A Liberian rights group has given the government a Friday ultimatum to free the jailed publisher and managing editor of FrontPage Africa print and online editions or the group will mobilize Liberians to demand the arrest of government officials accused of corruption, but who have not been prosecuted.
Publisher Rodney Sieh was taken into custody late Wednesday following a Supreme Court ruling that the paper should pay more than $1.5 million dollars for libeling then Agriculture Minister J. Chris Toe.
Hundreds of Liberians, including journalists gathered Wednesday evening in the capital, Monrovia demanding to be taken to jail with publisher Sieh.
Vandalark Patricks, national director of the Liberia Campaigner for Change, said the group sees the arrest of Sieh as a "calculated attempt" by the government to silence the media and critical voices in Liberia.
“Four o’clock today (Wednesday), over 500 persons assembled. We were asking the court to allow us to go to jail with Rodney Sieh because we believe he’s innocent. To incarcerate a media practitioner and charge them with $1.5 million for libel, even if you combine all the newspapers in this country, they will not be able to raise that amount. This is a calculated attempt to silence the media in this country,” he said.
Patricks describes the arrest and incarceration of publisher Sieh as unconstitutional.
“Under our constitution, after six o’clock (in the evening), nobody is supposed to be arrested or even to be incarcerated. Rodney Sieh was picked up from the Supreme Court of Liberia today by 6:30 pm. We think that this is a calculated attempt by the government to silence media institutions and critical voices in the country,” Patricks said.
He criticized the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for its failure to prosecute government officials accused of corruption.
“Why would the justice system not go after those that have been indicted for corruption, and are yet to be prosecuted?” he said.
Patricks said his organization has mobilized Liberians in all political subdivisions of the country and abroad to mobilize on Friday and demand the release of publisher Sieh.
“We have given the government an ultimatum on our before Friday if Rodney Sieh is not free, we’re going to mobilize the young people; we going to mobilize every Liberian in this country. We have already gotten the names of every officials of government, both former and current. We will issue citizen arrest on them. We will be prevailing on the government of Liberia to have them indicted or to have them prosecuted,” Patricks said.
August 24 being Liberia’s Flag Day, Patricks said his group has called on Liberians to gather on Friday, dressed in the colors of their national flag.
“I can tell you August 24 is a big day in the history of this country, and we have instructed our people to buy their flag, to buy everything that has to do with red, white and blue to assemble in their numbers at the Centennial Pavilion where the August 24 program will be held. That would be the beginning of Rosa Parks of this country,” Patricks said.
Attempts to reach Justice Minister Christiana Tah and police commissioner Chris Massaquoi were not successful, but police sources said the police view the case as purely a legal matter.
Former Agriculture Minister J. Chris Toe told VOA the verdict sends a message that no newspaper or publication can tarnish a person’s reputation without sufficient evidence.
Toe said the $1.5 million judgment against FrontPage Africa cannot be compared to the damage the article has done to his reputation.
“That $1.5 million, if it is ever collected, is not going to repair the damage that they have done to me as a professional individual. So, frankly, in terms of the damage that has been done to me, I still feel it (the find) should have been more,” Toe said.
Asked whether he has authorized his lawyers to collect the $1.5 million judgment, Toe said the case is now a judicial matter and no longer in his hands.
“It is the mandate of the Supreme Court. So, it is way beyond me. Any attempt by me would be to subvert or to put a barrier in front of the Supreme Court that their ruling be enforced,” he said.
As things stand, it appears publisher Sieh will remain incarcerated until he pays the $1.5 million libel fine or unless President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf intervenes, as she has done in another court case involving publisher Sieh.
Sieh told VOA that he and his lawyers were in the process of taking their case to the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria.
“We are in the process of bracing ourselves for the worst. In the meantime, our lawyers are in the process of preparing a case to go to the ECOWAS human rights court for an appeal. With the help of the London-based Media Defense Fund, we are taking this matter to the ECOWAS Court,” he said.
Sieh said he has also sent letters to a number of international organizations and leaders, including US President Barack Obama.