The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the World Editors Forum have urged Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is visiting India, to stand by her commitment towards ensuring freedom of the Press and repealing criminal defamation laws. Ms. Sirleaf received the India Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development here on Thursday.
In a letter to the Liberian President, who is also a Nobel Laureate, WAN-IFRA, a global organisation of the world’s newspapers and news publishers, has called for the release of Managing Editor of FrontPageAfrica Rodney Sieh from a prison in Liberia. Mr. Sieh has been on a hunger strike to protest against his imprisonment and the $1.5 million libel judgment against him.
In July 2012, President Sirleaf became the second African head-of-state to sign the Declaration of Table Mountain, a continent-wide campaign that seeks the repeal of “insult and criminal defamation laws.”
Even as the Liberian government has maintained it has no role to play in the imprisonment, the WAN-IFRA referred to Mr. Sieh’s imprisonment as “disrepute to the spirit of the Declaration” as well as of the pledges made by Ms. Sirleaf and her government to make Liberia freer and more accountable.
Jerolinmek Piah, Press Secretary to Ms. Sirleaf, told The Hindu that the government has no role to play in Mr. Sieh’s arrest and the closure of the newspaper. He said the action against the editor and the newspaper was based on a complaint filed by an individual. “It is a libel matter between a journalist and an individual not the government,” he said.
According to WAN-IFRA, Mr. Sieh was jailed on August 21, following his inability to pay $1.5 million fine imposed in a Supreme Court ruling convicting him for libel. Reports say Mr. Sieh has since been hospitalised after beginning a hunger strike to protest his detention.
“The FrontPageAfrica in 2010 reported the findings of an official government inquiry that accused the former Minister of Agriculture, J. Chris Toe, of corruption. Mr. Toe resigned from his position but was never charged. We are deeply concerned that the imposition of such a heavy fine was a deliberate attempt to silence a critical media outlet. FrontPageAfrica has repeatedly reported on corruption, official misconduct, and human rights abuses. We are also troubled by unconfirmed reports of jury tampering and call for an urgent review of Mr. Sieh’s case,” the letter to Ms. Sirleaf states.
WAN-IFRA has asserted that the “excessive” libel damages imposed on Mr. Sieh for reporting the findings of an official government inquiry into corruption, his imprisonment, and the closure of an “important independent newspaper” are all serious setbacks to press freedom and the fight against corruption in Liberia.
“We respectfully remind you of your words from that day: ‘We are signing the Declaration of Table Mountain in order to underscore our message loud and clear, to advance a free press and freedom of expression, not just in Liberia but the entire continent of Africa,’” the letter goes on to say.