Libel lawsuits against the independent media in Liberia are on the rise with some huge financial penalties.
The New Democrat newspaper was found guilty and fined nearly a million dollars for libeling the Consolidated Group after the paper published that the company purchased useless road building equipment for the government.
Tom Kamara, publisher of the New Democrat newspaper said the current libel lawsuits are an attempt to silence the independent media through the manipulation of a legal system that international groups, including the U.S. State Department have condemned as corrupt.
“Under normal circumstances you would say this is the law, but in Liberia, we are not operating under normal circumstances because various reports, including the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report have spoken of some serious shortcomings within the judiciary,” he said.
According to the U.S. State Department 2008 Human Rights Report on Liberia, “The judicial system was largely nonfunctional and plagued by corruption. Judges regularly received bribes or other illegal gifts from damages that they awarded in civil cases…defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested that defendants pay a gratuity to appease or secure favorable rulings from judges, prosecutors, jurors, and police officers.”
Kamara said sad his paper was asked to come up with some money to appease the jurors, but he said he refused.
“We were asked to pay $15,000 to see the jurors and we said no, we can’t do that. We don’t have that kind of money. We are a small newspaper in a very impoverished economy, and to ask us to pay $15,000 to jurors when we are very convinced that we are right is unfair. We refused to pay,” he said.
Past Liberian governments would arrest and jail journalists accused of publishing what the government would consider as libelous information.
Now Kamara said he sees a new era of legal intimidation.
“What we see is a new tactic meant to intimidate investigative reporting on corruption which the president herself has admitted is systemic in her government. But it’s not going to dampen our enthusiasm in reporting what we think are the facts,” Kamara said.
He hoped the Liberian Supreme Court would look at the facts of the case, including truth as a defense in a libel case and render a decision that is in tone with the law.
Marcus Jones, lawyer for the Consolidated Group said the New Democrat knowingly published unbalanced information.
“Under the law and the constitution, you are responsible for what you say or do or what you publish. And under our law if you publish a story, your story should be a balanced reportage. He (Tom Kamara) did not publish balanced story even after he was written on two occasions to retract his false publication. So he said he stood by it,” Jones said.
Kamara denied he and other Liberian journalists were using the cover of freedom of the press to publish unchecked stories.
He said Liberian journalists were concerned that the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf might be using state resources to get desired court verdicts against media institutions.
“There are responsibilities that go with freedom of the press, but the president in her state of the union message said that she was going to take action against journalists who accuse her officials falsely and who accuse her institutions falsely…she just said that about two weeks ago, and right after that we see a bandwagon of libel suits coming out with jurors handing out unanimous decisions in libel cases,” he said.
Former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe has also sued both the online and print versions of Front Page Africa for two million dollars alleging that the paper published several “unsubstantiated” stories claiming that he Toe diverted millions of dollars intended for the Guthrie Rubber Plantation and the people of Bong and Lofa Counties to fight an infestation of army worms.
Another company, Voscon, a private auditing firm is also suing Front Page Africa for damages because the paper’s investigation found that the Ministry of Finance entered into and concluded a $105,000 contract with Voscon without competitive bidding as required by law.