Something Never Changes: Free the Journalists

By Kolec E. Jessey

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 27, 2004

The arrest of the editorial staff of the Heritage Newspaper in Monrovia on February 23, 2003 on the order of the Monrovia Magisterial Court is disturbing and should be condemned by democratic minded Liberians. If such a trend is allowed to continue it will have chilling effect on the ongoing efforts to bring peace to Liberia since muzzling the press and repression of dissenting views are recipe for resorting to armed means of resolving grievances.

According to report from Monrovia, the staff of the newspaper was arrested on the order of the Monrovia Magisterial Court after the government of Liberia initiated a legal action against the paper for “disseminating obscene material.” The journalists and the sale manager were arrested under section 18.7 of the New Penal Law of Liberia in which a person is charged with first-degree misdemeanor if the person disseminates obscene material.

While I do not support the dissemination of obscene materials to the public or editorial decision of the Heritage Newspaper to public the obscene article to the public, I disagree with the manner in which the case is being brought against the journalists by the Liberian government.

In fact, I strongly support draconian actions against those who are corrupting the minds of our youth by engaging in activities such as drugging our youth to engage in mass murders or distributing pornographic materials to the youth and the public to engage in prostitution.

But in the case of the Heritage Newspaper the government went too far and is on the wrong track by the arresting the editorial staff. I believe that if the government was serious about prosecuting the distribution of obscene material by the newspaper it would have brought a case against the Heritage Newspaper as an entity. The point here is that the Heritage Newspaper is a legal and economic entity licensed by the by the government to engage in business activities. As such, the government should have taken action against the paper by taking the paper to court if the government felt that the paper has defamed, injured or engaged in criminal activities, and not arrest the editorial staff.

It is in the court of law that the government must prove it first-degree misdemeanor case against the paper. And that if the paper is found guilty, it could be fine as an entity under the law. And if the paper failed to pay the fine then the court can go after the paper assets to satisfy the claims. And depending on the business set up of the paper whether it is a limited liability company or partnership, the court can go after the assets of the partners or owners if the assets of the paper are not significant to satisfy damage.

The point here is that, a government does not arrest an entire staff of a company because that company committed a criminal or civil act. For instance, the United States government did not arrest the entire Microsoft Company staff because it engaged in anti-competitive acts against competitors. Or to put it another way, the entire editorial staff of the Washington Times was not arrested because Robert Novak column disclosed the name of the wife of ambassador who is a CIA operative, which is a felony act.

One will argue that the American situation is quite different from Liberia and that we do not have to apply the same standard. But if we are to build a truly new Liberia that is anchored on the rules of law then we must follow the same rules of law that has produced stability around the world in places like the United States and Western Europe.

The government action to imprison the editorial staff of the Heritage Newspaper is not based on protecting the public against the dissemination of obscenity rather an attempt to muzzle the press ahead of political season that will usher in a civilian government after 14 years of destructions and killings.

One would think that since that the Transitional government includes individuals who were educated in the developed world where there are rules of law are the norm, the arbitrary arrest of journalists and the repression of opposing and unpopular views were thing of the past. Unfortunately, the problem with Liberians is that once they assumed power they see with only one eye. Something never changes.

Kolec E. Jessey is a Liberian journalist who now works in public accountant with a national professional firm in Washington, DC. He can be reached at