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
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 President World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
Xavier Vidal-Folch President 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