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Commentary: Press freedom in Liberia

Sometimes it is not the case that a conflict is forgotten, but rather governments taking measures for the information not to reach the public, writes Susanne Østhus.

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Photo credit of ugaldew

In 2010 the editor of FrontPageAfrica, Rodney Sieh, was sued for accusing former agriculture minister, Chris Toe, of corruption.

After being unable to pay the damages of the lawsuit Rodney Sieh was jailed. The paper’s offices were also shut down a few days after his arrest, but not their online news publication.

I can understand that the accusations can be defamatory for Chris Toe, if they were not backed up with evidence. However, FrontPageAfrica published government findings of Chris Toe being corrupt along with the report.

This conviction of Rodney Sieh is surprising as the Liberian government signed the Freedom of Information Act to become law in 2010. The act was implemented to enable both journalists and members of the public to obtain government documents.

The act was to go into effect two years later, therefore it did not apply in Rodney Sieh’s case.

The Supreme Court ruled that Rodney Sieh is to pay US $1.5 million (approximately AU $1.7 million) in total for damages.

In July 2013 an appeal was attempted, but according to Liberian law the appeal can only be held if the prosecuted has payed two per cent of the damages, which Sieh has been unable to do.

FrontPageAfrica reported that they also would be unable to pay the court ordered damages cost.

However, considering Liberia’s constitution article number 21 it states that “(ii) Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor excessive punishment inflicted”. Considering this law  it is evident that such an excessive fine should not have been issued in the first place.

The paper accused the jurors of being corrupt and the court of being biased. FrontPageAfrica believes that the government is unfairly targeting their publication because of the investigative reports they have published.

According to Press Union of Liberia no news organisation has won a libel since Ellen Sirleaf was elected president in 2005. Human rights watch reported that Sirleaf’s administration had issued several lawsuits against local newspapers in recent years.

In 1989 during the civil war journalists in Liberia were targeted and the government put a ban on media coverage of the war. After the war Liberia has been seen as the ideal state in Africa when it comes to the process of democratisation.

Nevertheless, with the case of Rodney Sieh it is clear that although Liberia is democratised the freedom of press is under attack and reform in the legal system is needed. Several organisations, such as Committee to protect journalists (CPJ), have put pressure on the Liberian government to release Rodney Sieh, but it has been rejected.

Do you think this was a lawful arrest? What is your thoughts on freedom of press in Liberia? Please share your opinion in the comment section it is open for discussion.

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