Thursday, March 01, 2007

Government Ban on Newspaper Badly Handled, At Best

In a shrill article in the Liberian Express newspaper today, entitled "Media Crackdown Begins", there's one statement that to me rings true:

The closure of The Independent newspaper without according it the due process of law is reminscent of the regimes of Presidents Samuel K. Doe and Charles Taylor[,] when state security were ordered to shut down media institutions without recourse to the law.

Update: make sure to read the first response to this post! Good stuff.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recall during the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" a cable network was fined because of that incidence. I don't remember the U.S. Federal Communications Commission taking the cable network to court. There are regulations against indecency in the guidelines for publishing newspapers. Although an extreme remedy, revoking a newspaper’s license to publish does not require court proceedings. If the action involved arresting the publisher, the government should have charged him within 48 hours and given him an opportunity to defend himself against the charges. Even as it stands, the publisher still has a legal recourse if he feels that his rights have been violated by the Ministry of Information (MOI). I can see the court ruling in his favor because the remedy taken by the MOI was too harsh. The MOI is correct, in my view, for enforcing its regulations against publishing adult contents in a regular newspaper but I believe the penalty it imposed was too severe. My view is that a fine would have been more appropriate. Interestingly, the matter could have been dealt with as a criminal matter had it been left with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). That is, the MOJ could have arrested the publisher but it chose not to do so and left the matter to the MOI to take an administrative action.

My suspicion is that the court will side with the paper and order the paper’s resumption of publication on grounds that the action taken by the government was not the appropriate remedy. If the court sides with the publisher, there could be three possible outcomes:

1. The court would order that the ban be lifted and indicate that everyone has a right to publish adult contents and circulate it in spite of subsection 18.7 of the Penal Code. This is highly unlikely.

2. The courts could argue that the publisher is not been charged under the penal code so the action is purely an administrative action by the MOI. The courts could recommend a less severe remedy or say that the MOI does not have the authority to ban a newspaper. I suspect that the court would recommend a fine and chastise the MOI for the severity of its action.

3. The court could also rule the action of the MOI as totally illegal and un-ban the paper and leave it with the MOJ to bring charges under the Penal Code. This is going to tie the hands of the government. If it brings charges under the Penal Code, it will win hands down but it will be a Pyrrhic victory since it will give the government bad publicity. The MOJ could decide not to bring charges under the Penal Code and run the risk of the paper publishing additional adult contents as it has threatened to do. I suspect the MOJ is trying to avoid this bad publicity that is why it left it with the MOI to seek an administrative remedy.

I think it is a hyperbole to suggest that this action is reminiscent of the Doe and Taylor governments. Newspapers were closed for being critical of the government or simply publishing a view contrary to the official government’s position. Newspaper offices were burned. The argument may be that it is a slippery slope. But quite frankly, I don’t see that at this point. It could happen in the future but I think it is too early to say that. After all, newspapers continue to publish pro- and anti- government opinions and they aren’t being shut down. Then again, if one considers the publication of nude photographs as an expression of one’s views, then the government is as guilty as the autocratic regimes which preceded it. I make a distinction between nude photographs and editorials and opinion pieces criticizing the government, the government’s functionaries or its policies. Perhaps, it’s just me.

Notwithstanding my belief that the paper violated the law, I believe the penalty was too severe. I think the MOJ was prudent not to bring charges under the Penal Code. Nobody wants to see a journalist go to jail. I believe an administrative action was appropriate. The MOI should have simply fined the paper a reasonable amount but instead chose to overplay its hands. But then again, what if the paper had refused to pay the fine and continue to publish the photographs since the paper contends that it did not violate any laws. At some point someone would have taken someone to court. It would have either being the government or the paper. I expect the paper to sue the MOI. My prediction is that the paper would be un-banned but it would be ordered to pay a fine and refrain from publishing adult contents. This is simply a prediction and I could be as wrong as hell.

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Josh,

Is it possible for the Ledger Staff to arrange an interview with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?

2:30 PM  
Blogger josh said...

that's great! but the ledger staff is just me. i'd like to have an interview with Ma Ellen, of course. will see what i can do. i have a real job, too! thanks for asking.

3:23 PM  

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