President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf turns back the clock of press freedom in Liberia

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 24 August 2013

Rodney SiehSeveral hundred people gathered outside the Temple of Justice Court on Wednesday, 21 August, to protest the arrest of Rodney Sieh (Photo), the Publisher of FrontPage Africa.

Sieh was ordered by the Supreme Court to pay US$1.5 million in a libel case involving former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe, despite protesting his innocence.

FrontPage’s saga with Toe began in 2010, when the paper reported that the then Agriculture Minister had misapplied funds intended to fight worms that had infested crops in Bong and Lofa counties.

The newspaper’s reports were based on documents from the General Auditing Commission and Public Procurement Concession Commission (PPCC). Earlier this week, Sieh said the message from the court’s verdict is that Liberian journalists can no longer use government documents to report on corruption.

Sieh appealed to the Supreme Court after a lower court found him guilty of libel. He maintained that the court found him guilty though he provided the government owned documents about the missing money and funds, and presented evidence that jurors were bribed for a guilty verdict. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

Rodney Sieh2Protesters carrying signs with messages about press freedom, free speech and support for Sieh packed the courtroom and the parking lot of the court house.

“Justice should not be manipulated in the interest of state Bureaucracy, ‘’ read one sign.

“The verdict of the court is devilish. It is intended to muzzle press freedom,” read another.

“Freedom of the press is a constitutional right. It should not be compromised for mere friendship, money and power. Leave Rodney Sieh alone,’’ read another sign held up by a group of protestors standing in the middle of the parking lot.

Protesters chanted slogans accusing the government of grooming corruption and leading the way to prosecute journalist who write about the injustices in the country.

Many of the protesters argued that FrontPageAfrica cannot be made to pay such a heavy fine to a public official, when in fact the paper does not make such profits.

Samuel F. Mcgill said: “Front Page Africa will not give a dime and we are prepared to go to jail today. Front Page Africa saying an alleged corruption allegation be levelled against Dr. Chris Toe, then what prompted you to come to court?”

“We want to be very clear that our presence here today in solidarity with FrontPage Africa does not mean we don’t want to see justice. When you push people to the wall they will bounce back.

“Enough is enough this must stop; this whole thing was manipulated by madam Sirleaf and her looters and economic vampires for Mr. Sieh to go to jail.”

Rodney sieh3The closed door meeting

While the protesters chanted slogans outside, Sieh and his lawyers, Samuel Kofi Woods, Pearl Brown Bull, and Peter Quaqua, president of the Press Union of Liberia and Mr. Kenneth Best – owner of the Daily observer newspaper, met behind closed doors with Judge Boima Kontoe of the Civil Law Court.

The meeting with the judge lasted close to an hour with a crowded courtroom waiting to hear the result of the case.

Sieh and his lawyers arrived at the courthouse shortly before 4:PM. The journalist came ready to spend the night in jail. He had his toothbrush; towel and pillow tucked under his arm, just like his late grand uncle Albert Porte did when he was summoned by government after he reported stories in his pamphlet about corruption and widespread abuses meted against the Liberian people during the 1970s.

After more than an hour meeting, the judge ordered that Sieh be incarcerated at the Central Prison after he said he did not have the US$1.5 million to pay.

Sieh’s lawyers told journalists following the meeting with the judge that Sieh had agreed to go to prison because he had no asset in value to the US$1.5 million he is being ordered to pay.

The crowd ran to a side door after Brown Bull emerged from the judge’s chambers to tell the packed courtroom that Sieh was headed to jail.

The crowd rushed to a side door where Sieh was expected to pass. They blocked the pathway, chanting slogans. Some protesters lay on the ground, stating that they would not leave if Rodney was not released.

Roadway blocked

Protesters ignored police orders to clear the roadway. Protestors blocked the roadway for over an hour, forcing police to bring in more officers armed with plastic shields.

Said an angry Vandallah Patricks a civil rights activist: “Enough is enough, gone are the days where people were used as stooges by imported Beograd who did not understand the nature of our system but was brought into this country to destroy lives and property. It is good to go to jail with dignity than to accept the suffering of the masses with humanity.”

Shortly before 6:PM., Police led by Deputy Director Abraham Kromah, brought Sieh out of the courtroom and forced him into a police vehicle after he had been made to calm the crowd following a brief talk with them. Sieh waved and held up his toothbrush as the crowd chanted “Free Rodney Sieh; Free Rodney Sieh”.

Rodney Sieh4A few minutes later, he was shoved in a police pickup. A caravan of cars and motorcycles followed the police pickup to Central Prison where hundreds had also gathered.

The crowd was so large that police returned to police headquarters briefly and swapped Sieh in another car and returned to the Central Prison. Sieh in a phone conversation with family members from his prison cell said he was kicked and pushed on the way to jail.

The 6:pm question

Rodney D. Sieh, Managing Editor and Publisher of FrontPageAfrica was remanded at the Monrovia Central Prison at exactly 6:20pm Wednesday, August 21, 2013 and legal experts argued that the action by the court was against the law.

“I returned Rodney Sieh to the judge in compliance with the law. The sheriff came with some police there and say they were about to take him. I came down here on South beach around five and I waited until it was six PM and I did take a picture and the time,” said Cllr. Bull.

“And under our law you do not put people in prison after six. They brought him here and took him back and they said the police station told them they could not keep him there. So they brought him back here about six twenty five and put him in jail. Under our jurisprudence this is a violation. It’s the same thing that happened to Grace Kpan they brought her here ten minutes past six and wanted her to go in. Because she did not go in they said that was obstruction of justice.”

Liberians have vowed to take the government to task on this latest imprisonment of a journalist in Liberia, especially at a time when the government is professing that it supports freedom of the Press.

“We want to let you know that injustice to one is in justice to all. The managing editor of FrontPageAfrica is not alone, we have come to sleep with him. Rainfall or not we will sleep in prison,“ said a protester who identified himself as Henry.

Unprecedented Court action

According to legal experts familiar with Liberian courtroom procedure, the incarceration of Mr. Sieh just days after the bill of costs was approved is unprecedented.

“In fact the Judge allowed the Sherif to act with wanton disregard to the order which held in part: You are hereby commanded to seize and expose for sale the lands, goods and chattels of the defendants Rodney Sieh of the FrontPageAfrica and if the sum realized be not sufficient, then their real property until you shall have raised the sum of US$1,624,000.00 and L$17,300.00,” said a legal expert who preferred not to be named.

“If you cannot find said lands, goods and chattels of said defendants you are hereby commanded to arrest the living bodies of the above defendants and bring them before any judge of competent jurisdiction to be dealt with according to law, unless they will pay the said sum of money (ies) or show property to you to seize and sell for same.”

The legal expert said in this case, there is no evidence that the goods, lands or chattels of Mr. Sieh or FrontpageAfrica were even seized.

“In fact, immediately after the sherif received the order they immediately went looking for the living body of Mr. Sieh, ignoring the first part of the order to seize property. Ironically, they looked under the very desks and chairs and computers they should have been seizing in order to arrest Mr. Sieh,” said the expert.

“Usually, in judgement enforcement, the Sherif first look to seize property and sell it at public auction, a procedure that would have taken more than one month. This was not in this case. Further, a defendant is typically incarcerated in matters like this under a contempt order for failure to pay, not a writ of execution which initiates the process of collection.”

“The whole proceedings against Rodney Sieh and FrontPageAfrica – from a bad verdict to bad enforcement proceedings, shows that the justice system in Liberia is subject to the whims and caprices of the government.”

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