The publisher of the Liberian-based FrontPage Africa print and online newspaper has vowed to fight a $1.5 million verdict against his publications for libelling then-Agriculture Minister J. Christopher Toe.
A lower court in 2010 found the paper guilty of libelling Toe when it said the paper failed to substantiate its claims the minister diverted millions of dollars intended to fight an army worm infestation in two regions of Liberia.
The Liberian Supreme Court ruled last month that the publication should pay the fine. Last Friday, a lower court judge cleared the way for Toe's lawyers to begin enforcing the judgment.
The former agriculture minister said the verdict sends a message that individuals have rights and that no newspaper or publication can tarnish a person's reputation without sufficient evidence. But, publisher Rodney Sieh said his lawyers are taking the case to the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria.
"We are in the process of bracing ourselves for the worst. In the meantime, our lawyers are in the process of preparing a case to go to the ECOWAS human rights court for an appeal. With the help of the London-based Media Defense Fund, we are taking this matter to the ECOWAS Court," he said.
Sieh said he has also sent letters to a number of international organizations and leaders, including US President Barack Obama.
"As of Monday, today, we are in the process also of submitting a letter accompanied by all of the documents in our case, including a letter from president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, requesting the Auditor General to investigate Dr. Chris Toe. We are going to fight this thing all the way to the end," he said.
Sieh said he and his staff are gearing up for the eventual shutdown of the paper because there is no way they can afford to pay a $1.5 million fine. He denied FrontPage failed to substantiate its claims before the lower court and the Supreme Court.
"In any libel case, the truth is the best defense, and we believe that we presented strong evidence to support our story during the trial against an alleged corrupt official whose only defense in the trial was that the government had not prosecuted him for corruption," Sieh said.
The former agriculture minister said the verdict sends a message that individuals have rights under Liberian laws, and that no newspaper or publication can tarnish a person's reputation without sufficient evidence.
"Individuals, as well as groups of individuals, have constitutional rights, and that's why I went to court, that my rights as an individual were violated by both the online and print editions of FrontPage, and by two individuals who work for both the online and print editions. So, it's not frankly a matter of how I feel about the award. If there is any issue, it is that justice has prevailed," he said.
Toe denied the $1.5 million judgment was intended to shut down FrontPage Africa and stifle freedom of the press in Liberia.
"No newspaper, whether in any of the Western democracies or any part of the world, does not have the right to go out and tarnish the integrity and the reputation of an individual who also has rights that are on par with press freedom. So, press freedom does not give any newspaper the right basically to go and lie on any individual," Toe said.
Toe said the $1.5 million judgment against FrontPage Africa cannot be compared to the damage the article has done to his reputation.
"That $1.5 million, if it is ever collected, is not going to repair the damage that they have done to me as a professional individual. So, frankly, in terms of the damage that has been done to me, I still feel it (the find) should have been more," Toe said.
He accused FrontPage Africa of engaging in an orchestrated campaign to impugn his character, both while in government and as private citizen.
"So, I don't think it's an attack on the press or an attempt to silence the press. The only body, I believe, that has the authority or the power to silence the press might be the government," he said.
Toe said FrontPage Africa did not substantiate its "fabrications" against him before either the lower court or the Supreme Court of Liberia, despite announcing that it would appeal the lower court verdict.
"So, I really do not see how it can be interpreted by anyone, by any organization at the national or international level that this is an attempt to silence the press.
There's a plethora of newspapers. I don't see anyone taking them to court or trying to close them down. FrontPage Africa has to be made to pay for the consequences of their violation of my rights as an individual," he said.
Asked whether he has authorized his lawyers to collect the $1.5 million judgment, Toe said the case is now a judicial matter and no longer in his hands.
"It is the mandate of the Supreme Court. So, it is way beyond me. Any attempt by me would be to subvert or to put a barrier in front of the Supreme Court that their ruling be enforced," he said.