SUPREME COURT’S CONTEMPT OF FRONTPAGE – I BEG TO DIFFER
By Alphonso Nyenuh firstname.lastname@example.org
The contempt action by the Supreme Court of Liberia against Frontpageafrica and its publisher Rodney D. Sieh brings back chilling memories of the abusive days of old when journalist were intimidated, beaten and jailed, when media houses were burnt down and when unscrupulous tactics such as contempt of court and others were employed to silence freedom of speech and of the press. The Supreme Court’s recent action resembles the use of the ‘long arm of the law’ to punish dissent, to intimidate the media and force it into self-censorship, and to stifle individual free speech rights. Neither the Supreme Court of Liberia nor any institution of government or public servant should see themselves as beyond the bounds of criticism. That is why the actions against Mr. Sieh and Frontpage by the Supreme Court for simply publishing a letter criticizing one of the justices of the court, is especially troubling and traumatic.
The use of the court’s contempt power to punish media houses for simply giving expression to individual free speech rights is an abuse of the contempt power of the court and such actions undermine the constitutional protections of freedom of speech and of the press as guaranteed by the Constitution of Liberia.
Chapter III, Article 15 of the Constitution of Liberia reads: a.) “Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof…
b.) The right… includes freedom of speech and of the press…
e.) This freedom may be limited only by judicial action in proceedings grounded in defamation or invasion of the rights of privacy and publicity or in the commercial aspect of expression in deception, false advertising and copyright infringement”
Note the conditions under, and the process by which freedom of speech and of the press may be limited, as discussed under subsection “e”; 1.)By judicial action, 2.) In proceedings grounded in defamation or invasion of the rights of privacy and publicity, 3.) in false advertising.
Judging from its writ of summons as well as the line of questioning by the justices of Mr. Sieh during his initial appearances, it is apparent that the Supreme Court’s action against Mr. Sieh is grounded in defamation; that by publishing a letter critical of the court and, especially one of its justice, Frontpageafrica and its publisher, Rodney D. Sieh, have defamed the court.
Granted that the Supreme Court is claiming that it was defamed by Mr. Sieh and FPA, can the same Supreme Court be an impartial judge in this case? Can the Supreme Court be the complainer, and yet an impartial judge and jury in this case? What about Mr. Sieh’s and Frontpage’s Due Process rights to a fair trial as guaranteed by the Constitution. Therein lies the danger for the abuse of power. The power of contempt is so strong and yet arbitrary, that it can become an instrument of abuse, consequently judges must exercise restraint in exercising it. In contempt cases the court that claims to be offended and imposes contempt charges, hears the case and also imposes the penalty. University of Virginia law professor, Earl Dudley wrote that in the contempt power, "the roles of victim, prosecutor and judge are dangerously commingled." The question is not whether or not the court has the power of contempt, it is how that power is used, and to what end., That is why much of the criticism on the use of the court’s contempt power has focused on the court’s lack of restraint in raising contempt proceedings, as well as the question of due process in hearing and imposing punishments for contempt.
Secondly, what is objective of the Supreme Court’s contempt of Frontpageafrica for publishing a letter written by a member of the public and published in a section of the paper clearly delineated as an ‘opinion’ section?
1.) To have Mr. Sieh prove what the writer alleged in his letter?
2.) To force Sieh to produce the writer of the letter or the letter itself?
3.) To send a message to journalists not to publish anything critical of the Supreme Court of any of its justices?
4.) To force Mr. Sieh and journalists to first fact-check “opinion” by individuals before publishing them?
It must also be noted that the court is setting a dangerous precedent for judges of lower courts to follow. By its contempt actions against Frontpageafrica the Johnny Lewis Supreme Court is essentially saying to Circuit Court judges that it is OK to hold journalists and even members of the public in contempt for publishing or saying anything critical of them and their courts.
How far is the Supreme Court prepared to go in punishing media institutions for publishing comments critical of the Court? Will the Court extend its contempt actions to television and radio stations and hold journalists and owners of those media institutions responsible for the views expressed by members of the public on call- in programs or by guests appearing on discussion programs? With the Supreme Court’s current action, what is there to prevent this dangerous slippery slope?
Of all this, what is more frightening to me is the apparent silence or disappearance of our human rights lawyers and legal scholars as Frontpageafrica is being dragged through this travesty. Today it is Frontpageafrica and Rodney Sieh, tomorrow it could be Daily Observer or the Inquirer; then Truth Radio or Radio Veritas. And sooner or later newspapers might not be able to publish opinion pieces; and radio stations will have to cancel call-in programs, and television stations will have to censor their guests to avoid the dragnet of the judiciary, led by the almighty, all powerful Johnny Lewis. GOD SAVE US.