Liberian authorities should release the jailed newspaper editor Rodney Sieh and lift any restrictions on the publication of his newspaper, FrontPageAfrica, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.
Sieh, whose daily is one of the best read in Monrovia, was detained on Aug. 21 on the orders of a Supreme Court judge when he refused to pay a fine of US $1.5 million in damages to a former government minister who had filed a libel lawsuit against Sieh in May 2010.
Sieh was being held on US $375,000 bond. A circuit court sheriff ordered the newspaper’s offices shut down on Aug. 23.
“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.”
FrontPageAfrica’s website has continued to operate. It reported today that Sieh was hospitalised under police guard for treatment of a cold.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed by former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe, who was forced to resign after the Monrovia newspaper reported that he had improperly diverted government money from agricultural projects. He filed the libel suit on May 10, 2010.
Sieh has insisted that his newspaper’s reporting on the alleged misuse of ministry funds was accurate and he has refused to apologise to the former minister. He and his newspaper have launched a campaign to pressure the court to free him and to re-open the newspaper’s offices.
The editor has also vowed to remain in jail and his lawyer plans to appeal to the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria, the newspaper’s website reported.
The decision to close the offices of FrontPageAfrica came nine days after one of the newspaper’s editors and investigative reporter, Wade C.L. Williams, was awarded a German Development Media Award for her reporting on poverty. The annual awards are presented by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and Deutsche Welle.