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

September 20, 2013
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.
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.