permit for any protest "which has the undertone to disrupt the country’s peace". Observers saw the ban as a veiled attempt to return to the country’s draconian past where arrests, jailing of political opponents, and torture was the order of the day.

In other developments, the Federation of Liberian Youth (FLY) condemned the street protest staged by members of the Students Unification Party (SUP). In a statement released on 9th July 2018, the FLY President Augustine Tamba, stated that while it shares some of SUP’s sentiments on the high exchange rate and increased commodity prices, street protest is not the best response to the current developments in the country. FLY urged the students to be confident in government’s ability to address the harsh economic situation. They however, warned “the students to remain calm understanding that insecurity, bad news and economic panic are all sources for inflation in the real world”. In the end, the government-imposed ban appeared to have largely achieved its aim and although an SUP-led protest did take place, reports indicated that numbers were small and Independence Day celebrations proceeded as planned on 26th July 2018.