The Press Union of Liberia has condemned as “repressive” the seizure of FrontPage Africa newspaper and the continued imprisonment of its publisher and editor-in-chief Rodney Sieh.
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling last month that the paper libeled then Agriculture Minister J. Chris Toe and ordered FrontPage Africa to pay $1.5 million in damages.
On August 21, authorities arrested publisher Sieh after he said his paper could not afford to pay the fine. Authorities also shut down the paper on Friday, August 23rd.
Meanwhile, there are unconfirmed reports that publisher Sieh has begun a hunger strike to protest his continued imprisonment.
Press Union of Liberia President Peter Quaqua said that while the Union remains an advocate for the rule of law, it believes the nature of the court’s decision is intended to punish Mr. Sieh rather than repair the alleged damage to Mr. Toe’s reputation.
Quaqua said the Liberian government must step in to free publisher Sieh from further detention.
“And if that is the issue for which he now bears the punishment to spend virtually life time in prison, I think it is too much for our courts to do to anybody. So we’re calling on the court, we’re calling on the government to exercise some very high degree of wisdom to release this man (Sieh) from further detention,” he said.
In a press release Sunday, the Press Union said the Liberian government should have done more to investigate the circumstances under which Toe resigned as agriculture minister instead of punishing journalist Sieh for calling public attention to the story.
Quaqua said the Press Union is not calling on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf per se to intervene in the case but rather the Liberian government as a collective body, including the courts.
“We’re not calling on the president. When we say government, this is a collective leadership of our country. We think the question that comes into our country today should be answered by the government, and the government spokesperson happens to be the president and those in authority,” Quaqua said.
Many legal analysts say FrontPage Africa should have encouraged its lawyers to make representation in the Supreme Court when the case was brought before the court. Instead, Sieh chose not to on the grounds that the court was biased against him.
Quaqua said the Press Union remains an advocate for the rule of law and will at all times encourage journalists who come in conflict with the law to submit to the legal system. But he said the union will not support the outcome of a court hearing that violates the basic rights of Liberians.
“The Supreme Court feels angered by this, and I think no journalist, no citizen should go to that length to disrespect the Supreme Court. But my argument with the court is that if Rodney did disrespect them in a particular matter, he should be punished for that but don’t give the verdict somebody else that really doesn’t deserve the argument that we are making today,” Quaqua said.
He said Sieh should apologize to the court, if he wants to, but not to anyone else.
Quaqua could not confirm or deny Sieh’s reported hunger strike, but he said it would be an unfortunate development.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned Liberian authorities’ shut down of FrontPage Africa and the imprisonment of Sieh.
Meanwhile, FrontPage Africa editor Wade Williams told VOA Sunday that the paper, which was shut down Friday, will publish a protest edition on Monday, August 26.
Agriculture Minister Toe sued FrontPage Africa in 2010 after the paper reported what it said were the findings of an official government investigation which accused Toe of corruption.
Toe resigned as agriculture minister and was never charged. In his complaint to the court, Toe said FrontPage Africa libeled him because he was never convicted.