Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights, although with some unofficial limits.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals could generally criticize the government publicly or privately, but government officials used civil libel and slander laws to place limits on freedom of speech, and self-censorship was widespread. Some media outlets avoided criticizing government officials due to fears of legal sanction and potential loss of government advertising, which, according to the PUL, was the largest source of media revenue. Other outlets avoided addressing sensitive human rights issues such as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Court decisions against journalists sometimes involved exorbitant fines.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. According to the PUL, civil suits relating to libel, slander, and defamation were sometimes used to curtail freedom of expression and intimidate the press. The PUL also expressed concern that media outlets owned directly by politicians and government officials were crowding out privately owned media and advocated for legislation to prohibit ownership of media by public officials.
Violence and Harassment: Government officials occasionally harassed newspaper and radio station owners, as well as individual journalists, because of their political opinions and reporting.
On January 23, Police assaulted journalist Christopher Walker, a sports editor for Front Page Africa, at a soccer stadium, according to the PUL. Walker told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that he was standing with other journalists in the assigned media area when two police officers approached him and demanded he leave the area despite having the proper press accreditation. The two officers then grabbed and shoved Walker while several other officers, including members of the Police Support Unit wearing helmets and body armor, pushed and shoved him to the ground. According to some media sources, Walker was targeted because of an article he wrote that accused the Youth and Sports Ministry of fixing a soccer match to favor the team from Grand Kru County, President George Weah’s home county. Walker’s article alleged Weah had requested the fix. In February, LNP spokesperson Moses Carter told the CPJ that the names of three implicated officers had been forwarded to the police force’s professional standards division for investigation.
National Security Agency and Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency officials attacked or otherwise intimidated at least four journalists–Charles Bioma Yates, Joel Cholo Brooks, Frank Wornbers Payne, and Molley Trojan Kiazolu–in March and April while they reported on the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CPJ and the PUL.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally able to express a wide variety of views, some journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid harassment. Journalists and media directors also practiced self-censorship to maintain advertising revenue from the government, the largest advertiser in the country. There were several reports that politicians and government agencies offered “transportation fees” to journalists to secure coverage of events. Some media outlets, journalists, and broadcasters charged fees to publish articles or host radio programs.
From approximately February to August 2019, the radio show of government critic Henry Costa was frequently unavailable. On several occasions the broadcast seemed to feature older, progovernment clips, leading to speculation by some that the station was being jammed or otherwise interfered with. In reaction Costa made several comments in his Facebook Live broadcasts about using force to defend himself should any agent of the government try to cause him harm. The government’s reactions to these and other broadcasts from Costa, which the government deemed as inciting violence, included a suspension of Roots FM’s broadcast license due to nonpayment of fees and inciting violence. In October 2019 sheriffs from the Monrovia Magisterial Court, escorted by armed police units with a “search and seizure” writ issued by the court at the request of Solicitor General Saymah Cyrenius Cephus, stormed the Roots FM studio, shut down Costa’s broadcast, and seized the station’s broadcasting equipment. At year’s end Costa was broadcasting via social media from an overseas location.
Following the government’s declaration of a state of emergency on April 8 related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Solicitor General Cephus threatened on April 29 to seize the equipment and revoke the license of any media institution spreading “fake news,” arguing that the state of emergency suspended rights associated with freedom of speech. In April, Eugene Fahngon, deputy minister of information, cultural affairs, and tourism, introduced a new media credentialing system, declared existing credentials void, and stated that any journalists who did not use the new credentials would be subject to action by security services. At the time of the state of emergency, the PUL stated that “using the state of emergency to curtail other freedoms violates constitutional rights.” The required use of new media credentials ended on July 21, when the government lifted the state of emergency.
Libel/Slander Laws: In February 2019 criminal libel and slander laws were repealed with the passage of the Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom. Nonetheless, government officials occasionally used the threat of civil suits to intimidate critics. In April 2019 Minister of State for Presidential Affairs Nathaniel McGill filed a $500,000 defamation suit against Roots FM and its radio hosts Henry Costa and Fidel Saydee, alleging the two radio personalities “slandered, badmouthed, vandalized, and vilified” McGill by accusing him of financial impropriety. Both the Media Foundation for West Africa and Center for Media Studies and Peace Building urged Minister McGill to withdraw the suit, which was later dropped.
In July, Sinoe Country Senator J. Milton Teahjay filed a $4.7 million libel suit against the Front Page Africa newspaper for publishing an investigation alleging that Teahjay received a $20,000 bribe to confirm Ndubusi Nwabudike as the chairperson of the National Elections Commission. A recording also emerged in which a voice allegedly belonging to Teahjay stated that he expected the nominees he confirmed to give jobs to one or two of his recommended applicants. According to the newspaper, in October, Civil Law Court Judge Kennedy Peabody mandated that both parties present pretrial memoranda to set the stage for a jury trial, stating it would take a jury to determine whether libel had occurred as alleged in Senator Teahjay’s complaint. The trial was pending at year’s end.
The PUL continued efforts to self-regulate the media and ensure adherence to standards, including investigation and settlement of complaints against or by the press. The union’s National Media Council, launched in 2017 to address court cases against the media, continued to mediate cases during the year.
Unlike in the previous year, the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet during the year. In July 2019 in the lead-up to and during a planned protest, the government blocked usage of both Orange and Lonestar Cell MTN, the two mobile networks in the country. When protesters dispersed, access was restored.
There were no additional reports the government censored online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were reports of government officials threatening legal action and filing civil lawsuits in attempts to censor protected internet-based speech and intimidate content creators.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
A variety of civil society groups conducted demonstrations throughout the year, including outside the legislature and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In some cases the Ministry of Justice requested that organizers of mass protests apply for permits before assembling in areas that would block traffic. The LNBA and INCHR stated the constitution and law requires prior notification, not application for a permit, to allow the government time to provide sufficient security to protect free assembly, and that a permitting process could restrict freedom of assembly. Many observers said the relevant laws and regulations required clarification.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government restricted travel between neighboring countries and between counties within the country in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Security officials at road checkpoints throughout the country frequently requested bribes, which may have inhibited domestic travel.
The government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The government had policies and protections for IDPs in line with the UN Guiding Principle on Internal Displacement. The government did not deny humanitarian NGOs or international organizations access to IDPs.
The government cooperated with UNHCR, other humanitarian organizations, and donor countries in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: The LRRRC and UNHCR reported seven Ivoirian refugees remained in custody in the Monrovia Central Prison, pursuant to a 2013 request for extradition from the government of Cote d’Ivoire that alleged their involvement in “mercenary activities.” The case began in 2013, and bail requests were denied. Three of the seven refugees were brothers, the youngest 16 years old at the time of arrest. The LRRRC and UNHCR continued to provide subsistence allowances, legal support, and medical and psychosocial support to refugees in custody.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
The law forbids the forced return of refugees, their families, or other persons who may be subjected to persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, and the government generally respected those rights for refugees. The government provided a prima facie mode of recognition for Ivoirian refugees, meaning Ivoirian refugees who arrived in Liberia because of the 2011 postelectoral violence in Cote d’Ivoire did not have to appear before an asylum committee to gain refugee status; the status was granted automatically. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2019 Liberia was host to 8,101 refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and 98 others of diverse nationalities.
As of December 23, UNHCR reported the arrival of 22,989 new Ivorian refugees who fled anticipated violence following Cote d’Ivoire’s October 31 election. According to the Liberia Refugee Repatriation Resettlement Commission (LRRRC), the prima facie status continued to be automatic for Ivoirian refugees.
Any (non-Ivoirian) refugees denied asylum may submit their case to the appeals committee of the LRRRC. Asylum seekers unsatisfied with the appeals committee ruling may seek judicial review at the Supreme Court. The Alien and Nationality Law of 1974, however, specifically denies many of the safeguards for those wishing to seek asylum in the country under the Refugee Convention.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees enjoyed freedom of movement, since the country did not have a mandatory encampment policy. Government policy stated refugees wishing to receive material assistance should move to one of the three refugee camp locations in Bahn Town, Nimba County; Zwedru, Grand Gedeh; and Harper, Maryland County.
Employment: The law generally prohibits noncitizens from obtaining work permits when Liberian citizens are available to perform the labor, but this law was generally not enforced. As such, the LRRRC and UNHCR worked with partners to implement livelihood programs for Ivoirian refugees who wished to integrate. As an example, in July, five refugees requested work permits from the Ministry of Labor to work in the formal sector, and UNHCR paid the requisite application and processing fee. The work permits for the five refugees were pending at year’s end.
Durable Solutions: During the year the government resettled, offered naturalization, and assisted in the voluntary return of refugees. Voluntary repatriation of Ivoirian refugees from Cote d’Ivoire’s 2011 postelection violence continued. According to UNHCR, as of July, 149 Ivoirian refugees had voluntarily returned to their country. UNHCR and the LRRRC reported providing continuing support to nearly 1,600 refugees who opted for local integration. At year’s end the refugee camps in Bahn Town, Nimba County; Zwedru, Grand Gedeh; and Harper, Maryland County were being transformed into settlements intended for local integration of refugees. In August the government began the naturalization process for five refugees, which continued at year’s end.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government, with UNHCR and other implementing partners, continued to provide protection to Ivoirian refugees who entered the country after November. According to the LRRRC, as of December, 25,700 refugees remained in the country.