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Reporters arrested over comments on construction contracts in Liberia

Two Liberian journalists, Octavian Williams, of the Monitor Newspaper and Rufus Paul formerly of FrontPage Africa are recent defendants of a growing trend of court prosecution bedeviling the Liberian media landscape.

They were arrested and detained for few hours at Monrovia's  maximum prison, "South Beach", on September 19, 2013 after they were charged by the Monrovia City Court. The plaintiff pressing a criminal coercion charge is Mr. Praise Lawal – owner of the Pealat construction Company.

The journalists were arrested and detained for comments they made as guests on a local radio talk show – The Costa Show on HottFM in Monrovia.

The journalists had gone to discuss what they termed as 'Liberianization,' (the act of prioritizing Liberian businesses), alleging that economic sabotage and tax evasion are tainting ongoing road construction award contracts in Liberia.

According to the journalists, there has been public dissatisfaction over the Bopolu-Belle Yalla road in Gbopolu County. Said road contract was awarded to Pealat Construction Company.

The journalists claimed that the process leading to the awarding of the contact was flawed and did not adhere to provisions of the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC) sections 31, 46.1, 57.1 of the Act.

In a writ of arrest issued on September 19, 2013, the plaintiff complained that the journalists "with malice and wicked intent, purposely did accuse the private prosecutor of being a rogue and criminal, and that the said defendant also accused private prosecutor of soliciting bribe and stealing from government".

The journalists have denied and insisted that their only intent was to bring the construction company to public scrutiny in the face of perceived discrepancy in the winning and performance of a road contract.

The Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding, (CEMESP) has been swift to provide media defense litigation support to the journalist. This intervention ensured that the journalists were released from the South Beach prison after they were imprisoned for a few hours on September 19, 2013.

The journalists have provided CEMESP legal retainers and a dossier of information and have pleaded not guilty. They are standing by their comments in public interest.

In a related development, a dramatic twist of event has been witnessed in the US$1.6 million damage and jail term handed down on Frontpage Africa Publisher Rodney Sieh. Sieh – who had been on under custodial hospitalization at the John F Kennedy hospital three days after he was jailed at the Monrovia prison – has been discharged to continue his sentence until he pays the quoted damage. Sieh has instructed his lawyers to disengage with mediation efforts between him and plaintiff, the former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe.

The journalist had initially expressed willingness to plead for a settlement, but now says he cannot continue along that route because of unreasonable demands from Chris Toe.

The president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), Peter Quaqua, insists that the legislation used to prosecute journalists is outmoded and must be repealed if there is sincerity on the part of the government to implement the dictates of the Declaration of Table Mountain that Liberia has signed.

The Deputy Minister of Information Culture and Tourism Norris Tweah has made public commitment to with the PUL, CEMESP and other partners in repealing bad laws that stymie free expression.

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