Abuja, June 12, 2023—Liberian authorities should ensure that journalists are able to cover court cases without fear that they will be forced to expose their sources, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.
In a summons dated May 31, which CPJ reviewed, Judge Blamo Dixon of Criminal Court C in the Liberian capital Monrovia ordered the management and entire staff of the privately owned daily newspaper FrontPageAfrica to appear on Tuesday, June 13, to defend a report about alleged bribery in the country’s judicial system.
The court summons is related to a May 19 report that quoted anonymous sources who alleged that US$500,000 was “splashed around judicial circles to influence the jury” that unanimously acquitted four men charged with trafficking US$100 million of cocaine, according to FrontPage Africa Managing Editor Rodney Sieh and News Editor Lennart Dodoo, who both communicated with CPJ via messaging app. Sieh said his publication stood by the story.
The summons said FrontPageAfrica’s management and “all persons acting under the scope and authority” of the newspaper must appear before the court that acquitted the four men, explain why they should not be held in criminal contempt, and provide evidence of the bribery.
The penalty for contempt of court is at the judge’s discretion but can include imprisonment or a fine based on the court type, according to Sieh, a revised schedule of court costs, fees, and fines, and Ambrose Nmah, a spokesperson for Liberia’s judiciary, who spoke to CPJ by phone. Circuit courts, which is the court that summoned the outlet’s management and staff, can issue up to a $300 fine.
In court papers filed on Monday and reviewed by CPJ, FrontPageAfrica said it had not intended to “blame, embarrass or denigrate” the trial court or Liberia’s judiciary, and would not “publish any story for the purpose of ridiculing, bringing into disrepute or undermining the dignity of this Honorable Court and the Judiciary at large.”
“Liberian authorities should respect journalists’ sacrosanct duty to protect their sources and withdraw a summons recently issued to FrontPageAfrica employees over the outlet’s coverage,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “The acquittal of four alleged international drug traffickers is a matter of public interest, and the journalists who have reported critically about the court and have since apologized if they inadvertently caused offense must not become scapegoats.”
In the drug case, the court also ruled that US$200,000 that the Liberian government seized from the four men must be returned, and hours after the verdict, the four men fled the country and have “not been seen or heard from since,” according to FrontPageAfrica.
The drug case was widely believed to be a “slam dunk case” as the bust was made in the presence of both U.S. and Liberian drug enforcement authorities, and video evidence was published by the outlet, other international news outlets, and on social media platforms.
Justice Minister Frank Musah Dean attempted to rearrest the suspects and launch an appeal, which the Supreme Court rejected, that report said.
In those court papers, FrontPageAfrica’s lawyers said that as Dean and many other Liberians were denouncing the court verdict, the newspaper’s reporters were informed of the bribes “by credible and unimpeachable sources.”
FrontPageAfrica “with all sincerity” did not think or believe its May 19 report would be construed as contemptuous, but sincerely apologized “to the extent that the publication is construed or may be construed as being contemptuous to the presiding judge, the trial court and the Liberian judiciary as a whole,” the document said.
Nmah said that the court summons was in line with Liberian laws and that FrontPageAfrica would not be held liable if they proved the facts of their reporting in court.