By: Sam Zota, Jr. Judicial Reporter, THE NEWS Newspaper Monrovia, Liberia
On Tuesday, November 15, Judge James Zotaa, Jr., Resident Judge of the First Judicial Circuit Court ‘A’ at the Temple of Justice ruled against four media institutions for spreading ‘hate messages of violence’ in the wake of last week riot between the Liberia National Police and supporters of the main opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) which left at least one person dead and several others wounded.
The Judge, without stating what constitutes “hate messages of violence”, also ordered the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICAT) to revoke the permits and licenses of any media institution that promotes the airing, broadcasting and publication of ‘hate messages of violence’ in the future.
This mandate from the criminal court presided over by one of Liberia’s top judges, now squarely places the ball in the court of the government through the Ministry of Information to determine what is ‘hate messages of violence.’
I believe that the decision by Judge Zotaa to have ruled against the media without clear definition of the term ‘hate message’ is a clever attempt by the government to censor the media in Liberia.
In order to avoid situations that tend to put the media against the government and the creation of self-censorship on journalists in their reportorial duties, the court needed to have clearly stated those things that constitute hate message, incitement and others.
This, in my opinion, is a press freedom trap that has been set by the Government of Liberia to entrap media institutions that the government feels would not be dancing according to their tunes.
This decision compels journalists to be careful about how to express their views on issues that would run contrary to the positions of government. In other words, since there isn’t clear definition on what constitutes hate message, I see it as a trap that could entangle journalists in the future. Without a clear definition, it places the media in an uncomfortable position to report on issues and actions that tend to oppose government’s position.
While I do not intend in any way to question or disagree with the judgment or ruling of the judge against the four media institutions, however, what we (journalists) had anticipated was clear interpretation of the law.
Granted that this instance case was not a regular trial but rather a conference hearing, it equally needed proper interpretation like any other matter.
The Judge, who received the evidence from prosecution lawyers, adjourned the hearing for the following day (Tuesday). Journalists had also anticipated that the judge would have entertained argument into the production of the evidence by the state. Instead, he reviewed the evidence in his chamber and came out with a ruling.
Although the judge did not allow evidence produced by prosecution lawyers to be heard in open court, strangely, at the closing of the case, he said it was warranted to have adjudged the media institutions because they had broadcast hate messages that posed a threat to the security of the state. He also stated that actions of the media institutions were punishable under the law and that the court would not institute any penalty for what he called “ensuring press freedom as guaranteed under the Constitution, making sure that freedom of press prevails.”
Judge Zotaa stated in his ruling that the conducts of the media institutions were criminal under Liberian Penal Code of 1972, and was an indictable offense, without citing specific sections or articles of the penal code. The above statement by the judge needed clarity which also puts media institutions in doubt.
The crowd of journalists, students and ordinary Liberians, who gathered at the hearing on Tuesday, did not only come to witness court proceedings, but to get clearer pictures and understanding of what constitutes hate messages and incitements.
I am of the conviction that most, if not, all of those who attended the hearing, left the court room with doubts and with no understanding about what the law says about what constitutes ‘hate message’.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that the judge needed to have done more good by giving an interpretation that would avoid placing the media in a state of fear and self-censorship.