Madam President: Why This Unnecessary Restriction On Press Freedom And Freedom Of Speech?

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

Yesterday while en route to work I received telephone calls that President Sirleaf has written the national Legislature, seeking for approval to restrict certain constitutional provision, especially those under fundamental rights. One of the callers, specifically raised the issue that the President wants to curtail our freedom, as enshrined in the Liberian Constitution. Another who called said this is tantamount to   “military rule.” One important issue pointed out also was that such request should have been made upon the declaration of the State of Emergency, and not nearly after nearly two months when she requested for the exercise for three months.

In her statement announcing the state of emergency on August 6, President, among other things said,” therefore, and by the virtue of the power vested in me as President of the Republic of Liberia, I, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia, and in keeping with Article 86(a) (b) of the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia, hereby declare a State of Emergency throughout the Republic of Liberia effective as of August 6, 2014 for a period of 90 days. Under this State of Emergency, the Government will institute extraordinary measures, including, if need be, the suspension of certain rights and privileges.”

Actually, when I heard this, I found myself in a state of disbelief, as I could not imagine that I did not hear this very important communication sent to the Legislature, especially the House of Representatives, which is expected to debate the issue today during its plenary. Another thing that baffled me was that our newsroom missed such important news, only because of the issue of accreditation problem, since the proxy of our legislative reporter Alva Wolokolie, Winnie Saywah-Jimmy   was denied coverage because she had not presented a letter from THE INQUIRER, introducing her as the proxy or replacement of Mr. Wolokollie.

Fortunately upon reaching my office, I received a copy of the President’s communication addressed to Speaker Alex Tyler. In that communication dated October 1, the President said, “as follow up to my communications dated August 7, 2014 laying before you the fact and circumstances necessitating the declaration of the state or emergency, exercise of the emergency powers granted and in keeping with the need for emergency powers granted under Article 86-A and B which are imperative to contain the spread and bring an end to the Ebola epidemic please find below measure being undertaken restricting/suspending certain fundamental rights of Liberian citizens.

“This letter constitutes our formal request to the Legislature approving these measures:

1.Article 1 of the Liberian constitution (1986). Alteration of Election Time and Manner; The President may, by proclamation, alter the period and manner provided for under the constitution of elections, by which the people cause their public servants to leave office or to fill the vacancies. Provided, however, that no deviation from the constitutionally prescribed period shall cause the extension or reduction of any term of office therein prescribed;

2.Article 12 of the Liberian Constitution (1986). Labor; The President may, by proclamation, procure certain labor or services during this state of emergency;

3.Article 13 of the Liberian Constitution (1986). Free Movement. The President may, by proclamation, limit the movements of certain individuals, groups’ communities as the case may be to prevent the further spread or contain the epidemic in certain areas.4.Article 14 of the Liberian Constitution (1986) religious restriction. The President may by proclamation, restrict certain religious practices generally or specifically, if she finds that such practice further endangers the public health and contribute to the spread of the virus.

5.Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution (1986) restriction on speech: the President may or by proclamation or executive action, prevent any citizen, groups of citizens or any entity protected under article 15 of the Constitution from making public statement in person, by print or electronic which may have the tendency of undermining the state of emergency, confusing the public on the nature of the health care threat or otherwise causing the state of panic about the health care or security condition of the nation.

6.Article 17 of the Liberian Constitution (1986) Assembly; the president may or by proclamation limit the right to assembly for any reason.

  1. Article 24 of the Liberian Constitution (1986) Appropriation of Property. “The President may, or by proclamation, appropriate any private property or prevent the use thereof in order to protect the public health and safety during the state of emergency without payment of any kind or any further judicial process. Provided however that the property will be released to the rightful owners upon the end of state of emergency and the government pays any damages thereto.”

Although the President puts before the legislature many constitutional provisions she wants to be restricted during this time of the fight against Ebola, I take special interest on the portion her communication to the Legislature, as it relates to “Restriction On Speech, in which it is said, ‘the President may, by proclamation or executive action, prevent any citizen, groups of citizens or any entity protected under Article 15 of the constitution from making any public statement in person, by print or electronic which made have the tendency of undermining the State of Emergency, confusing the public on the nature of the health care threat, or otherwise causing the state of panic about the health care or security condition of the nation.”

I decided to raise the issue of freedom of the press and freedom of speech because any attempt to restrict these freedoms would be a fruitless exercise, something that can be likened to “wasting water on duck’s back.” That is, any action or attempt to restrict these freedoms, in view of the level it has reached, would be vehemently rejected in all forms and manners. This country today enjoys unfettered freedom, for which it has been placed in countries of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. And so for the President to attempt to restrict this culture of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, is tantamount to stabbing herself in the leg because this one of the accomplishments, which her government can vaingloriously brag about.

My fear about such restrictions is that it usually leads to the creation of subterranean alternatives, which may not augur well for the country’s democratic system. As it is locally said, “water will always find its hole,” therefore, should there be restriction on this, the people will still find other unorthodox or illegal means to communicate or air their views on issues relative to Ebola.

We saw this during the administration of the late Samuel K. Doe, when these freedoms were truncated under threat, the people resorted to other alternative means to communicate or air their views on issues of national concern. Don’t ask me REACT, a newsletter that became a major source of information and critical views on national issues. Do we want another REACT or underground media group? I say a BIG NO! Therefore, the Legislature should take note of this.

Howbeit, I should not be misconstrued as suggesting that in the exercise of this freedom, especially at this time of national crisis, people should be reckless and irresponsible in exercising these freedoms, to an extent of“making any public statement in person, by print or electronic which made have the tendency of undermining the State of Emergency, confusing the public on the nature of the health care threat, or otherwise causing the state of panic about the health care or security condition of the nation.” No! This is not the intent of this piece. My intention is to avoid any attempt to curtail or restrict the freedom being enjoyed today.

Today, I am happy that there is a daily media interaction organized by the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism. This forum can also be used to set record straight on misleading information or Ebola or incorrect information on the disease. We saw this recently when a media institution reported that there was “cure” for Ebola. The EU in a press release rebuked and rubbished that and said that there has been no cure for Ebola. This is the kind of engagement I am talking about rather than restrictions on freedoms.

To conclude, let me say that the President is creating unnecessary headache for herself or unwarranted public debate on this issue because the level of freedom this country has reached is so unprecedented and, as such, remains irreversible. Whatever the situation, the ball is now in the court of the Legislature. I Rest My Case, with reservation to return should the need be.

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