A Clear and Present Danger to Liberia’s Justice and Fairness
Haven’t the citizens of the Republic of Liberia endured enough abuse of power by members of the three branches of government? Countless years in Liberian history, dating back from Charles Taylor have shown how the abuse of power has been detrimental to Liberian citizens’ wellbeing.
|Chief Justice Johnny Lewis|
In a true democracy, there is freedom of the press. Liberia is a democracy. Therefore, its journalists have the constitutional right to voice criticism of the government and its ministers. However, the current case involving the Supreme Court and Rodney Sieh, Editor-In-Chief and Publisher of FrontPageAfrica newspaper flies in the face of democratic freedom of press. Editor-In-Chief Sieh, published an article critical of a member of the Lewis’ court and currently being held in contempt of court. Though there are no legal grounds to site Mr. Sieh for contempt of court. Justice Lewis used his position to exercise revenge against Mr. Sieh. This is blatant, audacious and unscrupulous abuse of Justice Lewis’ power, as a member of Liberia’s Supreme Court.
The Liberian Supreme Court has often misused contempt of court as far back as the Johnson, Grimes, Wilson Pierre and Gbalazeh courts. Legally, every Liberian citizen has the constitutional right to criticize the court. Punishment cannot legally be meted out to a citizen that speaks out against the court or its members in a media outlet.
The only time an individual may be found in contempt of court is if there is a case in the court, and the individual goes before the Supreme Court and speaks ill of the court (while in court, during the court case). Then the court has the right to hold that individual in contempt of court. In this instance, the individual, who was called before the Supreme Court willfully and publicly refused to cooperate with the court. This lack of cooperation, in court, qualifies as contempt of court. However, when an editor, journalist or writer publishes an article critical of the court, this is not contempt of court. The people and journalists in every civilized democratic society have the right to express their views on the decisions rendered by the court.
Minister of Justice, Christiana Tah said, “When justice is done, the people rejoice”. In this case, Justice has not been done. Justice has been forfeited in a self-seeking power grab, and the abuse of a government office. Chief Justice Johnny Lewis is putting the very credibility of his office at risk.
The idea of Editor-in-Chief Sieh (the Albert Porte of our generation) being handcuffed and taken into custody would be deplorable and immoral. Sieh’s arrest would likely incite unprecedented public outcry and demonstrations. I would not be surprised if hundreds of ordinary Liberians march to the Temple of Justice to demand Sieh’s immediate release.
If Editor-in-Chief Sieh is arrested, it would not be the first time Justice Lewis has abused his position. I personally had a baffling encounter with Chief Justice Lewis during one of my annual visits to Liberia. During my visit, I observed the newly renovated Capitol Building and Temple of Justice. I decided to take a few pictures of both buildings in order to write a story about the amazing transformation. I didn’t take a picture of the Executive Mansion because there were signs indicating that pictures are prohibited. But I took several pictures of the Capitol Building. Afterwards, I walked to the Temple of Justice to take pictures. As Chief Justice Lewis’ motorcade passed me, it stopped. Chief Justice Lewis got out his car, and seized my camera. I protested. I had every right to take pictures of the building. There were no signs stating that pictures weren’t allowed. I asked him how I would have known that taking pictures was prohibited. He responded, “This is my damn house and I make the damn rules!” I replied, “This is the Liberian people’s house and your actions are clearly an abuse of power.” He ignored me and walked away with my seized camera.
I got on my phone to call a press conference, alerting the media of the shocking chain of events. It just so happened that my friend Gabriel Williams (then Liberia’s Deputy Minister for Information) was on his way to work. As he drove by, he saw me standing on the street, talking on my phone, and decided to stop. I explained what had just happened. He too was shocked and decided to call the then Minister of Information, Larry Bropleh. We went to the Minister of Information’s office and he placed a call to Chief Justice Lewis. The Minister of Information pleaded with Justice Lewis to return my camera. Deputy Minister Williams and I went to Justice Lewis’ office to negotiate with him. In that conversation, he paid regards to my late father Rufus S. Berry Sr. and then decided to return my camera. Had it not been for the entrée I gained from Minister of Information Williams, I would not have received my camera back.
Long term peace and stability cannot be sustained when abuse of power goes unchecked. Chief Justice Lewis cannot be fired but he must be held accountable by Liberia’s Senate. Chief Justice Lewis is reckless. His behavior negatively impacts the peace and stability of our republic. If our nation is to move forward, and root out abuse of power the Supreme Court or the Senate must do a better job of monitoring, reprimanding, and disciplining its wayward members.
About the author: Rufus S. Berry II, (former President of the Liberian Community Association of Northern California - LCANC) a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area (Northern California), and the author of many articles including: “Liberia's Long History of Corruption, Facilitated by Citizens that Turn a Blind Eye on the Government”, “Five Liberian Ministers’ Visit to Diaspora: Explanation or Personal Boondoggle”, " We Demand Justice for Assaulted Police Officer Lexington Beh, and Ban Smoking in Public Venues Now.