Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, although with some unofficial limits.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could generally criticize the government publicly or privately, but criminal libel and slander laws and national security laws placed limits on freedom of speech.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, but due to a lack of funding, they were often overshadowed by privately owned media outlets with partisan leanings. Some media outlets and journalists allegedly charged fees to publish some articles. According to the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), laws prohibiting criminal libel against the president, sedition, and criminal malevolence as well as high fines associated with civil suits were sometimes used to curtail freedom of expression and intimidate the press. Self-censorship was widespread, and some media outlets avoided addressing subjects like government corruption both due to fear of legal sanction and in order to retain government advertising revenue. Court decisions against journalists often involved exorbitant fines, and authorities jailed journalists who did not pay the fines.
Violence and Harassment: Law enforcement officers occasionally harassed newspaper and radio station owners because of their political opinions and reporting, especially those that criticized government officials. Government officials also harassed and sometimes threatened media members for political or personal reasons. In February the legislative press pool stated that Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate Toe C. Toe bit Austin Kawah of Prime FM during a disagreement regarding entering Senate chambers, and that Representative Munah Pelham-Youngblood assaulted FrontPage Africa journalist Henry Karmo during an open session at the Capitol. According to the press pool, Youngblood attacked Karmo for reporting a story that was critical of the lawmaker. On November 21, the Daily Observer reported that Representative Solomon George allegedly threatened to order the beating of two journalists from the legislative press pool for “insulting” the legislature.
During a joint press conference marking the conclusion of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) with UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed on March 22, President Weah rebuked BBC and Associated Press journalist Jonathan Paye-Layleh for being “against him.” President Weah’s response followed a question from Paye-Layleh regarding whether he would support establishing a war crimes court. Days later the president’s press secretary released a statement to clarify that Weah’s remarks were a reminder that while Weah was advocating for human rights, Paye-Layleh and other journalists “were bent on undermining his [Weah’s] efforts by depicting a positive image of the carnage” during the country’s civil wars. PUL suggested that the president’s comments directed at Paye-Layleh could endanger journalists and promote self-censorship.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally able to express a wide variety of views, some journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid possible criminal charges. 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.
In June the government announced the suspension and review of all media licenses issued between January 1 and June 18. According to a press release from the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism, the reason for the suspension was to investigate irregularities such as the duplication of transmission frequencies to radio and television broadcasters. PUL stated that the move was meant to intimidate media and halt the opening of a radio station by a critic of the government.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were several reports that libel, slander, and defamation laws constrained the work of journalists and media outlets reporting on high-profile government or other public figures. On April 9, the Civil Law Court ordered staff from FrontPage Africato appear in court. The government then briefly detained at least seven journalists and forced the newspaper’s office to close temporarily. The court’s decision resulted from a $1.8 million civil defamation lawsuit filed against the newspaper for publishing a paid advertisement concerning the administrators of a deceased politician’s estate that it retracted before the suit.
PUL advocated for decriminalizing libel and slander and eliminating prison terms for persons unable to pay large fines. PUL also continued efforts to self-regulate the media and ensure adherence to standards including investigation and settlement of complaints against or by the press. PUL’s National Media Council, launched in 2017 to address court cases against the media, mediated six cases during the year.
On May 31, President Weah submitted a bill repealing sections of the penal law on criminal libel against the president and other government officials, sedition, and criminal malevolence. In July the House of Representatives unanimously approved the bill. As of November the bill was awaiting Senate review. This bill, if passed, would help bring the country into compliance with the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls for the repeal of criminal defamation and “insult” laws across the African continent.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content and there were no reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 8 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
There were reports of government officials threatening legal action and filing civil lawsuits to censor protected internet-based speech and intimidate senders.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The Ministry of Justice required permits for public gatherings and obtaining a permit was relatively easy.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
According to Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the country was host to 9,149 refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and 71 others of diverse nationalities. July flooding in Montserrado, Margibi, and Grand Bassa counties affected more than 52,000 persons, but most internally displaced persons (IDPs) have since returned to their homes. The Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC) and the National Disaster Commission in the Ministry of Internal Affairs are responsible for responding to natural disasters and supporting affected persons.
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 provides a prima facie mode of recognition for Ivoirian refugees, meaning Ivoirian refugees arriving in Liberia because of the 2011 postelectoral violence in Cote d’Ivoire do not have to appear before the asylum committee to gain refugee status; the status is granted automatically.
Those denied asylum may submit their case to the appeals committee of the LRRRC. Asylum seekers unsatisfied with the appeals committee ruling can 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.
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.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Unlike in previous years, officials did not receive reports of traditional practitioners targeting and discriminating against refugees. UNHCR reported improved relationships between refugees and the local population.
In-country Movement: Unlike previous years, there were no reports of LNP and Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization officers subjecting refugees to arbitrary searches and petty extortion at official and unofficial checkpoints.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The LRRRC and UNHCR reported that seven Ivoirian refugees were still in custody, pursuant to a request for extradition from the government of Cote d’Ivoire that alleged their involvement in “mercenary activities.” The case has continued since 2013, and bail requests have failed. The refugees’ lawyers were given access to only limited information on the case. Three of the seven refugees were brothers, the youngest only 16 years old at the time of arrest. UNHCR provides subsistence allowances, legal support, and medical and psychosocial support to refugees in custody.
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 prohibits non-Liberian citizens from obtaining work permits when Liberian citizens are available to perform the labor but this law was generally not enforced. Refugees seeking employment in the formal sector need a work permit from the Ministry of Labor. UNHCR paid the requisite fee.
Durable Solutions: During the year the government resettled, offered naturalization, and assisted in the voluntary return of refugees. Voluntary repatriation of Ivoirian refugees, which resumed in 2015 following a 16-month suspension due to Ebola concerns, continued. According to UNHCR, as of September approximately 7,638 Ivoirian refugees had voluntarily returned to Cote d’Ivoire; 849 were repatriated during the year. UNHCR and the LRRRC assisted those returning and supported 840 Ivoirian refugees who opted for local integration. In July the government naturalized 371 former Sierra Leonean refugees.
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 2010. According to UNHCR, as of September 9,202 Ivoirian refugees remained in the country.