Roosevelt A. K. Woods, Executive Director FIND
Roosevelt A. K. Woods

The Foundation for International Dignity (FIND) has alarmed that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s request for more power and suspension of certain rights of the Liberian people is a “dangerous sign” and threat to the country’s democracy.

President Sirleaf has written the National Legislature to give her extra-constitutional powers by suspending about seven provisions of the Liberian Constitution, including Article 1 (Inherent rights of the people) and Article 15 (Freedom of expression and free speech), among others.

Several citizens and human rights groups including FIND have taken exception to the President’s request, and are calling on the National Legislature not to consider said request for absolute power to take unilateral decisions in the country.

“This is dangerous for our country,” Woods told journalists in Monrovia Wednesday (Oct 8). “Anything that has to do with absolute power that violates human rights is a bad sign for Liberia. She was elected to bring positive change, to restore hopes and not to dash them.”

The human rights advocate argues that President Sirleaf’s government’s recent continuous stance against free speech and press freedom is “damaging the image of the country” which she has helped build over the years, following the country’s brutal civil was that ended 2003.

“The President must know that democracy will be threatened in Liberia when citizens and the press are not given the space to express themselves in an open way,” he asserted. When President Sirleaf, on August 19, 2014, announced the imposition of a 9-hour curfew as part of measures to combat the Ebola outbreak, the media had no reprieve.

Early on August 20 the PUL engaged the government about the curfew, indicating the necessity to have a reprieve for journalists. When the exempt list was issued, the media was, again, not mentioned, with state security threatening to arrest any journalist outside during curfew hours despite the nature of their work. The Press Union of Liberia had to take further actions to get the exemption for journalists.

In the last two years, and most severely the last six months, the Liberian media has faced one of the worst periods (if not the worst) of press freedom in the Sirleaf administration with repeated threats, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, flogging of journalists, and shutting down of media houses,  PUL officials have said. “We are increasingly concerned about the rapid deterioration in fundamental freedoms in Liberia upon the action and or inaction of government actors. This runs contrary to the constitutional obligations to protect these rights,” The Press Union of Liberia recently stated in a protest letter to the Justice Ministry, calling for a reversed order of the situation.

The media, Woods indicated, has played a pivotal role in the war against Ebola and should not be distracted with constant harassment, threats and intimidation by the government. “Without the media reporting the affairs of the country and the Ebola crisis, most of the international partners and support would not have come here to help,” Woods noted. “It is very wrong and unfair for this very press to be under threat. It will affect their work.”

Speaking further, the FIND Boss said the government must accept criticism to enable it perform better in the national Ebola response, arguing that the government cannot use force and guns, and silencing of the people with extra judicial powers, to fight Ebola.

“No level of force against the people can fight Ebola,” Woods Continued. “We frown on the curfew, we frown on the state of emergency, and we frown on military force.”

Rather, Woods calls for citizens’ engagement and the improvement of the health sector as well as a better welfare schemes for those working in the health sector.

“Any extra judicial power and seizing people’s rights will plunge the country back into chaos and undermine the safety of the population, and we are calling on the National Legislature not to give the president that extra power she is seeking,” Woods added. “Power, in Article One of our constitution, belongs to the people. We have given the legislators our power to represent us…and they should use it wisely.”

Woods said FIND will remain engaged in advocating against vices that have the propensity to undermine the gains made in Liberia and democracy. “No, we can’t go back to the ugly past to do those things that plunged our country into chaos, and we will keep talking against them even if we will have to die for it.”