Freedom of the press under threat

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor | March 25, 2014

History is Being Repeated in Liberia: Fomba Following the Footsteps of Chuckie Taylor

Henry Costa – Photo credited to FPA

Lawrenceville, Georgi: According to an article in FrontPageAfrica online newsmagazine, published on Friday afternoon, March 21, 2014, plain clothes officers from the National Security Agency (NSA) headed by Fomba Sirleaf, the son of President Sirleaf showed up at Henry Costa’s office on Ashmun Street to issue him a Writ of Arrest on charges of “Terroristic Threats, Menacing and Criminal Coercion.”

The writ cited below reads:
You are hereby commanded to arrest the living body(ies) of Henry Costa, to be identified defendant(s) and forthwith bring him before the Monrovia City Court, Temple of Justice Building, Montserrado County to answer the charge of TERRORISTIC THREATS, MENACING & CRIMINAL COERCION, based upon the oath and complaint of the Republic of Liberia by and thru Fomba Sirleaf, private prosecutor(trix) in which it is substantially alleged as follows to with:

That on the 26th day of February 2014 the defendant with a wicked intention rendered threat to harm and kill private prosecutor Fomba Sirleaf, the Director of the National Security Agency and son of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “The alleged act of the defendant was unlawful wicked and violated section 11.11 of the new penal law” states the writ. That on the 26th of February, A.D. 2014, in the City of Monrovia, Montserrado County, Republic of Liberia, the within named defendant being there and then with malice and wicked intent, purposely did threaten the life of the said private prosecutor using against him death threats, to harm and kill him, and that in the same vain the said defendant on the Costa Show on Radio Hott FM did make a statement challenging the private prosecutor to engage him in a public fight wherein he defendant threatened to fight the private prosecutor to death with the intent to terrorize the said private prosecutor and subject to fear and public ridicule. The alleged act of the defendant being unlawful, wicked and intentional is in violation of section 11.116 of the new act amending section 14.24 of the New Penal Law, 14.25 & 14.27 of the New Penal Law of Liberia there and then crimes herein the defendant did and commit. Hence, this Writ of Arrest. Contrary to the form force and effect to the statutory laws of Liberia in such cases made and proven against the peace and dignity for this republic and for so doing. This shall constitute your legal and sufficient authority and have you have there this writ of arrest.

On behalf of Progressive Liberians (some of us whom are still around), express with deep concern the continued harassment and closure of media houses and radio stations under the Unity Party’s watch. These practices are in direct violation of the rule of law under Article 21(b) of the Liberian Constitution that reads:

No person shall be subject to search or seizure of his person or property, whether on a criminal charge or for any other purpose, unless upon warrant lawfully issued upon probable cause supported by a solemn oath or affirmation, specifically identifying the person or place to be searched and stating the object of the search; provided, however, that a search or seizure shall be permissible without a search warrant where the arresting authorities act during the commission of a crime or in hot pursuit of a person who has committed a crime.

And Article 15(a) states:

Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution.
The arrest, handcuffed and imprisonment of Henry Costa on the afternoon of Friday, March 21, 2014 as reported by FrontPageAfrica online website, and had his show forced off the air, violates the oaths of elected officials who swore to protect and defend the Constitution. But I am not surprised; this is nothing new for Liberian elected officials!

African governments and their leaders keep repeating the same old mistakes that led to the disgrace and downfall of many of their predecessors; yet, they failed to learn from those mistakes. The illegal arrest and incarceration of Henry Costa, the popular talk show host of Hott 107.9 FM Radio, on insubstantial charges is a classic example of history being repeated in Liberia by another son of a president. Fomba Sirleaf, the son of President Sirleaf is following in the footsteps of Chuckie Taylor, the son of former President Charles Taylor who was convicted of leading a campaign of torture against people opposed to his father's rule for which he is now serving 97 years jail sentence in the United States.

Costa admitted making the challenge on the air to the NSA boss to a duel on Broad Street on Friday, February 28 at 4:00 PM, in order to afford Fomba the opportunity to make good on several threats he made against him (Costa) through intermediaries. The challenge reads:

… I challenged him (Fomba) to a duel on Broad Street on Friday 4PM in order to afford him the opportunity to make good his threat. This was when we got cut off the air while we were talking unbeknownst to us by directive of the station manager.

How does the challenge made in public constitute “Terroristic Threats, Menacing and Criminal Coercion?” Where is the freedom of the press and speech the Unity Party (UP) government, officials and their supporters speak of in Liberia? Where is the “remarkable” human rights record in Liberia under the Sirleaf’s administration the President continues to boast of to the international community?

This only suggests that nothing has really changed in Liberia. The arrest of Costa on these flimsy charges confirmed that the Liberian government is in the practice of harassing, abusing, imprisoning journalists and opposition politicians on false allegations by the ruling party. Of all persons, President Sirleaf should be the last one to engage in this practice because it was not too long ago she was a victim. She served a significant amount of time at the notorious Monrovia Central Prison during the administration of the late President Samuel K. Doe for speaking against the undemocratic practices of his administration. Finally, she had to go into exile due to the harassment and threats to her life.

Recently, while discussing the subject of African leaders with a cousin of mine, he made this comment: “Siah, the reason African leaders engage in undemocratic behaviors is due to the fact that most of them attended and graduated with honors from the same African University of Dictatorship (AUD), where they majored in violating their county’s Constitution, Free Speech, Freedom of the Press, with the specialization of committing Rampant Corruptions with impunity.” As comical it may sound, there seems to be some merits in his statement!

Former President Charles Taylor, President Sirleaf’s associate, was engaged in similar practice. Taylor sent a good number of political activists and politicians into forced exile. And Sirleaf who herself was a victim is engaged in the same practice today. Yet, every chance she gets, she boasts of her administration’s “remarkable” human rights record. In 2007, Charles Julu, Andrew Dobor and George Koukou were arrested and prosecuted on charges that they were conspiring to cease state power through the barrel of the guns. Dobor was arrested in the Ivory Coast and was the Government’s star witness to testify against Charles Julu. However, on the witness stand, Dobor confessed that he had been coerced by Government authorities to lie on Julu. Based on his confession, the Government declared their star witness as a hostile witness, and dropped the immunity of state witness protection.

Another time, the Sirleaf administration falsely imprisoned Acarous Gray for expressing how he felt about her administration and what was going on in the country by wannabes politicians in Liberia for “government position while the 99% lived in extreme poverty.” And that Ellen's regime can use the student payment to bribe others but he will not succumb to bribe in order to continue the struggle for the people. He said, “I want to tell our friends in the USA and those here in Liberia, that CDC will serve as an imposition to apartheid. … They instituted lot of Jacobos who served as traitors within the ANC. They went on the side of the white men but the ANC did not crumble. ‘So, the CDC fight today is a fight against apathy. We see semblance of apartheidism in our country. … Apathy in a context where political leaders would be bought from one political party (to another). Parties would be disintegrated to destroy competitive democratization process.’” 

How soon the President forgets! Not too long ago when her freedom of speech and movement was violated, Liberians in the Diaspora and at home, protested her defense until she was set free. Little did we know then that she was going to do the same to others that was done to her!

The President must be made aware that in most democratic societies, the free press serves as the conscience of the people -- to make government accountable to them. As a result, the free press is committed in bridging this gap; by providing the public with relevant and useful information. In many cases, such information centers on issues regarding healthcare, education, the economy, civil and constitutional rights, and the environment. The availability of the public to this information affords the people the opportunity to better understand their government, its direction, role and impact on their daily lives. This commitment by the “patriotic” media is based on ethics and morals, upon which it is obliged to be honest, sincere, critical and to give laurels where and when expedient. This is the role Henry Costa has been playing. Therefore, we demand that the harassment of the Hott Radio 107.9 FM Host, Henry Costa and his colleagues cease immediately.

List of Countries Where Press Freedom Suffered
On February 12, 2014, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York issued a press release titled, “Africa: CPJ Risk List - Where Press Freedom Suffered.” Find below what the CPJ said about Liberia:

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's administration promised more open and democratic rule in Liberia after years of civil war and dictatorship. The past year, however, has seen a climate of self-censorship take hold. Worrisome developments include the jailing of journalists in civil libel cases and bankrupting of their news organizations by imposing exorbitant damages.

More than a year after signing the Declaration of Table Mountain--a call for the repeal of criminal defamation and "insult" laws across Africa--Sirleaf's administration has done little to advance the cause of decriminalizing defamation. In addition, civil cases brought by government officials have resulted in excessive financial damage awards. In August, a ruling imposing a US$1.5 million fine forced the closure of the leading independent newspaper, FrontPageAfrica, and the imprisonment of its managing editor and publisher, Rodney Sieh, in a case tainted with political undertones. Sieh was jailed indefinitely pending payment, then released on temporary "compassionate leave." In November, a court formally closed the proceedings against Sieh and FrontPageAfrica after the libel claims were dropped amid an international outcry.

FrontPageAfrica has repeatedly reported on corruption, official misconduct, and human rights abuses, and local journalists told CPJ that the heavy fine was a clear ploy to shut down the critical newspaper. No newspaper has won a libel case since Sirleaf's election in 2005, according to the Press Union of Liberia. "When officials of government are so keen to run to the courts with issues like these, that are in the public interest, it makes it more difficult for the press to work freely," said Peter Quaqua, president of the union.

Adding to the tense environment for journalists, a key Sirleaf aide set off a firestorm with an inflammatory speech on World Press Freedom Day. Othello Daniel Warrick, President Sirleaf's chief security aide, referred to journalists as "terrorists," and said he would "go after" any journalist who publishes articles critical of the presidency.

The CPJ Press Release observation about Liberia is an indication that the government and its officials have made the media their number one enemy, and will do anything as referenced to Journalists: “terrorists” and will “go after” any journalist who publishes articles critical of the presidency.  

In short, all democratic minded people in Liberia and across the globe are troubled by the mixed messages, double standards, deceit and hypocrisy of the Unity Party government on issues of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press in Liberia.

The government must stop the harassment of Henry Costa and journalists in the country in order for them to continue writing and speaking the truths in a society that is infested with all sorts of misconducts. Costa has not committed any crime. In fact, he should be rewarded for his commitment and dedication to the people of Liberia, and not harassed.

In short, I see nothing wrong Costa saying:

…If the people get angry at some point and their cup runs over and they want to take some actions, it is not my responsibility. My responsibility is to speak the truth.

If the government does not change its attitude of corruption, insensitivities and misplaced priority of wasting money on useless travels, and doing workshops and things that really don’t matter, is a waste of time. If it does not spend money on basic things like electricity, social services, building schools and clinics, the people of the country will remain unhappy.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Siahyonkron Nyanseor is the Chair of the ULAA Council of Eminent Persons (UCEP), Inc. He is a poet, Griot, journalist, and a cultural and political activist. He is an ordained Minister of the Gospel. He is Chairman of the Liberian Democratic Future (LDF), publisher of online newsmagazine and Senior Advisor to the Voice of Liberia newsmagazine. In 2012, he Co-authored Djogbachiachuwa: The Liberian Literature Anthology; his book of poems:  TIPOSAH: Message from the Palava Hut will be on the market soon. He can be contacted