The editor-in-chief and publisher of Liberia’s independent Frontpage Africa newspaper and online magazine told VOA he and his lawyers will appeal a one-point-five million dollar libel verdict that a Monrovia jury awarded to former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe.
The suit stems from articles published in 2009, in which the publication accused Toe of diverting and misapplying millions of dollars given as compensation to victims of a caterpillar worm invasion in Bong County, and ex-combatants working on rubber plantations.
Frontpage Africa publisher Rodney Sieh said the plaintiff’s lawyers tampered with the jury.
“For me, I wasn’t all that surprised because, a week before the jury came out with the verdict, when I arrived at the court room, I saw one of the lawyers for the plaintiff, the former agriculture minister, Dr. Chris Toe, talking with one of the jurors on the panel. So, when my lawyer came into the courtroom, I told him and, when the judge was notified, the juror was dismissed from the case. So, when they (jurors) came up with that verdict, I was not very much surprised because I knew that there was something sinister going on. So, we are going to file an appeal for retrial,” he said.
Much has been written and said about the Liberian jury system. The chairperson of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, Frances Johnson-Morris, is quoted as saying that the Liberian jury system is very corrupt.
Johnson-Morris, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, reportedly told a forum in Monrovia that Liberian jurors are susceptible to bribery and other forms of corruption because of the country’s abject poverty.
“They can receive bribes and close their eyes to evidence and to the law and set people free,” Johnson-Morris was quoted as saying.
She said the Liberian government lost many important cases not because of weakness on the part of the prosecuting arm of government, but because of jury tampering, something she said is a byproduct of poverty.
Sieh said he and his lawyers have “strong evidence” that the jurors in his case were tampered with.
Sieh was jailed last month by the Supreme Court for nearly 48 hours on contempt charges after he published a letter to the editor that was critical of one of the justices of the Court and, in the process, he accused the Chief Justice of being dictatorial.
He said the use of libel against journalists and publications is a new trend throughout Africa.
“If you noticed, the Committee to Protect Journalists has just released a report this week saying that the rise in investigative journalism has led to African governments cracking down on journalists, particularly those reporting on the provision of basic services and the use of public money. So, Liberia is no exception,” he said.
Sieh said he and his lawyers are confident they can win on appeal because the presiding judge did not seem pleased with the verdict of the jury. But, he is skeptical about his chances if the case ends up in the Supreme Court.
“In a fair world, I would put my lucky money on the fact that I am going to appeal to the Supreme Court. But, judging from my previous run in (encounter) with the Supreme Court judges, I seriously doubt that I will find justice in that chamber,” Sieh said.
Sieh described as “a sad commentary” that Liberia, after 14 years of civil war, still remained entrenched in what he called the dark ages of intimidation, oppression, and the muscling of the media.
“The only difference is the guns and detention and torture and death have been cleverly replaced by the new muscling of the press called libel. Liberia risks a serious repercussion if it doesn’t get its act together on this bribery issue because now people are going to be afraid. Newspapers will be afraid to publish corruption stories involving corrupt officials,” Sieh said.