The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is troubled by the recent criminal charges brought against journalists working for the private weekly newspaper Telegraph. On January 16, Editor-in-Chief Philip Moore Jr., Managing Editor Adolphus Karnuah, and Subeditor Robert Kpadeh Jr. were arrested and brought to the Magistrate Court in the capital, Monrovia, where they were charged with "criminal malevolence."
Additionally, Rennie Moses, a former business manager for the Telegraph, and Rudolph Gborkeh, the newspaper's chief reporter, were charged in absentia. Moore, Karnuah, and Kpadeh were released the same day, and later paid the equivalent of about US$5 each in bail.
The charges stem from a story published in the Telegraph on December 30, 2003, which alleged that National Security Minister Losay Kendor embezzled US$15,000. According to journalists at the newspaper, the article relied on sources from within the National Security Ministry. Kendor joined Liberia's newly inaugurated transitional government after an August 2003, power-sharing deal aimed at ending more than a decade of civil war. He has not yet been confirmed by Liberia's legislature, the journalists said.
The case against the journalists is currently pending in Monrovia's Magistrate Court. Jerome Verdier, the journalists' defense lawyer, told CPJ that the charge of "criminal malevolence," which falls under Liberia's criminal code, carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues worldwide, we believe journalists should never face criminal charges for what they write. There is a growing international consensus that, in the most extreme cases, civil sanctions provide adequate redress for those who feel defamed. As it stands, the prosecution of these journalists appears designed to silence critical reporting on matters of legitimate public concern.
Your Excellency, these criminal charges brought against journalists in reprisal for their work set a dangerous precedent during this fragile transition period in Liberia and undermine your inauguration promise to encourage freedom of the press.
We call on you to ensure that all charges against Moore, Karnuah, Kpadeh, Moses, and Gborkeh are dropped immediately and unconditionally. We also urge you to allow all journalists to practice their profession freely, as a free press is essential to building democracy.
Thank you for your attention in this urgent matter. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper