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LIBERIA: Veteran journalist permanently released, newspaper re-opened

Friday 22 November 2013 - 12:00am

Update 1 to RAN 29/13 22 November 2013

PEN International welcomes the permanent release of Rodney Sieh, founder and editor of award-winning newspaper FrontPageAfrica, who was jailed on 21 August 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 8 November 2013 after negotiations led to Toe agreeing to waive all judgement, money and claims against Sieh. The release was formalised in a court hearing on 18 November, 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 offence 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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Please send appeals:
• Welcoming the permanent release of FrontPageAfrica founder and editor Rodney Sieh on 8 November 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 appeals to:

H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of the Republic of Liberia
Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs
Executive Mansion
P.O. Box 9001
Capitol Hill, Monrovia
Republic of Liberia
Email: info@emansion.gov.lr

Minister of Justice and Attorney General
Hon. Christiana H. Tah
Contact form: http://www.moj.gov.lr/contact

Please send copies of your appeals to your nearest Liberian Embassy: http://embassy.goabroad.com/embassies-of/liberia

***Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN International if sending appeals after 22 December 2013***

Background information
Rodney Sieh is a Liberian journalist with over 17 years’ 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 US 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 Sieh, the newspaper and FrontPageAfrica reporter Samwar Fallah were found guilty of libelling former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe in two articles in FrontPageAfrica which accused Toe of corruption and ordered to pay the equivalent of US$1.5 million in damages and US$900,000 in court costs. Among other sources, the articles cited the results of investigations led by the General Auditing Commission, Liberia’s independent corruption watchdog, and instigated on the orders of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,into the Agriculture Ministry’s accounts 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 libellous 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 15 July 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the February 2011 judgement, 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 21 August 2013. In accordance with Liberian Civil Procedure Law, debtors should be imprisoned for a period sufficiently long to liquidate the full amount of the judgement, interest and costs at the rate of $25 per month – a sentence which equated, in Sieh’s case, to a period of in excess of 5,000 years. The newspapers offices were closed down on 23 August, 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 21 August 2013 – and episodes of vomiting and fainting in his prison cell gave rise to concerns for his health. Sieh was admitted to hospital on 30 August where he was diagnosed with malaria. He was hospitalised for 19 days and was reportedly returned to Monrovia Central Prison on 17 September.

On 7 October 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 18 October 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 debarment if they did not apologise to the court. On 22 October FrontPageAfrica reported that Justice Minister Tah had made an apology.

On 8 November 2013, following the expiry of a 30-day compassionate leave during which time he was partly held under house arrest, 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 former agriculture minister 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 judgement, money and claims against Sieh, FrontPageAfrica reporter Samwar Fallah.

On 18 November, 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 20 November and the paper is due to resume publication on 25 November. Sieh has publically stated that FrontPageAfrica will continue its exposure of widespread official corruption in Liberia. “My newspaper will be on the newsstand soon and we are coming back much stronger than before,” Sieh stated in the online edition of FrontPageAfrica.

For further details please contact Tamsin Mitchell at the Writers in Prison Committee London Office: International PEN, Brownlow House, 50-51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER Tel: +44 (0) 207 405 0338 Fax +44 (0) 207 405 0339 email: tamsin.mitchell@pen-international.org

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