A civil court in Liberia on February 15, 2011 ordered the privately-owned Frontpage Africa newspaper to pay an outrageous US$ 1. 5 million fine in a 2009 defamation suit brought against them by the former Minister of Agriculture, Chris Toe.
The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)’s correspondent reported that although the fines fell short of the 2 million US dollars that Toe requested, it is enough to have a chilling effect on the newspaper whose capital investment is less than 10,000US$.
The correspondent said the decision was handed to Frontpage Africa by a 9-member jury that the newspaper’s lawyer, Powo Hilton said was not well constituted and would therefore seek for the re-trial of the case, for justice to be served.
The suit stems from articles published in 2009, in which the newspaper accused Toe, then Minister of Agriculture of diverting and misapplying millions of dollars being compensation for victims of caterpillar worm’s invasion in Bong County and ex-combatants working on rubber plantations in Bomi and Cape Mount counties. The newspaper in addition to the articles published several documents to back its claim, which prompted President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to angrily question the minister in public.
MFWA acknowledges that claims to pecuniary compensation are legitimate option for institutions and persons whose name and image may be sullied by libellous publications. However, MFWA believes that such claims ought not to be punitive as to have the possible effect of liquidating the media or killing their zeal to pursue and report matters of public interest.
While not purporting to question the prerogative of the court, MFWA appeals to the judiciary in Liberia and West Africa not to encourage actions that could amount to censorship of the media and muzzling of freedom of expression.