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Journalist sent to prison after failing to pay exorbitant libel damages in Liberia

UPDATE from Committee to Protect Journalists: Liberian news outlet shut down, publisher jailed (23 August 2013)

On 21 August 2013, Rodney Sieh, publisher of FrontPage Africa, was put behind bars at the Monrovia Central Prison. Sieh could not afford to pay a bail bond of US $375,000. The publisher was furthermore unable to say when he would be able to pay the balance of US $1.5 million in damages, in a libel case that dates back to 2010.

After a lengthy standoff between police and sympathizers, Sieh was finally escorted by police to the Central Prison.

On 20 August, the Civil Law Court ordered Sieh's arrest in a bid to enforce the Supreme Court's ruling that he pay US $1.5 million in damages to former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe. FrontPage Africa claims that its offices were searched in the days preceding Sieh's eventual incarceration.

The matter was originally ruled on by a lower court in 2010. It found the newspaper guilty of libeling former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe. Said ruling stated that the paper failed to substantiate its claims that the minister diverted millions of dollars intended to fight an army worm epidemic in two regions of Liberia.

Last month, the Liberian Supreme Court ruled that the publication should pay the fine. On 16 August, a lower court judge cleared the way for Toe's lawyers to begin enforcing the judgment.

Rodney Sieh maintains that the offending news story was based on documents obtained from the General Auditing Commission.

Media rights stakeholders – including the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP) – are appalled by this development. Last year, Liberia signed on to the Declaration of Table Mountain – which decriminalizes media offenses – and instead began resorting to onerous civil law court fines. This amounts to political double-speak, say various civil liberty activists in the country.

FrontPage Africa, in partnership with CEMESP and the Media Legal Defence Initiative, is making frantic efforts to seek redress in this matter at the The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) court of justice in Abuja, Nigeria.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
What other IFEX members are saying
  • Newspaper editor jailed for inability to pay astronomical damages award

    “The supreme court’s decision is an unacceptable violation of freedom of information,” Reporters Without Borders said. “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.

  • IPI urges Liberian court to free jailed editor

    “We consider the damages and bond exorbitant and disproportionate in a country where the gross national income per person is US $370,” IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. “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.”

Case history

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