Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, although with some unofficial limits.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could generally criticize the government publicly or privately, but civil libel and slander laws placed limits on freedom of speech, and self-censorship was widespread. Some media outlets avoided criticizing government officials due to fears of legal sanction and to retain government advertising, which, according to the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), was the largest source of media revenue. Other outlets avoided addressing sensitive human rights issues like female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Court decisions against journalists sometimes involved exorbitant fines.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Some media outlets, journalists, and broadcasters charged fees to publish articles or host radio programs. According to the PUL, civil suits relating to libel, slander, and defamation were sometimes used to curtail freedom of expression and intimidate the press. The PUL also expressed concern media outlets owned directly by politicians and government officials were crowding out privately owned media and advocated for legislation to prohibit ownership of media by public officials.
Violence and Harassment: Law enforcement officers occasionally harassed newspaper and radio station owners because of their political opinions and reporting, especially those that criticized government officials. Government officials also harassed media members for political reasons. For example, in August, Front Page Africa newspaper reported cabinet members were pressuring the Firestone Corporation to fire Patrick Honnah, a public relations manager who criticized the government on social media and through the Punch FM website, where he previously worked. Separately, in July, Judge Peter Gbeneweleh summoned Othello B. Garblah, publisher of New Dawn newspaper, for possible contempt of court because of an article he wrote that speculated there was a plot to exonerate the defendants in the Sable Mining corruption case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally able to express a wide variety of views, some journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid harassment. Journalists and media directors also practiced self-censorship to maintain advertising revenue from the government, the largest advertiser in the country. There were several reports that politicians and government agencies offered “transportation fees” to journalists to secure coverage of events.
From approximately February to August, the radio show of government critic Henry Costa, was frequently unavailable. On at least a few occasions, the broadcast seemed to feature older, progovernment clips, leading to speculation that the station was being jammed or otherwise interfered with. In response Costa made a number of threats of violence in his Facebook Live broadcasts. The government’s reactions to these and other broadcasts from Costa, which the government deemed as inciting violence, included a suspension of Roots FM’s broadcast license due to nonpayment of fees and inciting violence. On October 10, amid groups of protesters supporting Costa, sheriffs from the Monrovia Magisterial Court, escorted by armed police units with a “search and seizure” writ issued by the court at the request of Solicitor General Saymah Cyrenius Cephus, stormed the Roots FM studio, shut Costa’s broadcast down, and seized the station’s broadcasting equipment.
Libel/Slander Laws: In February criminal libel and slander laws were repealed with the passage of the Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom. Government officials occasionally used the threat of civil suits to intimidate critics. On April 15, Minister of State for Presidential Affairs Nathaniel McGill filed a $500,000 defamation suit against Roots FM and its hosts Henry Costa and Fidel Saydee, alleging the two radio personalities “slandered, badmouthed, vandalized and vilified” McGill by accusing him of financial impropriety. He later dropped the suit.
PUL continued efforts to self-regulate the media and ensure adherence to standards including investigation and settlement of complaints against or by the press. PUL’s National Media Council, launched in 2017 to address court cases against the media, continued to mediate cases during the year.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, but the government did not enforce the law effectively, and rape remained a serious and pervasive problem. The law’s definition of rape does not specifically criminalize spousal rape. Conviction of first-degree rape–defined as rape involving a minor, rape that results in serious injury or disability, or rape committed with the use of a deadly weapon–is punishable by up to life imprisonment. Conviction of second-degree rape, defined as rape committed without the aggravating circumstances enumerated above, is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
On May 22, 21-year-old Odell Sherman was discovered unconscious at a private residence in Duazohn, Margibi County, and then transported to a hospital, where she died. Confusingly, media reports indicated that the initial death certificate listed the cause of death as “sexual assault or falling.” The case attracted numerous media reports over a period of months, as the family alleged foul play, said they did not trust the government to investigate the case, and requested an autopsy by an outside expert. Because of the length of time following the incident, the examiner was unable to establish if Odell had been sexually assaulted. A separate report by Front Page Africa found that a DNA analysis machine at the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, the only such machine in the country, was not in use, as there was no one qualified to operate it.
The government undertook some efforts to address the problems of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. A specialized sexual violence court (Court E) had exclusive original jurisdiction over cases of sexual assault, including abuse of minors, and was presided over by two authorized judges. According to the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, there were 1,508 gender-based violence cases as of July, and rape accounted for almost 70 percent of the cases reported. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against persons younger than 18 accounted for 73 percent of cases referred to the ministry. Observers believed the true incidence of statutory rape was much higher than the number of rape cases reported.
The government operated two shelters for SGBV victims, victims of trafficking in persons, and others in need of protection–one in Lofa County and one in Nimba County. The government did not operate shelters in Monrovia. There were five other shelters across the country, but they were not operational at year’s end. The Sexual Pathways Referral Program, a combined initiative of the government and NGOs, improved access to medical, psychosocial, legal, and counseling assistance for victims. The Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection assigned gender coordinators and staff members to each county office to increase public awareness of SGBV crimes and refer victims to assistance. The ministry also established “buddy clubs” in public schools across the country for children to discuss and report SGBV cases. LNP officers received training on SGBV through programs sponsored by the EU Spotlight Initiative and the UNDP.
An overtaxed justice system prevented timely prosecutions and delays caused many victims to cease cooperating with prosecutors. Victims’ families sometimes requested money from the perpetrators as a form of redress; perpetrators sometimes offered money to prevent matters from going to court. Authorities often dropped cases due to a lack of evidence. The Women and Children Protection Section (WACPS) of the LNP reported that courts dropped 51 percent of reported domestic violence cases due to lack of evidence. The ability to collect and preserve evidence of SGBV crimes was also insufficient.
Although outlawed, domestic violence remained a widespread problem, and the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection stated 16 percent of reported cases were for domestic violence.
In August the legislature passed and the president signed into law the new Domestic Violence Act, which reportedly strengthened penalties and provided support for a referral mechanism, although as of December the final text of the law had not been published. The existing maximum penalty for conviction of domestic violence was six months’ imprisonment, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. The WACPS received reports on 579 cases of domestic violence between January and September, a 32-percent decrease from the 764 cases reported during the same period in 2018. Government and civil society officials suggested that decreased capacity in the courts led victims to seek redress outside the formal justice system.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): A 2013 UNICEF study estimated that 66 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 49 had undergone FGM/C, and the practice remained widespread. In 2018 then president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued an executive order to prohibit FGM/C of all persons younger than age 18 and of persons older than 18 without their consent, but the order lapsed early in the year. No FGM/C perpetrators were prosecuted during the year.
In April, Front Page Africa reported a 25-year-old woman was drugged, abducted, and forcibly subjected to FGM/C as part of ritual initiation into the Sande Society, where she was held for three weeks. The victim alleged that someone in her family had paid approximately 3,000 Liberian Dollars (LD) ($15) for the initiation and procedure.
There were public statements supporting limiting or prohibiting FGM/C. In June the National Council of Chiefs and Elders and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with support from UN Women and the EU Spotlight Initiative, agreed to suspend for one year the activities of “bush schools”–traditional schools in which girls learn farming and household skills but were often subjected to initiation rites including FGM/C. The Sande and Poro Societies–often referred to as “secret societies”–combine traditional religious and cultural practices and engage in FGM/C as part of their indoctrination ceremonies. A number of human rights organizations reported bush school activities and FGM/C continued, despite the ban.
The government routinely decried FGM/C in discussions of violence against women, although there remained political resistance to passing legislation criminalizing FGM/C because of the public sensitivity of the topic and its association with particular tribes in populous counties. NGO representatives stated there was little political will within the legislature to take on the issue of FGM/C.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Many observers, including the INCHR, the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform, and the human rights office of the United Methodist Church, reported an apparent uptick in harmful traditional practices, including ritualistic killings, trial by ordeal, and accusations of witchcraft, but the government and NGOs did not collect comprehensive data. There were reports of killings in which perpetrators removed body parts from the victims. In May, two boys went missing from Kingsville, Montserrado County, and their bodies were discovered on June 3, reportedly mutilated with body parts removed. Most news reports referred to the incident as a ritualistic killing or the activity of “heart men”–individuals who remove organs for ritualistic purposes.
There were multiple cases of life-threatening violence against persons accused of witchcraft during the year. In September a jury in Buchanan convicted seven men and sentenced each of them to 45 years in prison on charges of murder, aggravated assault, criminal facilitation, and criminal conspiracy for their roles in a December 2018 attack against three women accused of witchcraft. After the women were accused of eating a child as part of a ritualistic practice, they were stripped, paraded through town, beaten, assaulted with palm branches and nettles, and raped; one woman was killed.
During the year reported incidents of trial by ordeal included heating a metal object until it glowed red and then applying it to the accused’s skin, beatings, inserting sharp objects into bodily orifices (including the vagina), and forcing women to parade naked around the community.
Sexual Harassment: The Decent Work Act prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, but it remained a significant problem at work and in schools. Government billboards and notices in government offices warned against harassment in the workplace. The Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection and the Ministry of Education trained school administrators, students, and parents from seven of the 15 counties to identify warning signs and report incidents of sexual harassment and violence in schools.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: By law women may inherit land and property, are entitled to equal pay for equal work, have the right of equal access to education, and may own and manage businesses. By family law, men retain legal custody of children in divorce cases. In rural areas traditional practice or traditional leaders often did not recognize a woman’s right to inherit land. Programs to educate traditional leaders on women’s rights, especially on land rights, made some progress, but authorities often did not enforce those rights.