LIBERIA: Veteran journalist jailed for libel, facing effective life sentence; fears for health

RAN 29/13 – 19 September 2013

PEN International is concerned for the health and well-being of Rodney Sieh, founder and editor of award-winning newspaper FrontPageAfrica, who was jailed on 21 August 2013 because he was unable to pay US$1.5 million in libel damages to a former minister. Sieh, who has been on hunger strike since his imprisonment, was hospitalised for three weeks after vomiting and fainting in his prison cell; he has since been diagnosed with malaria.

Rodey Sieh

Rodey Sieh

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***Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN International if sending appeals after 18 November 2013***

Please send appeals:

  • Condemning the excessively high fine handed down to FrontPageAfrica founder and editor Rodney Sieh for alleged libel, and his subsequent imprisonment on 21 August 2013 due to his inability to pay;
  • Expressing concern for Sieh’s health and asking that the Liberian authorities ensure that he is provided with adequate medical care;
  • Urging President Johnson Sirleaf to review Sieh’s case in order to facilitate his release and the re-opening of his newspaper, and, in line with Article 21 of Liberia’s Constitution, to adopt libel damages commensurate with the harm caused and refrain from imprisoning defendants who are unable to pay;
  • 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 [at] [dot] lr

Minister of Justice and Attorney General

Hon. Christiana H. Tah

Contact form: ‘.((strlen(‘’)>40) ? substr(‘’,0,40).’…’ : ‘’).’

Please send copies of your appeals to your nearest Liberian Embassy: ‘.((strlen(‘’)>40) ? substr(‘’,0,40).’…’ : ‘’).’

Case information

On 21 August 2013, Rodney Sieh, founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of the award-winning daily print and online newspaper FrontPageAfrica, was jailed after Liberia’s Supreme Court upheld a decision ordering him to pay a former government minister US$1.5 million in libel damages. The judge ordered the newspaper’s closure and Sieh’s detention pending payment on 20 August. Unable to pay the fine, which reportedly amounts to more than 30 times the newspaper’s annual operating budget, Sieh was incarcerated in Monrovia Central Prison the next day.

Given the size of the fine, Sieh faces effective life imprisonment. As the Press Union of Liberia has stated: “[…] it is the wisdom of our Supreme Court that Rodney Sieh should spend more years in jail on libel than former President Charles Taylor who was sentenced to fifty years for war crimes.”

Sieh has been on hunger strike since his imprisonment and was reportedly admitted to hospital on 28 August 2013 after vomiting and fainting in his prison cell. He has since been diagnosed with malaria. Sieh was reportedly returned to Monrovia Central Prison on 18 September 2013, having spent 22 days in hospital.

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 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. Among other sources, the articles cited the results of investigations into the Agriculture Ministry’s accounts led by the General Auditing Commission, Liberia’s independent corruption watchdog, and instigated on the orders of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 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. According to Woods, this was due to the fact that in Liberia an appeal can only be heard if the defendant pays a bond of two per cent of the total amount owed, which Sieh could not afford. The whereabouts of Fallah, who has resigned from FrontPageAfrica, are unknown. The newspaper is reportedly appealing the case before the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African Stats (ECOWAS).

While FrontPageAfrica’s offices in Monrovia were closed on 23 August, the paper’s website, which is registered in the USA, has continued to publish news.

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.

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 that year, the Press Union of Liberia presented a draft bill to the parliament that would implement the abolition of criminal defamation 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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