Liberia: Foreign Journalism Bodies Express Support to Journalist Bettie Mbayo and Husband in Ongoing Trial

MONROVIA – The Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the ZAM Bureau Afrika have condemned the lawsuit filed against renowned Liberian journalist Bettie Mbayo and her husband by Bong County Representative Marvin Cole, with a call on public officials to desist from using the courts to go after journalists and their perceived political opponents .

Journalist Mbayo is a member of the CCIJ.

Mrs. Mbayo, her husband Dr. Moses Mbayo and one Johnson Kerkulah yet to be identified were taken to court by Representative Cole for the alleged commission of the crime felonious restraint, terroristic threats and disorderly conduct which is in violation of section 14.24; 17.3 and 14.51 of the New Penal Code of Liberia.

The writ claimed that on January 15, while parked in Rep Cole’s driveway, the Mbayos were requested to remove their vehicle to enable the ‘honorable’ man enter his yard. It added that journalist Mbayo and team referred to the lawmaker as a ‘madman’ and allegedly took a stone and immediately hit Representative Cole on his chest.

The prosecutor informed the court that Defendant Kerkulah even removed his waist belt to flog the lawmaker; even though the defendants ran to the police to report the matter.

But in separate statements released on January 24, the two foreign journalism bodies wondered why a trivial matter escalated to a lawsuit against the Liberian journalist and her spouse.

“Our community is deeply troubled by the recent incident involving Bong County District #3 Representative Marvin Cole, Mrs. Johnson-Mbaya, and Dr. Mbayo It has been reported and corroborated from multiple reliable sources that Rep. Cole on the day of the incident ordered some men to physically assault Dr. Mbayo and his wife, and deflate the tires of their vehicle over a rather trivial matter which involved the doctor parking his vehicle in the alley and beside the representative’s fence. Even though Dr. Mbayo initially invited the police to the scene, Mr. Cole has taken the matter to court. This has led to charges of felonious constraint and terroristic threat”.

CCIJ maintains that the incident runs directly counter to the constitutional guarantees of freedom of movement and the press as well as to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which the Namibian government committed itself more than 70 years ago.

It calls on the Liberian authorities to drop the charges about Mrs. Johnson-Mbayo and Dr. Mbayo as soon as possible and to hold Rep. Cole to account for his abusive behavior.

In another statement, ZAM observed that the couple and their friend, a school principal, had parked at the spot to pay their respects to a nearby family where someone had recently died.

“The people’s representative saw the parked car near his fence as an obstruction of his freedom of movement. He was so angered that, according to the couple, he shouted expletives, and followed by a tried and tested ‘Don’t you know who I am?’”.

The group maintains that to punish the perceived slight, apparently even flogging, Cole recruited a number of nearby men to do, was not enough, the lawmaker again proceeded to have the Mbayo’s charged with ‘felonious restraint’, ‘disorderly conduct’ and ‘terroristic threats’.

“Bizarrely, he succeeded in getting the couple to appear in court on these charges on the 21st January. It is hard to avoid questioning whether this atrocious conduct by a parliamentarian, who seems to enjoy good contacts within the Liberian police and judiciary, could have anything to do with Bettie Johnson-Mbayo’s recent journalistic work”.

ZAM recalled that journalist Mbayo sometimes ago exposed Liberia’s thieving parliamentarians, in one of its articles published on www.zammagazine.com in August 2021.

The group’s adds that the publication gained widespread attention and acclaim, but must have ruffled hairs among the rich and powerful in Liberia.

“Marvin Cole himself has been the subject of a number of scandals whereby public resources were used for own gain”.

ZAM notes that journalist Bettie Johnson-Mbayo, her husband and school principal friend now need to come up with bail money to avoid prison.

“The bizarre ‘terrorism’ label for what amounts to a parking offence, -likely not even that, because according to the couple, the parking space was in a public alley-, would be laughable if the consequences for the Johnson-Mbayo’s would not be so serious”.

ZAM calls on everyone in its international network to express protest and solidarity with the Johnson-Mbayo’s and exercise pressure on the Liberian authorities to secure the immediate release, the dropping of all charges, fair compensation to the couple and their friend and an end to all threats and intimidation.

“If Liberia’s ruling political class wants to continue stealing, it is their decision. But they must not punish journalists for pointing it out”.

CCIJ convenes and lead global investigations that are grounded in strategic mentorship. It lays bare overlooked issues with gripping visual and data-driven storytelling. Above all, the group strives for accountability and seeks solutions.

CCIJ promotes strong participation from journalists, photographers, data scientists, and students. Journalists from Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and North America—with initial strategic focus in Southern Africa and the United States—are now part of the network.

It vision is to develop a series of regional hubs with leaders who spearhead journalistic coverage in those areas. Hub leadership oversees local reporting and training in close coordination with their regional hub peers and CCIJ’s core editors.

The first two hubs are located in the United States and Southern Africa where our membership is strongest. Ultimately, these hubs will create the connective tissue that gives CCIJ its shape.

The ZAM-net Foundation (‘ZAM’) was established in 2007 as a non-profit platform based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  The group builds and maintains a network of more than 1200 creative in (investigative) journalism, photography, the arts and opinion in African countries and the diaspora.

It offers their stories, productions and creations to international audiences via its media channels, in events and collaborations.

Since the unfortunate incident, Representative Cole has come under strong criticisms by professional local and international groups.

Last week, the Liberia Medical and Dental Association (LMDA) condemned and described the incident as “unlawful, distasteful and callous” Representative Cole allegedly ordering his men to physically assault one of its highly respectable members in person of Dr. Moses Mbayo resulting in bodily injuries.

“It has been reported and corroborated from multiple reliable sources that Rep. Cole on the day of the incidence ordered some men to physically assault Dr. Mbayo and his wife, and deflate the tyres of their vehicle over a rather trivial matter which involved the doctor parking his vehicle in the alley and beside the representative’s fence” the LMDA stated.

It added: “As an association, we see this as a great affront meted against our colleague and consider it an absolute display of ABUSE OF POWER. We believe that this is a gross violation of human rights and under no circumstance should anyone, let alone a peaceful citizen and professional be subjected to such humiliation and brutal physical abuse with total disregard for the rule of law”.

The group maintained that it is clearly evident that the representative used his affluence at the police station to influence the initial investigation by dictating who provided statement or not among those of his people actively involved in the incidence.

“He (Cole) has taken the matter to court in spite of the physical and psychological wounds he already inflicted on our colleague in an attempt to further demonstrate his authority, although the affected doctor was the initial complainant who invited the police to the scene”.

Meanwhile, the Liberia Medical and Dental Association (LMDA) says it stands by Dr. Mbayo and will ensure that justice is served as the matter is already in court.

The group clarified that its involvement in the matter as an association remains 100% apolitical, and is intended to repulse the frequent acts of leaders who abuse the rights of peaceful citizens and use their connections to go with impunity.

“We assure our professional colleague and the public that this matter will not be taken lightly and that we are sending a resounding message that doctors as professionals remain law abiding and as such will at no point in time be taken for granted or intimidated. We have communicated with all the relevant institutions of government and other human right agencies, and demand that the representative be brought to book and be made to face the full weight of the law for this hideous act against a peaceful and law abiding professional”.

“We will be in full representation as doctors to provide our colleague the needed support in the courtroom and throughout the legal proceedings”.

Representative Cole posted a comment on his official Facebook page recently, claiming that he has gone to the banks of the river to consult “the gods” in relations to his latest lawsuit filed against Journalist Mbayo, her husband and a friend.

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