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Liberian government agrees to urgently address criminal defamation

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks during We Day at the Air Canada Centre on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Toronto, Canada.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks during We Day at the Air Canada Centre on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Toronto, Canada.

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

WAN-IFRA and civil society groups express hope that laws criminalising free speech will finally be repealed; Liberia committed to reform in 2012 but has so far failed to retract legislation.

At the urging of a coalition of media rights groups, including the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and local and regional organisations, the Liberian government has re-committed to the urgent need to repeal laws that criminalise speech in Liberia.

The new commitment came during a meeting earlier this week with the Liberian Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism and the Ministry of Justice that was attended by around 50 media professionals, lawyers, academics and civil society and media organisations.

The meeting, held in the Liberian capital Monrovia, reinvigorated the process to repeal criminal defamation laws after President Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf signed the Declaration of Table Mountain in July 2012. The Declaration calls on heads of state to repeal criminal defamation and insult laws and put a free press higher on the agenda.

At the time of the signing, President Sirleaf said: “We are signing the Declaration of Table Mountain in order to underscore our message loud and clear, to advance a free press and freedom of expression, not just in Liberia but the entire continent of Africa.”

Unfortunately, her government was unable to reach consensus on the draft bill to repeal the legislation, due to concerns from the Justice Ministry that it would be unconstitutional.

As a result of the inertia, a leading journalist was jailed under criminal defamation laws in August 2013. A major international effort and negotiations between free speech advocates and the government secured the release of Rodney Seih, the editor and publisher of Front Page Africa, but the laws used to jail him remain in place.

At the meeting on Wednesday, the Information Ministry agreed to coordinate the effort to finalise the draft bill that repeals criminal defamation, to be presented to Parliament no later than 15 May 2014.

The meeting, organised by the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building and WAN-IFRA, in partnership with the Media Foundation for West Africa, the Press Union of Liberia, and the Information Ministry, heard from the Minister of Information, Lewis G. Brown, the President of the Press Union, Abdullai Kamara, the Deputy Minister of Justice, Victoria Lang, the Chairman of the Law Reform Commission, Jallah A. Barbu, and human rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe.

“We were delighted in 2012 when President Sirleaf signed the Declaration of Table Mountain,” said Alison Meston, WAN-IFRA Director of Global Campaigns. “However, these laws should have been repealed already and we are hopeful that the government's recent remarks indicate they are committed to moving forward. We will hold them to account. ”

Malcolm Joseph, executive director of the Centre for Media Studies and Peace Building, said: “We're hopeful that, after this meeting of enthusiastic stakeholders, the road to repeal archaic laws which criminalise speech will be a short one, and that Liberia can have a strong and independent press that can write the news without fear”.

Lewis Brown, the Information Minister, said: “The stakeholders' meeting and efforts to develop a workable timetable to decriminalise media-related offenses are critical steps to fulfilling an important promise and invaluable to consolidating Liberia's peace and democracy.”

Sulemana Braimah, Executive Director of the Media Foundation for West Africa, said:

“We are happy to be a partner in this process and share experience from the region, such as the decriminalisation of libel, sedition and defamation in Ghana, to help ensure the timely passage of the bill to enshrine press freedom and freedom of expression into Liberian law.”

Abdullai Kamara, President of the Press Union of Liberia, said: "By all means, the government must exert every effort to decriminalize speech offenses, as it is only when citizens have this confidence that they will freely participate in the governance of their communities."

The Declaration of Table Mountain campaign is conducted by WAN-IFRA and other stakeholders, both in Africa and abroad, through an innovative partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to advance media development and press freedom worldwide.

The partnership allows WAN-IFRA to broaden and develop its press freedom and media development activities to support free and financially sustainable media worldwide. For more on this work, please consult

WAN-IFRA, based in Paris, France, and Darmstadt, Germany, with subsidiaries in Singapore and India, is the global organisation of the world's newspapers and news publishers. It represents more than 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries. Its core mission is to defend and promote press freedom, quality journalism and editorial integrity and the development of prosperous businesses.

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