A “President George Weah for all” turns a President George Weah for only those who speak good of him. This is the feeling of Liberian journalists who are on the edge as supporters of the president hurl abusive languages against them while the draconian media laws of the land remain strong.
A US$1.8 million civil defamation lawsuit has been filed against privately owned newspaper Front Page Africa over an advertisement about land administration published in March. The critical newspaper was stormed by security officials on April 9 and seven employees briefly detained.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Henry Morgan, was an ally of President George Weah but the government denied any connection with the lawsuit.
“Liberia has a troubling history of libel lawsuits where applicants ask for exorbitant damages simply to harass and intimidate journalists, resulting in their imprisonment or the closure of news outlets. The government should move swiftly to reform Liberia’s libel laws to guard against their abuse in this way,” says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Africa program coordinator, Angela Quintal.
The CPJ said in a statement that Rodney Sieh, the owner of Front Page Africa has received death and arson threats on social media prior to the court summons and a week before the summons, a member of Weah’s political party and Monrovia mayor Jefferson Koijee publicly condemned the paper and Sieh for attacking the presidency.
The advertisement that attracted the lawsuit has also been published by The Daily Observer and The New Democrat newspapers, meanwhile, only the paper critical of the government was sued, says Edwin Morgan, a defendant in the suit who submitted the ad.
President Weah has on several occasions promised commitment to free press and freedom of expression. He reiterated this commitment last week in a meeting with heads of media organisations after journalists expressed feelings of uneasiness.
“How can a man like me with soft heart, humble background as well as scores of friends in the country clamp down on free speech. There is no way I can use my position to hunt people for expressing their views to criticise me,” George Weah said after The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) expressed concern about threats by government officials and supporters.
“While it is true the media and journalists are at liberty to write and criticise in whatever way they see, it is also incumbent of the media to mention the achievements of the government,” Weah added.
However, the BBC’s correspondent in Liberia, Jonathan Paye-Layleh, left the country in fear of reprisal following threats he keeps receiving after Weah accused him in March of being against him.
“I fear more that some of the tens of thousands of Mr President’s supporters … could understand his allegations against me to mean that I am his enemy. And you can imagine what could happen to me in some corners without it necessarily being by his directive,” Paye-Layleh told colleagues in a message cited by the Daily Monitor.
The offence of the journalist was to ask the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed a question about setting up a court for the perpetrators of crimes committed during the 1989-2003 civil war. This could implicate many officials in government and the president himself.
For now, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) is concerned about getting regular advertisement from the government and protection from threatening government supporters and officials. The world is also watching closely.