By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)
I have always said and continue to maintain that two of the things that this country under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf can vaingloriously brag of are the level of press freedom and freedom of speech. Accordingly, this has even made the President to win awards, one of which is the “Friend of the Media Awards.” But two recent incidents have seemingly sent a negative picture about these freedoms for which the President received honors. The first was the arrest of Henry Costa, a talk show host and the next one is that of female broadcaster, Mary Williams, whose “residence status” is being questioned by the government.
According to the Costa story, he, along with others was arrested for curfew. The others were sent free, except Costa. Later it was gathered that he was arrested in connection with as deportation investigation involving one Sam Fawaz. Costa has now been released after his lawyers filed a Habeas corpus case for his detention, contrary to constitutional provision.
Hours after the release of Costa, it was gathered that the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN) is questioning the residence status of Mary Williams of LOVE FM, formerly of TRUTH FM. With this, many are wondering as to whether this is a clamp-down on the media or certain individuals in the media.”
In the first incident, I disagreed with the way and manner in which Mr. Costa was arrested in connection wit the deportation of Sam. The government argued that he was “already wanted” for an investigation before being arrested for curfew.
As I stated in my previous article, if this man was wanted for investigation, why didn’t this government, with lawyers follow the proper legal procedure of issuing a notice or notice by publication, if it felt that it could not locate Costa. But to arrest him, without any public notice or information, especially so when he is conspicuously seen around, raised eyebrows.
In fact, I still find it difficult to believe that Costa was in hiding, as the government tried to portray. Let me again say that the government erred in this matter for the way and manner in which it handled the Costa issue.
Disappointingly, instead of the government reviewing this embarrassing situation, it has again “jumped” on another media practitioner- Mary Williams- on the issue of residence status, something this female practitioner denied. Why Now? This action, for me, was ill-advised and imprudent.
As a student of mass communication, these actions on the part of the government are bad public relations, which have brought this government to public ridicule and embarrassment. Can any one believe the government that Costa was arrested because of his alleged involvement in a deportation matter when, in fact, he has no authority over the deportation of anyone for whatever crime? To this I say a BIG NO!
Similarly, can any one believe the government that Mary Williams’ issue really relates to residence status? For the sake of argument, let us accept it that Mary has a problem. Is the government telling the Liberian people that this lady is the only one with such a problem? Again, I say a BIG NO! Let the government stop undermining itself; let the government stop these kinds of acts of the past that were vehemently denounced. This country must graduate from the ugly past and forge ahead with those things that would move it from backwaters to prosperity.
Let me emphatically state that these two incidents with the arrest and detention of Costa and now with the issue of Mary’s residence status, have the propensity to question government’s commitment to the issue of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
Fairly to say, if there is anything that this country can vaingloriously brag of under President Sirleaf, are these two freedoms were denied people, including President Sirleaf, in the past. And so when there are incidents that tend to undermine these, we would raise the red flag. This country cannot afford any underground leaflets like in the past because of lack of press freedom and freedom of speech.
Disgustingly, whenever some of these things are happening, we make contacts with proper authorities in government. Sometimes they claimed not to be aware of the situation, or say it is “above” them, only to repudiate responsibility. This is unfair, as the people have the rights to know the workings and actions of their government and reasons for such actions.
At some point it was the arrest of Octavin Williams, a journalist for traffic violation. Later it was gathered that it was not for that but rather for comments made on radio. To this again, I took issue with the government.
Some of us take these issues seriously because we have always spoken about the level of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and so whenever there is something that poses threats to these freedoms, then, there is reason for concern.
Just recently during the 24th anniversary of THE INQUIRER newspaper, we hailed the level of press freedom. As such, we will not sit supinely if there are actions that would threaten this very freedom in the country. At that same occasion I pointed out that those who have problem with any media institutions, should complain to the Press Union of Liberia which has the mechanism in dealing with complaints.
To these actions, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) has harshly reacted to the arrest of Costa and the request for the residence status of Mary Williams. They said the government cannot be talking about decriminalizing media law and at the same time being seen involved in such acts against media practitioners. The Union sees this a as complete harassment against the media.
More importantly, these ill-advised actions by people in the government have the propensity to overshadow serious national developments. As was evidently seen, they formed mar headlines at a time the nation is preparing to launch the “De-concentration” program in Gbarnga, Bong County, in few days. The initiative is a possible step in the nation’s “Decentralization Program,” that is long overdue in order to give power to the people and also to get them motive involved in the government. Should this government continue to subconsciously pay attention to trivial issues, thereby changing the media focused agenda.
I recall that sometimes ago, during the President’s year end interaction with the media at the Monrovia City Hall, I raised similar issue of the level of press freedom and freedom of speech. Accordingly, I told the government that it should not be like the ”White Chicken” which when praised for being so immaculate, would instantaneously smirch the whiteness by perhaps jumping into a mud.
This government must ensure that it continues to have a clear sheet on these freedoms. It must guide against the mistakes of the past that led people to go underground to clandestinely or surreptitiously communicate or take residence in exile because of threats to these freedoms, which are sine quo none to building a democratic society.
Again I say; a hint to the wise is quite sufficient. I Rest My Case.