The Civil Law Court in Monrovia last Friday closed the doors of the Front Page Africa Newspaper two days after the paper’s Publisher and Managing Editor Mr. Rodney Sieh was jailed at the Monrovia Central Prison as a result of a libel suit brought against him by former Agriculture Minister, Dr. Christopher Toe. Dr. Toe instituted a libel suit against the Front Page Africa Newspaper for which Mr. Sieh the paper’s editor was held palpable and asked to pay damages amounting to US$1.5m.
Mr. Sieh prior to his detention said he did not have such an amount thus he could not pay, something which landed him behind bars at the Monrovia Central Prison.
Legal pundits believe the court’s action is predicated on the fact that after finding Mr. Sieh guilty and incarcerating him at the Monrovia Central Prison, the paper continued to publish articles relevant to the case.
However, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and the Committee to Protect Journalists have condemned the action to have jailed Mr. Sieh and subsequently closed down the Front Page Africa.
According to a dispatch from Abuja, Nigeria, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the move by Liberian authorities to shut down an independent newspaper FrontPageAfrica and jail its publisher for not paying US$1.5 million in damages related to a libel conviction.
The CPJ noted that the plaintiff, Chris Toe, a former government minister, sought US$2 million in damages from the newspaper after it reported the findings of an official government inquiry that accused him of corruption.
The CPJ said Toe resigned from his government position and was never charged. He accused FrontPageAfrica’s reports of libeling him because he was never convicted in court. The newspaper is therefore appealing the case before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice.
The CPJ disclosed that Editor Rodney Sieh has refused to eat or drink water since he was jailed on Wednesday.
In a related development, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) condemns as repressive, the seizure of the FrontPage Africa Newspaper and the virtual life imprisonment of its Editor, Rodney Sieh in a libel judgment.
The Union believes no justice is served if the courts are heavy-handed in their judgments regardless of the situation and therefore calls on the government to release Mr. Sieh from further detention and unlock the doors of his paper.
Front Page Africa was found guilty in a libel suit involving a public official, former Agriculture Minister, Chris Toe and ordered to pay US$1.5m in damages.
Journalist Sieh has now spent his fourth night in jail after he was sent to the maximum prison on Wednesday, 21st August as he was “unable to pay” the amount. The Paper was subsequently shut down on Friday, 23rd August.
“Instead of having Mr. Toe minimally subjected to some kind of judicial inquiry on his stewardship at the Ministry of Agriculture for which he was made to resign under questionable circumstances, it is a journalist who gets punished for calling public attention to the story,” says PUL President Peter Quaqua.
The former minister went to court in 2010 with a US$2 Milion libel suit against FrontPageAfrica, Mr. Rodney Sieh and Reporter Samwar Fallah for a story thought to be based on corruption. Among other sources, the Paper quoted an audit conducted by The General Auditing Commission on the Guthrie Rubber Plantation, which found Mr. Toe liable of wrongdoing, and recommended his prosecution. The Government is yet to act on the audit report.
The Union is wary about the ease at which public government officials are winning libel suits and imposing excessive fines against the media, which are basically intended to shut down the media and control them into submission. Reference is made to the $5Million rewarded to President Sirleaf as damages in a case with the New Broom Newspaper in 2010. That paper remains off the stand.
Mr. Quaqua reminded the government that: “after acceding to the Table Mountain Declaration, our country must work to set a threshold for libel and contempt of court to restrain the arbitrary conduct of judges, whose judgments are largely influenced by power and money.”
He added that the Union remains an advocate for the rule of law and will at all time encourage journalists who come in conflict with the law to submit to the legal system, but it will not support the outcome of a court hearing that violates the basic rights of people.
“Without doubts, the Union believes that the nature of the court’s decision is simply a case to punish Rodney Sieh rather than to repair the so-called damage suffered by Mr. Toe. The PUL understands that in the application of the law in this matter, that is if he is able to pay, Rodney is to pay US$25.00 monthly until he completes the payment of the 1.5 Million. By this reasoning, 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. This is judicial tyranny,” Mr. Quaqua stated.
“We do acknowledge recent efforts being made by the new Chief Justice, Francis Korkpor, Sr. to correct some of the problems in the court system, but this is a hard test that stands up to his reputation,” he averred.
Meanwhile, the Union invites all journalists to a mass meeting at the Union’s headquarters on Monday, August 26 to strategize further solidarity actions. The meeting starts at 12: Noon.