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Newspaper risks being shut down over US$1.5 million fine

(CEMESP/IFEX) - The "Frontpage Africa" newspaper risks being shut down if it does not comply with a court ruling ordering it to pay US$1.5m in damages, plus court costs, for libelling a former government official. The court order emanates from a publication by the paper that reported on alleged fraud committed by Dr. J Chris Toe, as former Liberia Agriculture Minister.

Dr. Toe is now said to be demanding the aforesaid colossal amount after a court verdict upholding an earlier ruling was passed in October 2011.

In its 2 November 2011 edition, "Frontpage Africa" carried a letter to the editor captioned "Maybe You Did Not Hear Us The First Time Dr. Toe . . . WE DARE YOU TO SHUT US DOWN!!!" This is an indication of the preparedness of the paper to challenge the court order, further alleging that there are "some hidden hands behind the latest efforts of the court to implement a corrupt verdict . . . ".

The paper had refused to pay thousands of dollars in insurance as a requirement to file an appeal on the grounds that one jury member was bribed US$50 and there was pre-verdict interaction between Dr. Toe and his lawyers - allegedly seen leaving the office of Judge Kabba on the day of the verdict.

According to "Frontpage Africa", in February its application for retrial was rejected by Judge Yussif Kaba, of the Sixth Judicial Circuit Civil Law Court in Monrovia.

Judge Kabba is quoted as saying that the nine-man jury which handed down the verdict on the newspaper was unanimous and based on sufficient evidence. The judge insisted that as such the Civil Court lacks jurisdiction to modify the sentence.

After the defendant raised concern in one instance, one jury member was reportedly dismissed for engaging in a lengthy conversation with a lawyer of Dr. Toe, it has been reported.

"Frontpage Africa" continues to stand by its story about Dr. Toe and reaffirms its determination to expose corrupt officials.

The Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP), under its media legal defense program, is intervening in the matter. CEMESP Executive Director Malcolm Joseph is quoted as saying its lawyers are reviewing the "Frontpage Africa" case for subsequent free legal consultation and representation.

With support from the UK-based Media Legal Defense Initiative, CEMESP is managing a legal defense program for Liberian journalists and media institutions that run into problems as a result of their work.

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