Thursday, August 29, 2013

Jailed for Defamation, Liberian Editor's Health Deteriorates

Protesting for Media Freedom (Photo courtesy newnarratives.org)




FrontPage Africa reported August 29 that the health of its imprisoned managing editor of Rodney Sieh has deteriorated after he was rushed to JKF Memorial Hospital two days before. Sieh began a hunger strike last week protesting a Supreme Court sentence detaining him pending the payment of US$ 1.6 million as damages to former agriculture minister Chris Toe.

The Monrovia-based FrontPage Africa said family members, employees of the newspaper and head of the Press Union of Liberia had been told by the police they could not visit him at the emergency section of the hospital without permission of the Ministry of Justice. Sieh had reportedly felt feverish, vomited and fainted in his cell, and complained of weakness to relatives.  

“We are troubled that Rodney Sieh’s health has deteriorated during his imprisonment and we hold the government of Liberia responsible for his well-being,” said the New York-based Committee for Protecting Journalists’ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita.

“The excessive libel damages imposed on Sieh for reporting the findings of a government inquiry on corruption, his jailing and the closure of an important independent newspaper, are a blow to press freedom and the fight against corruption in Liberia,” CPJ’s August 23 statement continued.

The detention pending the payment of damages has been described by media watchdogs as “disproportionate” and “criminalising freedom of expression.” Barbara Trionfi, International Press Institute’s press freedom manager was quoted by FrontPage Africa: “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.”

Significantly, Liberia’s head of state is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is a co-winner 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with two others. “It is shocking that a journalist is in prison because of his work in a country whose president is a Nobel peace laureate, one who moreover gave a firm undertaking to support press freedom by signing the Declaration of Table Mountain in 2007… [Sieh’s] imprisonment had highlighted the urgency of completing the decriminalization of media offences by imposing ceilings on damages awards…,” said the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF).

FrontPage Africa reported on its website (which remains open despite the court ordering the closure of both the print and online editions) that Toe had been forced to resign following revelations of corruption. “Sieh has insisted that his newspaper’s reporting on the alleged misuse of ministry funds was accurate and he has refused to apologise to the former minister,” adding that Sieh planned to remain in jail and his lawyers planned to appeal to Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

FrontPage Africa also warned the Liberian government in an editorial not to politicise what was purely a legal matter in the Sieh case. “We therefore caution the government to take a measurable distance, as any attempt to continue on this path will be counterproductive.”

Following a meeting in Gambia in November 2010, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights passed Resolution 169 to decriminalise defamation.

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