Content Regulation / Censorship
Loughran v. Century Newspapers Ltd
Closed Expands Expression
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The Supreme Court of Liberia ordered the reopening of a newspaper on the grounds that it had been shut down unlawfully, without a court order and based on a false premise. In August 2014, The Liberian government shut down The National Chronicle Newspaper after the newspaper published an article stating that an interim government was under formation even though the term of the democratically-elected government had not yet ended. The shutdown took place without a court order, and the reason given for closure by the government was that the paper was closed for security reasons during the state of emergency that was declared on account of the Ebola outbreak. The government explained that fear and panic created from the stories published by the newspaper would have resulted in uprising and the destruction of lives and properties. The full bench held that there was no actual threat to the country as suggested by the Government and therefore the newspaper’s right to press freedom were violated.
In August 2014, the Liberian National Police raided the offices of Liberia’s independent newspaper, The National Chronicle, fired teargas into the offices and barricaded them. Staff were assaulted, some were briefly detained, and the paper was shut down. The Ministry of Information Ministry said that the newspaper was suspended based on complaints from national security officials. The suspension, which remained in place through the end of 2014, followed controversial articles alleging the planned creation of an interim government intending to unseat the president.
The newspaper and Press Union of Liberia (PUL) filed a petition opposing the ban. Their complaint alleged that the Government, acting through the National Police, conducted an illegal closure of the paper and that it was a clampdown against freedom of expression and the right to free speech. The court issued for a writ of prohibition against the government decision.
The Liberian government, in its brief, argued that the PUL lacked standing to institute an action for the National Chronicle and that the closure of the paper was done for security reasons to prevent stirring up war in the country through article that may cause panic and uprising at the sensitive time of the outbreak of the Ebola virus.
On September 30th, 2014, Supreme Court Justice Kabineh Ja’neh held that the closure of the National Chronicle Newspaper was a constitutional matter that could not be handled by one Justice and required the input of the full Supreme Court bench.
Chief Justice Francis Korkpor handed down judgment for the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the petition filed by the newspaper and the PUL and ordered the reopening of the newspaper.
The full bench held that there was no actual threat to the country as suggested by the Government. The state of emergency regarding the Ebola virus was declared on August 7, 2014, expired on November 13, 2014, and was not renewed. The virus had been contained and was therefore no longer a threat to national existence. It was held that there could have been no fear and panic created from the stories published by the petitioners that would have resulted in the uprising and destruction of lives and properties as argued by the government .
The court stated that there were no tangible reasons why the paper should be closed. It was held that had the government believed that the petitioners committed a crime then they could have been charged or prosecuted on the alleged offences since there is no state of emergency. However, the government was continuing to have the Chronicle closed without a court order even long after the state of emergency, which is a violation of the petitioners’ rights and not supported by the laws. Justice Korkpor ordered the reopening of the newspaper with immediate effect.
Two additional opinions were handed down by Associate Justices Kabineh Ja’neh and Sie-A-Nyene G. Yuoh. Justice Jan’eh fully concurred with majority adding that the lack of action on the government’s part in the 12 months following the closure to either indict or investigate any of the alleged wrongdoing by the newspaper made a mockery of the rule of law and served as a reminder of the past of Liberia where the executive branch of the government portrayed itself as the ultimate gods of the land. In her opinion, Justice Sie-A-Nyene G. Yuoh agreed with the PUL lacking standing even though she agreed that the newspaper should reopen. She also added that the government should have made more arguments on the point of the state of emergency.
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“Some information was derived from blogs, bulletin boards, and other similar online sources. Such information may not have been verified, but it should be noted that in countries in which the media or access to the media, including the Internet, are controlled by the government, blogs can be a reliable source of information.”
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision reversed the illegal closure of a Newspaper by the government in Liberia, and as such, is a decision that expands expression. The decision was a positive step towards restoring the space for free journalism in Liberia following a period of fierce government crackdown on the media during the Ebola epidemic. It is crucial that governments take steps towards improved protections for press freedom, particularly during times of crisis when reporting in the public interest is critically important.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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