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Rodney Sieh: Hero or Villain?

By Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh      Rodney Sieh

 

The first time Front Page Africa’s Rodney Sieh was ever arrested and jailed by the Sirleaf administration was in 2011, after he published a reader’s letter to the editor in his newspaper that appeared to be critical of one of the justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia.

I wrote an article at the time on this page defending Sieh’s constitutional right to publish (and other Liberian pro-democracy groups wrote as well) demanding Sieh’s immediate and unconditional release because it is wrong to intimidate, harass, or jail anybody, let alone a journalist for doing his job supposedly protected by the nation’s constitution. (See The Liberian Dialogue 2011 picture of Rodney Sieh, right)

Hours after Sieh was given that 30-day prison sentence in Monrovia in 2011, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, aware of the negative publicity the Supreme Court’s kangaroo decision would have on her then-image-conscious administration, backtracked and requests that Sieh be released from prison.

Sirleaf did not only take credit for Sieh’s release; she proudly applauded her administration’s distinction as not having a journalist or {opposition} politician in jail during her presidential tenure.

That 2011 incident emboldened Rodney Sieh and his Front Page Africa’s brand of investigative journalism, which some viewed as reckless, sensationalistic, dramatic, not credible and short on facts; but exists only to make daily headlines and name for Sieh and his newspaper.

However, as the Sirleaf administration continually fumbled with leadership and governance issues, Sieh and Front Page Africa saw a niche to exploit; and dug deeply and aggressively into alleged corrupt activities in government, which certainly did not sit well with the administration.

Sieh’s incarceration catapulted him to a place of national prominence and made him a local cult hero, and also hero to some diaspora Liberian ‘progressives’ who embraced him as one of their own, as his newspaper uncovered what they believed are corruption and official malfeasance in the Sirleaf administration.

Interestingly in 2013, Rodney Sieh, once again is the center of the story.

Founder and managing editor Sieh was arrested, convicted and taken into custody for libeling former agriculture minister J. Chris Toe, Ph.D. Toe would later resign his agriculture minister post.

The Liberian Supreme Court ruled that Sieh must pay Mr. Toe US $1.6 million for muddling his name, and also ruled that Front Page Africa be closed down until the amount is paid in full.

Mr. Sieh, according to published reports yet to be substantiated hired legal counsels to represent him; but his counsels dropped his case for unknown reasons. However, Sieh did not show any remorse but told the court that he will not (understandably) pay the fine, and prefers to rather go to jail.

It is a fact that Rodney Sieh is unable to pay such humongous fine because he does not have that kind of money of what he has been accused of, which does not fit the crime, and the amount is unheard of in the annals of Liberian history – for one Liberian to sue another Liberian and be fined such huge amount by a court.

Had Sieh shown remorse without hiding behind press freedom, perhaps the court and Liberians of all creeds would have overwhelmingly sided with him out of sympathy.

It does not look good for Sieh, press freedom advocates and the Sirleaf administration, as the various groups hold firmly to their respective positions rather than find amicable way out, even though there is ample evidence that either group overplayed their card.

With an overwhelming history of oppression and the crushing of press freedom by past administrations in the Liberian society clearly evident, democracy advocacy groups, mindful of the nation’s oppressive pasts overreacted; and the Sirleaf administration did the same to the consternation of its most vocal critics.

The Sirleaf administration should have threaded gingerly in its pursuit of the popular and controversial Sieh, who made his name in his newspaper as an anti-corruption crusader, and champion of open government and press freedom.

Making matter worse is the administration’s miscalculations when it shut down Front Page Africa; coupled with an exorbitant $1.6 million fine, which reinforced popular sentiments that the Sirleaf administration, after all, was after Rodney Sieh and Front Page Africa from day one for its aggressive anti-government reporting.

The question now is why will a government that often distinguishes itself as being tolerant of press freedom closed down a newspaper; and its founder and managing editor sent to prison for libel, react in such a way?

Why not just send Sieh to prison (if he’s found guilty of libel), fine him a reasonable amount, and then leave the newspaper open and operating?

By shutting down Front Page Africa and leaving the fine to the disproportionate $1.6 million opens the floodgates of criticism, that the government is silencing Rodney Sieh because of his dogged pursuit of the Sirleaf administration.

However, my colleagues – the pro-democracy and press freedom advocates, blinded by their natural hatred of Sirleaf and the Sirleaf administration, refused to investigate, embrace and champion the rights of all the parties in this matter.

These individuals have already taken sides when they started criticizing the administration, and writing petitions and press releases in online journals and newspapers demanding the immediate release of Rodney Sieh, and the opening of the Front Page Africa newspaper.

By looking at the issue at stake only from a freedom of the press perspective and not from a slanderous perspective, and seeing Rodney Sieh as a victim and hero undermines the notion of openness, fairness, accuracy and the willingness to be an advocate for all.

However, a forgotten party in this case is the former agriculture minister, J. Chris Toe, who was reportedly defamed, according to the court, by Sieh and his Front Page Africa newspaper.

Item: Do we care that this man (J. Chris Toe’s) character has been maligned?

Item: Are we concerned that we are seen as bias and unfair to the other side, especially when we ignore the facts and evidence in this case because of our dislike of the current government?

Item: Even though we see ourselves as political activists, do we also care anything about accuracy in the media?

While it is true that the Liberian judicial system is on trial because it is not the most neutral, independent and uncorrupt system in the world, this case is also about journalistic integrity and responsible journalism.

Now if pro-democracy activists, Sieh and his supporters want us all to work together – much harder to find ways to improve the legal system, governance, journalism and the integrity of journalists, than we can have a genuine conversation in order to embark on those projects, so as not to revisit the unfortunate drama that has unfolded before our naked eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Category: Editorial, Featured Articles, News Headlines

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