Stakeholders yesterday debated the legality of a proposed draft Act to Decriminalize Violation of the right to freedom of expression in Liberia and to repeal certain sections of the panel law. The Chairman of the Law Reform Commission (LRC), Counselor Jallah Barbu says, “Even if the Legislature enacted this proposed law, we doubt that it will produce the desired result, for this same Constitution empowers the Judiciary to exercise contempt powers (Article 74) and it is clear that contempt is a quasi-criminal matter.”
Cllr. Barbu was speaking at a one day stakeholder’s consultative forum on the proposed draft Act to decriminalize violation of free speech, hosted by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICAT) and the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP).
The LRC Boss further questioned the draft Act saying, “Will that be decriminalized also via legislative action? We must remember that Article 66 prohibits the Legislature from making any laws or creating any exceptions as would deprive the Supreme Court of any of its constitutional powers.”
He then asked during the discussions whether the measures or protections override the negative connotations we are apprehensive of. That law requires the State to prove three things: (1) The conduct charged by the actor against the President is untrue; (2) The actor knows it is untrue and (3) The actor simply wanted to injure the Presidents’ reputation.”
He added that, the law is dysfunctional because if a person charged with such violation is being prosecuted, it may be difficult for him to enjoy full due process because the President may not avail her/him to testify.
Cllr. Barbu said, “The constitutional question as to the President filing civil action for injury to her or his reputation is a matter for serious consideration under Section 2 of the proposed Act which provides that ‘Only Civil Actions and Remedies’ are permitted for abuse of the exercise of the right to free expression and free press.”
During yesterday’s discussions, one of the fears raised was that decriminalizing these laws may give media practitioners and others the license to be reckless in the exercise of free expression but the Managing Editor of The Inquirer, Atty Philip N. Wesseh emphatically said that this is not intended to serve as a floodgate for reckless unprofessional and unethical reportage.
The INQUIRER boss told the gathering that any attempt to hinder free expression, would always lead to anonymous leaflets as was done many years ago during the late Samuel K. Doe’s regime, with the existence of REACT.
Mr. Wesseh said one way to counter unprofessionalism in the media is by calling the particular institution to any ethical transgression. He said by naming and shaming that media institution, “a good media” would make adjustments to win the confidence of the public.
He went on: “What the media relies on is credibility and when that credibility comes into question, it brings its level of professionalism into question, thus bringing about improvement.”
Regarding functionaries in government, Mr. Wesseh said this can be handled by the Minister of Information, who is the official spokesman for the government.
Atty Wesseh concluded by urging his colleagues that there is nothing wrong with a journalist admitting to ethical transgression, as this can help to mitigate punishment, or avoid any litigation.