Veteran Journalist Permanently Released, Newspaper Re-Opened
PEN International welcomes the permanent release of Rodney Sieh, founder and editor of the award-winning newspaper FrontPageAfrica, who was jailed on August 21, 2013, because he was unable to pay a fine equivalent to US$1.5 million in libel damages to former agriculture minister Chris Toe. Sieh was permanently released from Monrovia Central Prison on November 8, 2013, after negotiations led to Toe agreeing to waive all judgment, money, and claims against Sieh. The release was formalized in a court hearing on November 18, which also ordered the re-opening of Sieh’s newspaper.
Article 21 of Liberia’s Constitution states that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor excessive punishment inflicted.” Despite this, there have been a number of libel cases brought against Liberian media outlets in recent years where plaintiffs have sought civil damages of US$1 million and above.
In July 2012, President Sirleaf became the second African head of state to endorse the Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls for the repeal of criminal defamation and “insult” laws throughout Africa. However, more than a year later, Liberia has yet to comply with this commitment. In November 2012, the Press Union of Liberia presented a draft bill to the parliament that would abolish defamation as a criminal offense in the country, but it has yet to be passed. Currently, the Liberian Penal Code imposes criminal penalties for “criminal libel against the President” (section 11.11), “sedition” (11.12), and “criminal malevolence” (11.14).
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Rodney Sieh is a Liberian journalist with over 17 years of experience working in Liberia and abroad. During the Liberian civil war, he served as a senior reporter for The Monrovia Daily News, reporting on the casualties and progress of the war. Subsequently, in 1992, he fled to the Gambia where he was known for reporting on disappearances and killings following the 1994 coup, working for the independent newspaper Daily Observer and as a correspondent for the BBC. He has also worked for several U.S. newspapers, including Newport News, Syracuse Post Standard and The Daily Record. Founded in June 2005, FrontPageAfrica has won numerous awards for its reporting and is renowned for its coverage of corruption, official misconduct, and human rights violations.
February 2011 saw the culmination of a year-long lawsuit in which Rodney Sieh, the newspaper, and FrontPageAfrica reporter Samwar Fallah were found guilty of libeling former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe, and ordered to pay US$1.5 million in damages and US$900,000 in court costs. The case related to the publication of two articles in FrontPageAfrica which accused Toe of corruption. The articles cited, among other sources, the results of investigations into the Agriculture Ministry’s accounts—instigated on the orders of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and led by the General Auditing Commission, Liberia’s independent corruption watchdog—which found Toe liable of wrongdoing and recommended his prosecution. Toe was not in fact pursued through the courts, although he did resign from his post, allegedly as a result of pressure from the president. He denied the allegations against him and claimed that FrontPageAfrica’s articles were libelous because he was never prosecuted or convicted. FrontPageAfrica requested but was denied a retrial, despite reports that members of the jury had been bribed. According to Sieh’s lawyer, Samuel Kofi Woods, the trial was marred by a number of other irregularities, including links between one Supreme Court justice and the law firm representing Toe.
On July 15, 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the February 2011 judgment, stating that the appeal process had not been completed. Unable to pay the fine, which reportedly amounted to more than 30 times the newspaper’s annual operating budget, Sieh was incarcerated in Monrovia Central Prison on August 21, 2013. In accordance with Liberian Civil Procedure Law, debtors should be imprisoned for a period sufficiently long to liquidate the full amount of the judgment, interest, and costs at the rate of $25 per month; in Sieh’s case, such a sentence amounted to over 5,000 years. The newspaper's offices were closed down on August 23, although the online version continued to be published.
Sieh’s lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court to overrule his imprisonment on the basis that it contravenes the Liberian Constitution, which prohibits debt bondage and guarantees the right to due process and equal protection under the law.
Sieh’s hunger strike—which he began upon his imprisonment on August 21, 2013—and episodes of vomiting and fainting in his prison cell gave rise to concerns for his health. Sieh was admitted to the hospital on August 30, where he was diagnosed with malaria. He was hospitalized for 19 days and was reportedly returned to Monrovia Central Prison on September 17.
On October 7, Sieh was granted 30 days’ compassionate release by the Ministry of Justice in accordance with Article 34.2 of the criminal procedural law, following a request by his lawyers. However, on October 18, Sieh was placed under house arrest for the remainder of the 30-day parole period. While under house arrest, Sieh was confined to his home and placed under 24-hour police surveillance, and his passport was confiscated.
The change reportedly came a few days after Justice Minister Christina Tah and another lawyer defending Sieh, Beyan Howard, were summoned by the Supreme Court and charged with contempt for granting Sieh compassionate leave and threatened with disbarment if they did not apologize to the court. On October 22, FrontPageAfrica reported that Justice Minister Tah had made an apology.
On November 8, 2013, Sieh was briefly returned to Monrovia Central Prison before being freed the same day. His release came after negotiations enabled by former interim President Amos Sawyer, the Liberian Council of Churches, the National Muslim Council of Liberia, and the Inter-Religious Council, among others, resulted in Chris Toe agreeing not to pursue the payment of the libel damages owed him, according to his lawyer and local news reports. Toe’s lawyers filed a three-point bill of information that waived all judgment, money, and claims against Sieh, Fallah, and FrontPageAfrica.
On November 18, the Civil Law Court at the Temple of Justice in the Liberian capital Monrovia formally ordered the release of Sieh and the re-opening of FrontPageAfrica in a final settlement. The newspaper’s offices were unlocked by a court official on November 20, and the paper is due to resume publication on November 25. Sieh has publicly stated that FrontPageAfrica will continue its exposure of widespread official corruption in Liberia. In the online edition of FrontPageAfrica, Sieh stated, "my newspaper will be on the newsstand soon and we are coming back much stronger than before."
Write A Letter
- Welcoming the permanent release of FrontPageAfrica founder and editor Rodney Sieh on November 8, 2013, and the subsequent re-opening of the newspaper’s office;
- Urging the president to ensure that no one, including any journalist, is imprisoned solely for failing to pay a fine and, in line with Article 21 of Liberia’s Constitution, to adopt libel damages commensurate with the harm caused;
- Also urging the president to repeal criminal defamation laws in Liberia, in line with the commitment she made when signing the Declaration of Table Mountain in July 2012.
Send Your Letter To
H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of the Republic of Liberia
Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs
P.O. Box 9001
Capitol Hill, Monrovia
Republic of Liberia
Hon. Christiana H. Tah
Minister of Justice and Attorney General
Contact form: http://www.moj.gov.lr/contact
Please send copies of your appeals to your nearest Liberian Embassy.
***Check with PEN International if sending appeals after December 22, 2013***