Liberia Government (Monrovia)

3 September 2013

Liberia: 'Jailed for Journalism' - A Rebuttal

document

Photo: FrontPage Africa
Imprisoned FrontPage Africa's Managing Editor, Rodney Sieh.

Monrovia — In an op-ed recently published in the New York Times, "Jailed for Journalism," Mr. Rodney Sieh attempts to paint a gloomy picture of the prospect of free speech and the practice of journalism in Liberia.

On the same day that Mr. Sieh posted the piece, a lower court, the Office of the Independent Information Commissioner, ruled in favor of a private petitioner's right to information under the Freedom of Information Law passed a few years earlier by the government. Freedom of speech is being experienced as a daily reality in Liberia.

Obviously, Mr. Sieh blames the Liberian government for his imprisonment, and for the unanimous jury award of US$1.5 million which he believes to be excessive. And so, even from his hospital bed, where he is being treated for malaria, a common tropical ailment, and cared for by the government, he has set himself an agenda to berate government's efforts in ensuring the unhindered exercise of free speech, the protection of rights, and the consolidation of the rule of law in our post-conflict country. "Jailed for Journalism" – and we suspect there will be more of such publications – also attempts to draw the government into a public retrial of the issues of law and facts which have been settled by the courts.

The Liberian government is not a party to the judicial proceedings involving Mr. Sieh, and while we feel obligated to set the record straight, we will not be maneuvered into a public retrial of issues of law and facts which have been settled by the courts. Moreover, excessive fines and punishments, which the Liberian Constitution forbids, are legitimate grounds for appeal, even from unanimous jury judgments. Unfortunately, however, publicly citing the inability of the Supreme Court to rule fairly, Mr. Sieh abandoned his appeal process.

Liberian laws provide for the imprisonment of individuals who are unable or unwilling to meet judgments awarded in libel claims. This is why Mr. Sieh has been ordered detained, with all rights and privileges to which he is entitled, under the circumstances, upheld and protected by the government.

Following the total collapse of the State into lawlessness, Liberia is striving to build a functional democracy. Only a few days ago, the country celebrated ten years of peace and its arduous journey from the past. In eight of those years, under the current administration, an ambitiously transformative agenda, among many achievements, has seen a rekindling of hope in a better future for the country and its people, including the protection of rights, the preservation of freedoms, and the consolidation of the rule of law.

With the implementation of reform laws such as the Freedom of Information Law, rated amongst the best in the world, the country is experiencing a changed culture in expressions, with an independent media landscape of more than 30 newspapers and online services, 19 radio stations, and 4 television stations, as well as 45 community radio stations operating across the rural areas. Previous constraints imposed by the State on the independent press have been relaxed, deliberately ignored or removed. The country has also acceded to the Table Mountain Declaration – with our President being only the second one to do so on the African Continent – and has taken advanced steps to decriminalize media-related offenses.

The truth also is that while the space has been expanded and the environment improved for the exercise of free speech in the country, affording multiple voices, at home and abroad, which were previously shut out, to now be loudly and clearly heard, this new media explosion is in urgent need of training for journalists, a decent self-regulatory mechanism, as well as strong commitments to best practice, professional care and ethical standards.

Of course, our courts are not where we wish them to be, and our laws are being reviewed by an independent commission of eminent jurists and other Liberians. When they complete their task, proposed changes will be regularly put to the people for their consideration, wherever applicable, while those requiring legislation will be presented to their representatives. However, like the U.S. government, Liberia has a strict separation of powers doctrine which does not permit the Executive Branch, over which the President presides – nor does this President ever wish – to interfere in judicial processes.

And so, when Mr. Sieh writes that the President's advisers tell the courts how to rule, and, accordingly, implies complicity on the part of the government to silence his FrontPageAfrica, nothing could be further from the truth. How would Mr. Sieh explain the many losses the government has sustained from the courts, the most recent involving the Liberia Maritime Authority, where the same trial court awarded more than US$1  million against that government entity?

Always aware that the alternative is a frightening return to the country's lawless past, the Liberian government has and will continue to take steps to lift the courts into the fair venues for the settlement of private disputes, civil disagreements or criminal offenses. For instance, a new Jury Law has been enacted to improve the timely and just settlement of matters before the courts, and a number of administrative measures and ethical standards prescribed and enforced on officers of the courts.

Finally, contrary to the painted picture of doom in "Jailed for Journalism," Liberians are hopeful, a culture of rule of law is being deepened, and freedoms, including of speech and worship, preserved. We will not reverse course.

Like many Liberians, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has fought and suffered for free speech all her life, and continues to inspire the nation toward more freedoms, increased tolerance and the enjoyment of rights. These achievements, along with ten years of living together in peace, are precious to Liberians. We will not sacrifice it for anything.

In an op-ed recently published in the New York Times, "Jailed for Journalism," Mr. Rodney Sieh attempts to paint a gloomy picture of the prospect of free speech and the practice of journalism in Liberia.

On the same day that Mr. Sieh posted the piece, a lower court, the Office of the Independent Information Commissioner, ruled in favor of a private petitioner's right to information under the Freedom of Information Law passed a few years earlier by the government. Freedom of speech is being experienced as a daily reality in Liberia.

Obviously, Mr. Sieh blames the Liberian government for his imprisonment, and for the unanimous jury award of US$1.5 million which he believes to be excessive. And so, even from his hospital bed, where he is being treated for malaria, a common tropical ailment, and cared for by the government, he has set himself an agenda to berate government's efforts in ensuring the unhindered exercise of free speech, the protection of rights, and the consolidation of the rule of law in our post-conflict country. "Jailed for Journalism" – and we suspect there will be more of such publications – also attempts to draw the government into a public retrial of the issues of law and facts which have been settled by the courts.

The Liberian government is not a party to the judicial proceedings involving Mr. Sieh, and while we feel obligated to set the record straight, we will not be maneuvered into a public retrial of issues of law and facts which have been settled by the courts. Moreover, excessive fines and punishments, which the Liberian Constitution forbids, are legitimate grounds for appeal, even from unanimous jury judgments. Unfortunately, however, publicly citing the inability of the Supreme Court to rule fairly, Mr. Sieh abandoned his appeal process.

Liberian laws provide for the imprisonment of individuals who are unable or unwilling to meet judgments awarded in libel claims. This is why Mr. Sieh has been ordered detained, with all rights and privileges to which he is entitled, under the circumstances, upheld and protected by the government.

Following the total collapse of the State into lawlessness, Liberia is striving to build a functional democracy. Only a few days ago, the country celebrated ten years of peace and its arduous journey from the past. In eight of those years, under the current administration, an ambitiously transformative agenda, among many achievements, has seen a rekindling of hope in a better future for the country and its people, including the protection of rights, the preservation of freedoms, and the consolidation of the rule of law.

With the implementation of reform laws such as the Freedom of Information Law, rated amongst the best in the world, the country is experiencing a changed culture in expressions, with an independent media landscape of more than 30 newspapers and online services, 19 radio stations, and 4 television stations, as well as 45 community radio stations operating across the rural areas. Previous constraints imposed by the State on the independent press have been relaxed, deliberately ignored or removed. The country has also acceded to the Table Mountain Declaration – with our President being only the second one to do so on the African Continent – and has taken advanced steps to decriminalize media-related offenses.

The truth also is that while the space has been expanded and the environment improved for the exercise of free speech in the country, affording multiple voices, at home and abroad, which were previously shut out, to now be loudly and clearly heard, this new media explosion is in urgent need of training for journalists, a decent self-regulatory mechanism, as well as strong commitments to best practice, professional care and ethical standards.

Of course, our courts are not where we wish them to be, and our laws are being reviewed by an independent commission of eminent jurists and other Liberians. When they complete their task, proposed changes will be regularly put to the people for their consideration, wherever applicable, while those requiring legislation will be presented to their representatives. However, like the U.S. government, Liberia has a strict separation of powers doctrine which does not permit the Executive Branch, over which the President presides – nor does this President ever wish – to interfere in judicial processes.

And so, when Mr. Sieh writes that the President's advisers tell the courts how to rule, and, accordingly, implies complicity on the part of the government to silence his FrontPageAfrica, nothing could be further from the truth. How would Mr. Sieh explain the many losses the government has sustained from the courts, the most recent involving the Liberia Maritime Authority, where the same trial court awarded more than US$1  million against that government entity?

Always aware that the alternative is a frightening return to the country's lawless past, the Liberian government has and will continue to take steps to lift the courts into the fair venues for the settlement of private disputes, civil disagreements or criminal offenses. For instance, a new Jury Law has been enacted to improve the timely and just settlement of matters before the courts, and a number of administrative measures and ethical standards prescribed and enforced on officers of the courts.

Finally, contrary to the painted picture of doom in "Jailed for Journalism," Liberians are hopeful, a culture of rule of law is being deepened, and freedoms, including of speech and worship, preserved. We will not reverse course.

Like many Liberians, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has fought and suffered for free speech all her life, and continues to inspire the nation toward more freedoms, increased tolerance and the enjoyment of rights. These achievements, along with ten years of living together in peace, are precious to Liberians. We will not sacrifice it for anything.

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