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Liberian Newspaper Receives Court Summons Over Reporting

The top portion of an online edition of FrontPage Africa is seen in a screenshot taken from the paper's Facebook page.
The top portion of an online edition of FrontPage Africa is seen in a screenshot taken from the paper's Facebook page.

A judge in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, has ordered the arrest of a newspaper’s managers this week after FrontPage Africa allegedly failed to respond to a summons.

The paper’s publisher and editor-in-chief, Rodney Sieh, told VOA that the summons was delivered Monday when no one was at the paper’s offices, and that it gave managers only 90 minutes’ notice that they were due to meet with a judge.

The summons relates to the investigative outlet’s coverage of former defense minister Brownie Samukai’s conviction in a corruption case. A Supreme Court last month upheld a lower court’s verdict that found Samukai guilty of embezzling millions from the pension fund of Liberia’s armed forces.

Circuit court judge Ousman Feika alleges that FrontPage Africa incorrectly reported his role in presiding over the case.

“I think (Feika’s) issue was the initial case was submitted by his predecessor. That was the only discrepancy. But we did not print any false article against the judge,” Sieh told VOA.

Liberia’s judiciary did not respond to a request for comment sent through its web portal. An email sent to the address listed on its website was returned as undeliverable.

Sieh said that the judge wanted FrontPage Africa’s managers to meet with him to explain their coverage of the trial.

Because of pandemic restrictions, the paper’s staff currently work from home. The first they heard of the summons was when they received the arrest order, Sieh said.

“The only person (in) the office was the security,” Sieh said, adding that the time the meeting was scheduled made it “nearly impossible for anyone to appear in court.”

“I think the judge was very excessive in this decision to have us arrested,” he said. The publisher added that the paper has not arranged legal representation because it has still not officially received the summons.

In a letter to its readers, FrontPage Africa pleaded with Liberia’s chief justice “to ensure that the judicial branch use its power for those who need it the most, and not to muzzle, intimidate or instill fears in members of the Fourth Estate.”

Media rights organizations criticized the court order. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said on social media it was dismayed by the order to arrest the management, and called on the judge to focus on criminals, not journalists who are exposing corruption.

Liberia has a relatively stable media freedom record. The country ranks 98 out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest on the index published by Reporters Without Borders.

The media watchdog has noted that Liberia moved to decriminalize defamation, but that some outlets, including FrontPage Africa, face legal harassment over investigative reporting.

This story originated in VOA’s English to Africa Service.