Abuja — The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemns moves by Liberian authorities to shut down FrontPageAfrica and jail its publisher for not paying US$1.5 million in damages related to a libel conviction.
Police shut down the offices citing a court order, pictured on FrontPageAfrica's website, that said the offices would remain closed and publication cease until the damages are paid in full. The website is registered in the United States, not in Liberia, and is still publishing news.
FrontPageAfrica's publisher, Rodney Sieh, was jailed on Wednesday after telling a judge that he was unable to pay the damages owed to Chris Toe, a former government minister who had sued Sieh, FrontPageAfrica, and Samwar Fallah, a reporter for the paper, for libel three years ago. Toe sued them for US$2 million in February 2010 after the paper reported the findings of an official government inquiry that accused Toe of corruption, according to news reports. Toe resigned from his government position and was never charged. In his complaint, he said FrontPageAfrica's reports were libelous because he was never convicted in court. He has denied all of the allegations against him.
In February 2011, a court convicted Sieh, FrontPageAfrica, and Fallah and ordered them to pay a total of US$1.5 million in damages and US$90,000 in court costs, Sieh told CPJ before he was jailed. Sieh told CPJ that FrontPageAfrica could not afford to pay the damages. Local journalists told CPJ that the heavy fine imposed was a deliberate ploy to shut down the critical newspaper. FrontPageAfrica has repeatedly reported on corruption, official misconduct, and human rights abuses.
Information Minister Lewis Brown said that Sieh had chosen to go to jail rather than "abide by the court's ruling to pay," according to news reports. Sieh has refused to eat or drink water since he was jailed, his colleagues told CPJ. He will remain jailed until he pays the damages, according to news reports.
"The excessive damages levied against FrontPageAfrica have all along been a transparent ploy to shut down a newspaper that has gained international acclaim for exposing corruption and official misconduct at the highest levels of the Liberian government," said Peter Nkanga, CPJ's West Africa Consultant. "Rodney Sieh does not deserve to spend a moment in prison, but if authorities would concentrate on investigating and prosecuting corruption allegations, they might find someone who does."
In 2011, the court denied FrontPageAfrica's motion for retrial despite reports of the jury being bribed. Liberia's judiciary ranks as the third most corrupt Liberian government institution, according to Transparency International's 2013 Global Corruption Barometer. Liberia has a history of silencing press critics through libel lawsuits, according to CPJ research.
On July 16, 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the judgment against FrontPageAfrica, saying that the appeal process had not been completed, Koffi Woods, lawyer for FrontPageAfrica, told CPJ. Under Liberian law, an appeal can only be heard after the defendant pays a bond of 2 percent of the total amount, Woods said. The lawyer said Sieh did not have the money for the bond.
Authorities have not been able to find Fallah, who has resigned from FrontPageAfrica.
FrontPageAfrica said the newspaper is appealing the case before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice. The ECOWAS Community Court, which has jurisdiction to hear individual complaints of alleged human rights violations, is the judicial arm of the Nigeria-based Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The court's decisions are legally binding on ECOWAS member states, which include Liberia.