Who carries the burden of proof - the accused or the accuser?

By Charles Alake Williams


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 17, 2004

In the June 14, 2004 publication entitled “Provide Evidence to the Contrary, not just Sheer Denial”, the writer called upon Mr. Harry Greaves, Economic Advisor to the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), and Counselor Varney Sherman, aspirant for President of Liberia during the October 2005 elections, to provide evidence that the NTGL did not pay for the ticket for Counselor Sherman’s recent visit to the United States. The writer argued that instead of merely denying that the NTGL paid Counselor Sherman’s expenses to visit the United States, Mr. Greaves and Counselor Sherman should make available the “airline’s copy of the voucher or receipts (tickets) for publication via electronic or print media, including the Internet, since it has to with the test of their sincerity to the Liberian People”. This premise of this argument is so far different from the little that I know about such things; and because there may be many people who hold the same views that I have, I thought to respond so that Mr. Frederick Varney can “educate” us some more about such things.

First, it should be recalled that it is the “Analyst” newspaper, a thrice-a-week publication in Monrovia, which published an article entitled, “Graduation spree or State Visit”, and accused Mr. Harry Greaves and Counselor Varney Sherman of having received tickets from the NTGL to travel to the United States on matters for the NTGL and were instead attending graduation ceremonies for their children. In his response, among other things, Mr. Greaves said that Counselor Sherman was not a member of the NTGL’s delegation to the United States and never received any funds from the NTGL for his travel to the United States. Mr. Frederick Varney contends that the sheer denial is not enough; documentary proof should accompany the denial. Because I differ with him, I am writing this article.

For all that I know the burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused. That is, if you accuse somebody of wrongdoing, you have the obligation to prove that that person has committed a wrong; it is not the accused that must prove that he is innocent. I believe that it is on the basis of this premise that in the United States, people plead the Fifth Amendment; I also believe that it is on the basis of this premise that an accused need not testify in a case, just as OJ Simpson did not testify in his murder trial. If I am not wrong, I also believe that this is the same thing that is obtained in Liberia. So how is it that Mr. Frederick Varney, a Liberian who has spent so many years in the United States, would twist this thing around and argued that Varney Sherman, the accused, must provide evidence to show his innocence? Is it different when the matter is in the field of journalism or politics? Let’s look at those two fields for a minute.

Journalism. In the media, generally when one write or talks about a person in a manner that casts aspersions on his character, the writer or talker is liable for defamation of character – libel when it is a writing; and slander when it merely talk. However, where the subject of the writing or talk is a public figure (politician, entertainer, sportsman, etc.), the bar is a little higher. That is, it is not enough merely that the writer or talker is wrong; it must be shown that the writer or talker committed a reckless disregard for the truth and wrote or talked with malice. And we, including Mr. Frederick Varney, who lives in the United States, are quite familiar with the many lawsuits every year which public figures, especially entertainers, file against newspapers for defamation because the publisher did not care to find the truth or because the publication was done with malice.

So to me, the question is not whether Counselor Sherman should provide evidence that he purchased his ticket using his own money; the question is whether the “Analyst” committed a reckless disregard for the truth when it asserted that Counselor Sherman has received government funds. Let’s assume that the “Analyst” must have had access to some document which shows that Counselor Sherman was on the Chairman Bryant’s delegation to the United States, or which shows that Counselor Sherman received funds from the Ministry of Finance to pay for his ticket, or the ticket was paid for by the Ministry of Finance and delivered to Counselor Sherman. All of such documents can be obtained from the Ministry of Finance and some can be obtained from either the travel agency or the airline. If the “Analyst” had access to these documents, then why shouldn’t it be the “Analyst” who should present these documents to confirm its story and make Mr. Harry Greaves a liar? And if the “Analyst” did not have access to any of these documents, then what was the basis of its accusation that Counselor Sherman’s airline ticket to the United States was purchased by the NTGL? The next question is that isn’t the “Analyst” liable for “reckless disregard for the truth” or for “malice” if it did not even bother to find documents to substantiate its story that Counselor Sherman was a member of Chairman Bryant’s delegation and received a ticket from the Government to travel to the United States?

Now, let’s assume Counselor Sherman were to present the receipt for his ticket and get Mrs. Elaine Dunn, who manages a travel agency, to confirm that she personally did the bookings and purchased the tickets (Bellview for the trip from Monrovia to Accra to Monrovia; and KLM for the trip from Accra to Dulles to Accra). What is there to stop the likes of the “Analyst” and Mr. Frederick Varney to come back and say that Chairman Bryant took the cash and gave it to Counselor Sherman to purchase the ticket? The newspaper now gives life to a “fabrication” story and sells its paper because of people’s thirst for salacious materials. It is such circle of unsubstantiated accusations, very often made with impunity, that cause many respectable persons to refrain from giving dignity to many publications from Liberia; they merely ignored them.

Politics. I believe that it is Senator Hilary Clinton who shortly after the unsuccessful attempt to remove her husband, President Bill Clinton, from office, said that it was regrettable that some members of the Republican Party were resorting to “politics of personal destruction”. That statement resonated so strongly that during the Bush v. Gore campaigns, both sides committed themselves not to engage in character assassination and they warned their supporters not to. In Liberia, however, we appear not to have matured to that level. The politics of character assassination is rampant, especially when election time is near. Instead of addressing the issues facing the Liberian people, politicians and their supporters generally prefer to defame the character of their opponents, cast unwarranted aspersions on them, and downright insult them. And they do so without the smallest evidence to support their accusations; in fact, they don’t care whether they are right or wrong. But for Liberians like Mr. Frederick Varney, who have had some exposure to Western election campaigns, especially the commitment of political parties and their candidates not to resort to the character assassination of their opponents, we should encourage our compatriots at home to aspire to these higher values and standards. Especially for the media, instead of us asking the accused in publications to prove his innocence, we should insist that the highest ethical and journalistic standards be adhered to. That is, nothing negative about a politician or any other person, for that matter, should be published unless it is based on facts, thorough searched for. But is clear that instead of holding the media to the standard we are accustomed to here in order to improve on our situation at home, Mr. Frederick Varney prefers to perpetuate the “ugliness” at home by his insistence that Mr. Greaves or Counselor Sherman prove the media wrong. What values and standards learnt in the Western world is he taking back home?

Mr. Fredrick Varney writes as though he does not like successful Liberians. I thought that we should be commending Liberians who are successful in their chosen professions or careers, or who acquire wealth in the private sector and not on the “sweat and blood” of the Liberian people. Is it Western though that private enterprise should be the engine for economic development? Or is Mr. Frederick Varney a “lost communist” who does not like private entrepreneurship? Be that as it may, the reference to Counselor Sherman’s success as a corporate lawyer is merely to accentuate the fact that he did not and does not need NTGL’s money to take a trip to United States. To the best of my knowledge, Counselor Sherman visited the United States four to five times each year either on business or family matters before the NTGL took office in October, 2003. Specifically, in 2003, he escaped the war and came to the United States in June; but before then, he had spent the previous Christmas (December – January) here, and was here in March – May. In August, he went to Accra to help campaign for the election of Chairman Bryant; and he was back here in the United States in late September for two or three weeks. He returned to Liberia in October; his wife and two sons went to Liberia to spend Christmas there with him. It wasn’t NTGL money that brought him here on those many visits. So it can be asserted with reasonable certainty that it is not NTGL’s money that brought him here this time. Mr. Frederick Varney’s statement “That man is naturally an insatiable creature” is not for everybody; integrity is ingrained in some of us; and I for one reject the notion that all Liberians are thieves.

Counselor Sherman was very clear in Minneapolis that he was not a member of Chairman Bryant’s recent delegation to the United States and never received any funding from the NTGL for his trip to the United States. He was also very, very clear that he is not a man of financial inconsequence and certainly does not need funds from the NTGL for his personal travels out of Liberia. In response to another inquiry, Counselor Sherman said that he is not an employee of the Liberian Government; the assumption that because he is a lawyer he is the Legal Counsel to Chairman Bryant is also erroneous. He emphasized that he has no office in the Executive Mansion or any public building; he draws no salary or other benefits from the NTGL; he merely assists Chairman Bryant (his personal friend and former Chairman of his political party, the Liberia Action Party) in matters which for which his skills, expertise and relationships can be useful. And to facilitate such assistance, Chairman Bryant calls Counselor Sherman his “Special Envoy”. In Minneapolis, Counselor Sherman used a story from his tribe, the Vai tribe, to better explain his relationship with Chairman Bryant in these words: “In Vai country, as it is with several other tribes in Liberia, you don’t dress the country devil, bring it to town and leave. You have to stay there to beat the drum for it to dance.” Counselor Sherman then said that having campaigned with both political party and warring faction leaders in Accra last August for the election of Chairman Bryant, even though not an official of the NTGL, he feels it an obligation to provide whatever services to ensure that the NTGL is successful. He owes that much to the people whom he asked to elect Chairman Bryant. But his services are and will be selfless, not for compensation or reward. And this is not Counselor Sherman’s first time; he did the same thing during the chairmanship of Professor David Kpormakpor; he is doing the same thing at the law school in Liberia. Our country needs more of such persons; and we do our country a disservice when we resort to assassination of their character.

About the Author: Mr. Charles Alake Williams is a brother-in-law and friend to Counselor Varney Sherman. He may be contacted at: williamscalake@yahoo.com