Liberian newspaper publisher arrested over civil libel case

Philipbert Browne, the publisher of Liberia’s Hot Pepper newspaper, was arrested at his office and jailed at the Monrovia Central Prison in the Liberian capital on October 7, 2016, for libel on the orders of a Civil Law Court over a story in his paper titled, “During Ebola Time: ‘I Lost My Virginity'” published the previous day which interviewed a teenage girl who alleged that lawmaker Prince Moye raped her in 2013, according to media reports.

Moye filed a US$1.5 million libel lawsuit against Browne, Jah Johnson, the editor of Hot Pepper newspaper, Alfred Togbah, the publisher of The People newspaper, and Wendell McIntosh, a businessman and former ambassador, over both newspapers’ publications, which he said were “characterized on falsehood,” according to media reports. The People newspaper was first to publish the story, on September 27, under the headline, “Lawmaker allegedly rapes teenager girl–Victim’s mother vows to pursue legal action.” The People‘s story included Moye’s denial of the allegations as untrue, media reports said.

The civil court ordered the journalists’ arrest after Moye claimed the journalists tried to extort money from him to keep the story out of the press, according to media reports. Browne spent three nights in jail before his lawyers were able to secure his release on October 10 with a US$1.5million insurance bail bond, the reports said. Johnson and Togba went into hiding following a court order for their arrest on defamation charges against Moye, according to media reports.

The Press Union of Liberia in a statement said “it [was] shocked that the court would still be treating civil cases as criminal.” Civil society groups condemned the arrest as “an attempt to muscle press freedom in the country,” according to media reports.

Browne, who is also the publisher of the independent National Chronicle, has been the target of attacks in the past, according to CPJ research. In August 2015, Hot Pepper reported an assassination plot against Browne. In the same month, Liberia’s Supreme Court ruled against the Liberia government’s continued closure of the Chronicle, first imposed in August 2014, and ordered for the newspaper to be re-opened with immediate effect, according to media reports.

The government had closed National Chronicle using emergency powers arrogated during an Ebola epidemic, citing “urgent national security concerns,” and a police investigation into articles the Chronicle published which alluded to plans by a group of Liberians opposed to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to form a new government, according to media reports and local journalists.