Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of Liberia
Monrovia, Liberia

17 March 2010

We are writing on behalf of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and the World Editors Forum, which represent 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries, to express our serious concern at the use of draconian libel awards to stifle press freedom.

According to reports, on 17 February a Monrovia court ordered the New Democrat newspaper to pay Consolidated Group Incorporated US$900,000 in damages after publishing a story in October 2008 headlined: "For Scrap Government paid US$800,000". The newspaper, quoting an assessment document, described road maintenance equipment bought by the Public Works Ministry from the plaintiff as "scrap" - a claim the company said was damaging to its reputation.

On 24 February former Agriculture Minister Dr Christopher Toe filed a US$2 million action of damages for libel against FrontPage Africa newspaper, its editor-in-chief Rodney Sieh and reporter Samwar Fallah. The lawsuit referred to several articles alleging that Dr Toe had diverted millions of dollars of public funds.

Without commenting on whether the facts of these two cases justify a finding of liability, we are seriously concerned that the size of the award made against the New Democrat and the damages sought against FrontPage Africa are punitive. We respectfully remind you that an award of damages should in all cases be reasonable and proportionate to any harm that may have been caused. Draconian awards have a chilling effect on investigative journalism and freedom of the press. Furthermore, they contradict the principles of the Declaration of Table Mountain, issued by our organisations at the 60th World Newspaper Congress and 14th World Editors Forum Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, in June 2007, which called on African governments as a matter of urgency to review and abolish all laws that restrict press freedom.

We are also concerned that the Liberian judicial system has itself come under scrutiny following US State Department allegations that it is "largely nonfunctional and plagued by corruption. Judges regularly received bribes or other illegal gifts from damages that they awarded in civil cases... [and] sometimes requested bribes to try 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."

We respectfully call on you to ensure that libel is not used as a means of silencing critical media and that all libel awards are proportionate to any harm that may have been caused. We also urge you to do everything possible to ensure that corruption in the judicial system is halted."

Gavin O'Reilly
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

Xavier Vidal-Folch
World Editors Forum

WAN-IFRA is the global organization for the world's newspapers and news publishers, with formal representative status at the United Nations, UNESCO and the Council of Europe. The organization groups 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries.

cc: Faith Pansy Tlakula, African Commission Special Rapporteur on Freedom
of Expression