Tuesday, April 21, 2015

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The Liberian Media: President Johnson Sirleaf’s New Public Enemy Number One

With the on-going Rodney Sieh libel case and growing media restrictions, the idea of ‘Liberia Rising, Together’ has an increasingly hollow ring.
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FrontPageAfrica Newspaper's Managing Editor Rodney Sieh remains in jail. Credit: Kenneth Harper

Monrovia, Liberia:

Last month, Monrovia was host to significant fanfare celebrating the tenth anniversary of the end of the Liberian civil war. Commemoration of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which officially ended the civil war on August 18 2003, was followed by Flag Day, a newly unfurled public holiday, and the country’s second marathon, run under the motto ‘Liberia Rising, Together’.    

To the uncritical observer, these events may seem indicative of a country brimming with patriotism and optimism, signalling to the international community that Liberia is on the right path to sustained peace and development. But beneath the shiny veneer of celebration, things look quite different.

A report by Transparency International this year found that Liberia continues to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Human Rights Watch added to this gloomy picture, reporting that the country’s security apparatus fulfils a predatory rather than protective role vis-à-vis the citizenry. The country also made headlines when it was discovered that all 25,000 students that took this year’s entrance exam into the University of Liberia failed.   

But perhaps the most damning counter-example to disprove the notion that Liberia is heading in the right direction is the deteriorating relationship between President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government and the Liberian media. The climax of the conflict was the shutdown of FrontPageAfrica, a leading independent newspaper, and the incarceration of its managing editor, Rodney Sieh, on charges of libel against former Minister of Agriculture Christopher Toe.

Taking one for the team

Rodney Sieh has been hailed a martyr by Liberian journalists who view his legal battle with the former minister and subsequent imprisonment as testament to the conviction that neither bullying nor intimidation will deter the media from doing its job.

An August 21 Supreme Court decision upheld a lower court’s ruling that found Sieh guilty of libel against Toe. To compensate Toe for the damage done to his reputation, Sieh was charged with a $1.5 million fine or jail time until the amount is paid. According to Vandalark Patricks, director of Campaigners for Change, a local human rights organisation, the fee is impossibly high. "Even if you combine all the newspapers in this country, they will not be able to raise that amount," he says.

Given the size of the fine and Sieh’s financial inhibitions, without outside aid Sieh could potentially face life imprisonment. Noting the selective nature of justice in Liberia, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) issued the following statement: “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!”

Sweeping corruption under the rug

What is particularly troubling about this case is the apparent immunity of the alleged victim. In 2010, then acting Minister of Agriculture Toe was given funds to combat the introduction of army worms which were destroying crops in Bong County. Suspecting Toe of mismanaging project funds, his deputy minister Peter N. Korvah communicated these concerns to President Johnson Sirleaf in a formal letter. This letter was later obtained by FrontPageAfrica and published.

After travelling to the project site and reportedly being unimpressed with the progress being made, President Johnson Sirleaf prompted the General Auditing Commission (GAC) to run an audit on Toe’s stewardship of the project. The GAC’s report, which was also referenced by FrontPageAfrica, recommended that Toe be subject to prosecution after credible evidence of financial mismanagement had surfaced.

Instead of prosecuting Toe, however, President Johnson Sirleaf allegedly pressured him to resign from his post. This would not be the first time the President has been accused of sweeping corruption charges against her allies under the rug. Even figures from within the administration, such as Minister of Defence J. Brownie Samukai, have - in what he believed was private - joined the condemnation of the President’s lacklustre efforts in holding corrupt ministers to account.

Justice to the highest bidder

According to Sieh’s defence lawyer, the prominent human rights activist Samuel Kofi Woods, the libel trial against Sieh has been fraught with irregularities and questionable ethical practices. For instance, it is well known that Supreme Court Justice Phillip Banks has strong links to the law firm representing Toe, including the fact that he is Toe’s lawyer’s brother-in-law. Even with this clear conflict of interest, Justice Banks did not remove himself from deliberations that ultimately upheld Sieh’s conviction. 

Patricks, who closely followed the lower court trial, has also complained of judicial malpractice. According to Patricks, before the final verdict was reached members of the jury could be seen fraternising with Toe’s lawyers. In a recent New York Times op-ed that Sieh wrote while in confinement, he claims that already two jurors have confessed to having been paid to find him guilty. 

Although Woods acknowledges these discouraging challenges within the Liberian legal system, he is still confident that the “law can be a vehicle for social and political change". Woods is currently preparing to take Sieh’s case to the ECOWAS human rights court for appeal. Woods believes that there are fundamental questions of constitutionality at stake in Sieh’s case, in particular with regards to excessive punishments.

Better media without government than government without media

Among the cadre of supporters for Sieh following his conviction comes an unlikely ally in John S. Morlu II. During his as Liberia's Auditor-General, Morlu often bore the wrath of critical news reports, some emanating from Sieh’s FrontPageAfrica. Yet, in an August 19 op-ed, Morlu defends Sieh, citing Thomas Jefferson in arguing that it is better to have ‘media without a government’ than a ‘government without media’.

President Johnson Sirleaf’s government, however, does not seem to hold the same view. The government has refrained from prosecuting Toe on the grounds that there is not sufficient evidence against him. This lack of political will to combat corruption, in turn, has allowed Toe to successfully claim damages from the journalist who uncovered the questionable circumstances surrounding his abrupt resignation.

The Sieh debacle comes on the heels of other highly publicised disputes between the government and the Liberian media. This included an incident earlier this year when Executive Protection Service Director, Daniel Othello Warrick, issued the following not-so-subtle threat to journalists: “Be careful, because you have your pen and we have our guns.” Ironically, Warrick made this statement while addressing a crowd that had gathered to celebrate World Press Freedom Day. To the anger of the PUL, President Johnson Sirleaf ignored calls to distance herself from the inflammatory rhetoric used.

In 2006, President Johnson Sirleaf proclaimed in her inaugural address that corruption was “public enemy number one”. It would seem, however, that in reality the Liberian media now wears the mantel of “public enemy number one” for her government. 

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Luciana, let me appreciate you for this brilliant article written in solidarity of jailed Managing Editor of FrontPage Africa, one of the leading newspapers in Liberia. You cattigoled what actually happened during the court process. I mean, you  were acccurte, balanced and very cear in your reportage and its commendable. Brava and I wish you the best in your educational and journalistic endeavor.

What an amazingly dishonest piece. Sieh lost a civil jury trial. A jury comprised of Liberian men and women -- and not a Judge ("a court") -- found in favor of the plaintiff and assessed damages, and not a "fine", of $1.5 million. While most observers correctly believe that the damage award is excessive, SIeh publicly wrote in a Frontpage Africa editorial, that he did not follow through on his appeal because he did not trust the Liberian Supreme Court. He was jailed under LIberia's judgment enforcement statute, which expressly forbids imprisonment on account of debts, save for where a defendant fails or refuses to pay a judgment in an injury to reputation case. Critically, the statue has provisions for installment payments and deferred payment of the judgment. Sieh did not seek to avail himself of those provisions. We believe the statute is unconstitutional as applied, but regret the utterly false suggestion that the executive arm of the LIberian government was somehow involved in this civil case, or that it can now somehow intervene and reverse the jury verdict that was not appealed. The private civil litigants are now in engages in settlement discussions. Shame on you.

 An "amazingly dishonest piece" Ambrose Wortson calls it, and i add shameless and unfortunate representation of an intricate African matter. I do not live in Liberia but I am an African, who like many others loves the continent, and such shameless reporting of what constitutes complex issues from a position on privilege should be berated unreservedly.The piece in its totality assumes high moral ground whilst disguising itself as a critical assessment of the undoing of Liberia’s liberal democratic ‘progress’. Of course the litany of ills the writer alludes to encapsulated in ‘the betrayal’ of the motto Liberia rising together, including corruption indicted by Transparency international data, the failure of 25000 students for the university entrance exam should raise concern, however these should not be deployed in such a reductive  manner to trivialise and represent what remains a huge challenge that is the many bigger sociopolitical issues that the Liberian people and indeed the government  continue to address, albeit with great difficulty. Should the deteriorating relationship with the media be overlooked, by all means no. But the assumption that everyone should see catastrophe in Liberia because a top level journalist has been jailed must be criticised.  I berate piece because the writer’s arrogance couched deftly in the caveat ‘for the uncritical observer’, assumes the strained relations with the media should be the greatest issue of concern for everyone. Unfortunately, this piece falls easily into ritualistic reporting in criticism of complex African issues that comes from privileged positions of liberal thought, mostly devoid of pragmatic considerations.  Taking into account the difficult historical past that besets incremental efforts to change Liberia, incremental, including forging broad social cohesion, respect for institution building and crafting of a political culture that can allow for preconditions of what can be considered a stable liberal democracy, surely democracy will suffer growth pains. If this piece cannot take this into account then the writer should regard their own uncritical position of privilege. This is ritualistic reporting that vaunts liberal democracy ideals, including role of the media in liberal democracy as sacred and panacea to all social problems. I am not privy to the details surrounding the incarceration of Mr Sieh. Of course malicious intimidation of the press should not be excused anywhere. However, the simplification of Liberia’s, (and I’d extrapolate this as reflection of other African countries’) issues in this manner is disturbing. Yes, Shame on you.

Just to note, Flag Day is not a new holiday.  Otherwise, very good article and good to see attention to this issue.