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Day of Imprisoned Writers – ‘Change only the name and this story is also about you.\’


November 15 is the international day of the imprisoned writer. PEN international and PEN networks in many countries have organised events to focus on one of most pernicious forms of censorship – imprisoning writers and journalists. According to PEN, more than 900 writers are in jail for their work, all over the world.
In an interview with Germany’s Radio Deutsche Welle, published on November 15, Sascha Feuchert, vice president of PEN Centre Germany and a representative of the writer-in-prison committee was asked what Germany could do for writers imprisoned in other countries.

He replied, “[w]e can bring these cases to light and keep them in the public eye. We do this on our website, over our social media channels and, of course, in our press releases. When things are made public, it seems that dictators or other unjust regimes are less likely to make these people ‘disappear.’ Publicity is extremely important. In addition, we try to get in contact with the imprisoned colleagues through letters to let them know that they’re not forgotten or alone. Unfortunately, we’re not always successful.”
In a reader-friendly interactive graphic PEN International has called attention to cases of writers and journalists in prisons all over the world, with appeals to the public to write letters for their release. Please click here.
This blog has highlighted the cases of many journalists who have been detained, often under counterterrorism laws, for publicising corruption, malfeasance and abuse by those in power. Some like Rodney Sieh editor of Liberia’s FrontPage Africa and Ethiopia’s Melaku Desmisse, editor of The Reporter, were released. But the regimes that detained them continue in power, which cannot be a comfort for someone who is inspired to expose wrongdoing.
But others remain in jail. Ethiopia Eskinder Nega’s sentence of 18 years in prison was upheld by a higher court in the appeal. Le Quoc Quan and a number of other Vietnamese bloggers are shut in by their government that fear the expression of dissent.
It is a grim, thankless business for organisations like PEN that work for the release or at least more human treatment of writers. As Feuchert says, “[t]he situation has not improved for persecuted writers around the world. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. These are individuals for whom we are fighting.”
   
Nega wrote a letterfrom prison on May 2, on the eve of Press Freedom Day after his appeal was rejected. Speaking about writers in prison he asks, “Why should the rest of the world care? Horace said it best: mutate nomine detefabula narrator. ‘Change only the name and this story is also about you.’ Whenever justice suffers our common humanity suffers, too.
I will live to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may or may not be a long wait. Whichever way events may go, I shall persevere!”

 

Liberian Editor Rodney Sieh Placed Under House Arrest

Campaigning for the Release of Rodney Sieh


This blog has devoted quite a bit of space in the past few weeks to highlight the issue of Liberian editor of FrontPage Africa, Rodney Sieh. This is because the international community continues to ignore the assaults on the freedom of expression in that country. [See for coverage by this blog: here, hereand here.]
Liberia is regarded as one of the few countries on the African continent pulling ahead of its peers in establishing democracy, especially in the post-Charles Taylor era. Therefore, ‘minor misdemeanours’ such as Monrovia jailing editors like Sieh should not undermine ties the leading nations on the globe would like cultivating with Liberia. Liberia’s president is Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has great standing in the corridors of power in the world’s liberal democracies which drive opinion and shape politics in the so-called free world.

This blog has covered previously Sieh fortunes in the hands of its tormentors. The latest was Liberia’s Ministry of Justice placing Sieh on 30-day parole on compassionate grounds from October 8, but facing blowback from the Supreme Court for its action. The court asked the Justice Minister Christina Tah to show cause as to why she should not be held for contempt of court because she had released Sieh on parole.
The result has been the Liberian government changing the rules and ordering that Sieh spends the remaining days of his parole under house arrest. It has to be understood that Sieh undertook a hunger strike soon after he was incarcerated and contacted malaria due to which he was in hospital for 22 days.
“‘Any attempt by Mr. Sieh to leave his house without prior approval as herein provided, shall be considered a violation of the conditions of his leave,’ the Justice Ministry which recently granted a 30-day compassionate reprieve for the detained publisher, warned in a letter to Cllr. Benyan Howard, one of Mr Sieh’s lawyers,” said the Monrovia-based New Democrat.
“Accordingly, the government has assigned police officers to the Congo Town residence of the publisher to keep 24-hour surveillance on the editor and his immediate environment. He will remain at home until the expiry of the 30-day compassionate release granted him by the Justice Ministry,” the New Democrat continued.
Commenting on the new development in the case it has meticulously covered Reporters without Borders (RSF) said, “The house arrest order contradicts the parole that Sieh was granted on health grounds. Sieh is like a ball being batted to and fro in a power struggle between different Liberian officials. This constitutes cruel treatment and we call for the immediate withdrawal of this measure, which restricts his freedom of movement and his access to health care.
“The house arrest order came two days after the Supreme Court ordered justice minister Christiana Tah to show cause why she should not be held in contempt for ordering Sieh’s temporary release in ‘defiance’ of the court’s decision in August to jail him for failing to pay 1.6 million dollars in damages to a former agriculture minister.
“Sieh will now have to spend the remaining days of his parole confined to his home and under constant police surveillance.
In a letter from prison published in The New York Times Sieh referred sarcastically to Liberia as the “poster-child of democracy in Africa.” Except for a few indignant voices no one seems wanting to dislodge Liberia from that lofty perch.

Liberian Minister Faces Contempt Charges For Releasing Rodney Sieh

Rodney Sieh, Editor, FrontPage Africa (Pic. gstatic.com)


Although Rodney Sieh, editor of Liberia’s FrontPage Africa was released for a 30-day period on “compassionate grounds,” his case continues to draw controversy, the latest being the country’s Supreme Court charging the minister of justice / attorney general with contempt of court for releasing him.

Sieh was incarcerated on August 21, when he refused to pay damages amounting to US $1.6 million imposed by a Liberian court in a defamation suit filed by the former agriculture minister Chris Toe. [See details of his case hereand here.] However, with mounting public indignation and a bout of malaria for which he was hospitalised for 22 days, the government decided to release Sieh on October 8 although with travel and other restrictions.
Sieh’s 30-day release on compassionate grounds was met with criticism by media freedom monitors.  “Sieh’s temporary release is totally unsatisfactory. This half-measure allows the Liberian government to save face with respect to all the pressure it has been under for several months from Liberian and international human rights NGOs, but it does not address the underlying problem, the illegitimacy of Sieh’s detention in the first place, said the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF).
“This case underlines the importance of completing the decriminalization of defamation by setting a ceiling on damage awards. Sieh was jailed for being unable to pay the excessive damages ordered in this case. Such a disproportionate amount helps to intimidate the media and obstruct freedom of information,” RSF continued.
The New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) echoed RSF’s concerns.
The matter took a new turn when on October 11, Liberia’s Supreme Court issued summons on Justice Minister Christina Tah “to show cause ‘if any, why she should not be held in contempt for releasing Mr. Rodney D. Sieh, Publisher of the Frontpage Africa Newspaper in disregard of the court’s order,'” reported Monrovia-based New Dawn.
The New Dawn said that following a request from Sien’s counsel, Tah replied in a letter on October 7, “I … refer to your letter dated September 27, 2013, requesting for compassionate leave for your client, Mr. Rodney Sieh … in keeping with Chapter 34, Section 34.20 of the Criminal Procedure Law, 1LCLR. Based upon your request and that of Atty. J. Fonati Koffa, we hereby grant the request for compassionate leave for a period of thirty (30) days effective October 8, 2013.”
Tah was expected to appear before the Supreme Court today (October 16).
Meanwhile, the Liberian Government said in a press release today, that the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) stating that good governance had improved in the country since 2000. While Liberia has scored high in one criterion used to measure good governance by IIAG, its overall performance is below both the African and regional (West African) averages. Human rights and media freedom organisations have repeatedly written to Liberia’s president and Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to repeal the country’s defamation laws stifling the freedom of expression.   

The Fate of Editors in Africa’s Poster-child Democracy

Rodney Sieh (Photo courtesy CPJ)


Liberia‘s Rodney Sieh, editor of FrontPage Africa, who was hospitalised after he fell sick with malaria in prison was sent back to jail after 22 days in Monrovia’s J. F. Kennedy Hospital said the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) in a statement on September 18.
“The harassment of this journalist by the Liberian legal system is totally underserved and we call for his immediate release. Rodney Sieh was only carrying out his job as a journalist. We call once again on the 
government to take action to decriminalise media offences, in particular to stop imposing disproportionate fines on journalists in order to intimidate them, since the media play an important role in the fight against corruption,” RSF said.
Sieh began a hunger strike on August 20, protesting a Supreme Court sentence detaining him pending the payment of US$ 1.6 million as damages to former agriculture minister Chris Toe for defamation. The detention and damages imposed by the court was widely condemned by media freedom monitors. (Please see this blog)

“We consider the damages and bond exorbitant and disproportionate in a country where the gross national income per person is US$370. But even worse, by jailing Mr Sieh and ordering his newspaper closed, the courts are denying him the means to pay any judgment and denying the Liberian population a valued source of information,” said Barbara Trionfi, International Press Institute’s press freedom manager.
The Sieh trial has also led to Liberia, whose president is the Nobel Prize-winning Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, coming under the spotlight on how it has consistently violated the Table Mountain Declaration that decriminalises libel throughout Africa, to which it is a signatory.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) pointed out to Sieh’s imprisonment and a number of instances where hefty damages have been awarded by Liberian courts to journalists as violations of the Declaration. The CPJ letter also says that imposing heavy fines for libel is a violation Liberia’s own constitution (Art.21).
“FrontPageAfrica is not alone. In 2010, the New Democrat newspaper was ordered to pay US$900,000 in a libel suit in which the plaintiff, Consolidated Group Incorporated, sought US$1.3 million in damages. The paper was sued for a story citing the findings of a government General Auditing Commission report; the suit was eventually settled. Also in 2010, your office sued the New Broom for US$5 million over a story on corruption, a case that resulted in closure of the newspaper. In 2012, your son and adviser Robert Sirleaf, chairman of the board of directors of the National Oil Company, sued The Independent and The Analyst for US$11 million, according to news reports, although he later withdrew the complaint. No newspaper has won a libel case since your election in 2005, according to the Press Union of Liberia,” CPJ said.
Meanwhile, a defiant Sieh has written about the larger implications of his imprisonment in an opinion piece to the New York Times on August 30. “It’s not uncommon in African countries like Zimbabwe and Ethiopia for newspapers to be shut, and their editors jailed. But the newspaper I edit doesn’t operate in a dictatorship. We are in Liberia, the West’s poster child for post-war democracy building.”
A bold stroke for human rights and rule of law was struck by the conviction of former President Charles Taylor by the International Criminal Court in 2012. But the sarcasm in Sieh’s brings out the reality of this West African nation enslaved by high levels of corruption and questions about the contentious elections in which Sirleaf was elected president. A post on the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) website in April 2012 lays out the issues that Liberia has to confront.

Jailed for Defamation, Liberian Editor’s Health Deteriorates

Protesting for Media Freedom (Photo courtesy newnarratives.org)


FrontPage Africa reported August 29 that the health of its imprisoned managing editor of Rodney Sieh has deteriorated after he was rushed to JKF Memorial Hospital two days before. Sieh began a hunger strike last week protesting a Supreme Court sentence detaining him pending the payment of US$ 1.6 million as damages to former agriculture minister Chris Toe.
The Monrovia-based FrontPage Africa said family members, employees of the newspaper and head of the Press Union of Liberia had been told by the police they could not visit him at the emergency section of the hospital without permission of the Ministry of Justice. Sieh had reportedly felt feverish, vomited and fainted in his cell, and complained of weakness to relatives.  
“We are troubled that Rodney Sieh’s health has deteriorated during his imprisonment and we hold the government of Liberia responsible for his well-being,” said the New York-based Committee for Protecting Journalists‘ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita.
“The excessive libel damages imposed on Sieh for reporting the findings of a government inquiry on corruption, his jailing and the closure of an important independent newspaper, are a blow to press freedom and the fight against corruption in Liberia,” CPJ’s August 23 statement continued.
The detention pending the payment of damages has been described by media watchdogs as “disproportionate” and “criminalising freedom of expression.” Barbara Trionfi, International Press Institute’s press freedom manager was quoted by FrontPage Africa: “We consider the damages and bond exorbitant and disproportionate in a country where the gross national income per person is US$370. But even worse, by jailing Mr Sieh and ordering his newspaper closed, the courts are denying him the means to pay any judgment and denying the Liberian population a valued source of information.”
Significantly, Liberia’s head of state is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is a co-winner 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with two others. “It is shocking that a journalist is in prison because of his work in a country whose president is a Nobel peace laureate, one who moreover gave a firm undertaking to support press freedom by signing the Declaration of Table Mountain in 2007… [Sieh’s] imprisonment had highlighted the urgency of completing the decriminalization of media offences by imposing ceilings on damages awards…,” said the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF).
FrontPage Africa reported on its website (which remains open despite the court ordering the closure of both the print and online editions) that Toe had been forced to resign following revelations of corruption. “Sieh has insisted that his newspaper’s reporting on the alleged misuse of ministry funds was accurate and he has refused to apologise to the former minister,” adding that Sieh planned to remain in jail and his lawyers planned to appeal to Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
FrontPage Africa also warned the Liberian government in an editorial not to politicise what was purely a legal matter in the Sieh case. “We therefore caution the government to take a measurable distance, as any attempt to continue on this path will be counterproductive.”
Following a meeting in Gambia in November 2010, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights passed Resolution 169 to decriminalise defamation.