The Law that Changed Liberia’s Ugly handling of Speech Offense: Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom Explained

Liberia’s 1986 constitution provides for freedoms of speech and the press, but these rights are often restricted in actual practice.

I have seen journalists sued and locked up behind the rusty bars of Monrovia’s South Beach Prison for either libel, sedition, or criminal malevolence.

In July 2012, former Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the second African head of state to endorse the Declaration of Table Mountain which calls on African governments to abolish criminal defamation laws. 

The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) had pressured the Sirleaf Administration in submitting a draft bill to the Legislature later that year that would move forward with the proposed decriminalization. A similar draft was submitted by the PUL and other media groups in December 2014. 

However, no action was taken on the bill as of the end of 2014, partly because Liberia’s libel laws allow for large financial awards in civil suits, which can cause severe economic difficulties for journalists and media outlets, thus increasing the temptation to foster self-censorship. 

Although no major lawsuits were filed in 2014, suits filed against media houses in 2012 and 2013 sought more than $20 million in total damages, according to the PUL.

President George Manneh Weah on May 31, 2018 resubmitted the bill to the National Legislature with modifications, to repeal some sections of the Penal Law of Liberia in an effort to decriminalize free speech in order to create an “unfettered media environment.”

What the Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom says?

Upon seizing power in a bloody coup on April 12, 1980, the People Redemption Council’s Military junta of Samuel K. Doe issued a decree that made speech offenses criminal in Chapter 11 of the Penal Law of 1978.

So, the KAK Act of Press Freedom repeals Chapter 11 of Penal Law of 1978, specifically, Sections 11.11 which border on criminal libel against the President; 11.12 on Sedition and 11.14 on criminal malevolence. 

This means that with the passage of this new law, criminal libel against the President, sedition, and criminal malevolence are outlawed if they were committed against public officials. 

With the law, media offenses will now be treated as civil offenses throughout the courts of Liberia.

Why was the law named ‘Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom?’

The law is named after the deceased President of the Press Union of Liberia, Kamara Abdullah Kamara, due to his efforts in “strengthening and actualizing Liberia’s commitment to several legal instruments signed onto, such as Freedom of Information Act, the Table Mountain Declaration, and many others,” according to President George Weah.

Kamara was one of Liberia’s most experienced media executives with a demonstrated history of working in the information services industry. 

He was skilled in nonprofit organizations, conflict, politics, policy analysis, and program evaluation and strong professional business. He had a bachelor of arts degree in Mass Communication from the University of Liberia.

Affectionately called ‘KAK’ by many of his peers, Kamara died in the central Liberian city of Gbarnga, on Tuesday, April 17, 2018 hours after he was found “unconscious” in his hotel room.

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