The publisher and editor-in-chief of Liberia’s FrontPage Africa online and newspaper was released late Sunday night from jail where he had been since Saturday.
Liberia’s Supreme Court sentenced Rodney Sieh for 30 days on contempt charges for publishing a reader’s letter to the editor in its 25th October 2010 print edition critical of one of the court's justices.
The court said it would reduce Mr. Sieh’s sentence from 30 to 15 days if he agreed to pay $300 and apologize to the court.
Sieh told VOA soon after his release from prison that there were several behind-the-scene negotiations that led to his release.
“The bottom line is the President had initially wanted to get me out on clemency, but I understand that her advisors were against it. So the Supreme Court wanted me to give them an apology. First, they said (it was) for the way I behaved in court during my appearing there last year. I obliged and said I was sorry if I, in any way disrespected the institution, not the individuals on the bench but the institution as a whole,” he said.
But, Sieh said he refused to apologize for publishing the reader's letter, as the justices had demanded.
“I only apologized for my demeanor in the court because I called the Chief Justice’s handling of the case dictatorial. I think that offended them, and that was the basis for which the apology was made,” Sieh said.
He said he also paid the $300 fine based on the advice of his lawyer.
Press Union of Liberia President Peter Quaqua told VOA that, while his organization respects the wisdom of the Supreme Court, no Liberian should go to jail “for expressing their thoughts” as guaranteed under the Liberian constitution.
He also called for a review of Liberia’s contempt law because, he said, it hurts the exercise of due process where the court is acting as a complainant, judge and jury at the same time.
Sieh said he agreed with the comments of the Press Union president.
“That’s why we limited our apology to just our demeanor in court because we want to protect our writers and our readers and contributors to our website and the newspaper. The issue here was that we wanted to make sure that we kept our credibility intact, and we did not sway or bow to pressure,” Sieh said.
Sieh said he does not feel he disappointed his colleagues for his apology.
“I don’t think I disappointed them. I think I’m disappointed in the fact that I had to go through this ordeal in a country where we [Liberians] are supposed to be protected by freedom of speech,” Sieh said.
He described conditions in the Monrovia Central Prison as deplorable.
“The conditions there are very horrible, very poor. They [prisoners] are supposed to have three meals a deal a day, but when I was there, there was only one meal a day. The place is very stench (smelly); where you sleep is next door to the toilet. The while I was in the prison I had to cover my nose with a wet towel when I was sleeping just so that I cannot inhale the smell of the place. The other prisoners there were complaining about being in jail for a year without a trial,” Sieh said.