Monrovia — The fate of Frontpage Africa editor Rodney Sieh hit the Red Sea checkpoint since he was remanded to prison for his inability to pay US$1.5m damages to the reputation of former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe was awarded by a lower court which adjudicated the case. Many legal and political analysts were alarmed by the court's penalty, terming it unconstitutional and a violation of international conventions and protocols of which the country is a signatory. All needed the review and wisdom of the Supreme Court, which the defense lawyers of the imprisoned journalist could hardly could since their client damned the highest court and walked out, claiming he had no confidence in its wisdom and fairness. Hopes have largely relied on massive international pressure for Sieh's release, but as the editor's health deteriorates and Government sought to do something turns its face on the other side, many retired to Providence until the “prisoner of conscience” himself lifted the rod and stretched it over the Red Sea. Will he cross over? This is the big question The Analyst explores in this report.
Some beams of light appear to be flashing over the impasse that otherwise would have kept Rodney Sieh, Publisher of the Frontpageafrica newspaper, behind bars for uncertainly protracted period. Sieh has had bad blood with the country's high court which has a key role to play in vetting the decision of the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court that found him guilty and remanded to jail for failing to pay US$1.5m to Chris Toe who had petitioned the lower court for damages to his reputation.
The journalist, now sojourning in prison, has tendered an apology to the country's last arbiter of justice, saying that in the last few weeks, he was confronted with concerns for blatantly disrespecting the Supreme Court and by extension the legal community of Liberia.
“The preponderance of this new suggests my disregard for the supremacy of the court in ensuring respect for the rule of law,” Sieh wrote in a letter which continued: “While I was at times guided by my professional instincts and responsibilities, I realize that I may have crossed the boundaries of deference to the court to the court and may have put the reputation of the court in a unfavorable view with my reading audience.”
The Frontpageafrica newspaper editor further wrote: “Whatever my personal struggle, I greatly apologize for placing the court and the integrity of the judiciary at risk. I regret this development and perception and reassure the Supreme Court of my fullest support and cooperation in advancing respect for the rule of law in our country.”
Certainly, the summersault of Frontpapageafrica editor, who had reportedly been bellicose in his approach to the Supreme Court, is presumed widely to pave the way for the continuation of the case, which has so far led to his imprisonment over a month now.
Though Sieh's apology is not directed at the main subject of his quagmire, former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe, who had sued the newspaper editor for libel, and has been requesting an open apology for the editor's freedom from jail and the payment of US$1.5m, it is believed in some quarters that the move by Sieh opens wider the opportunity for the public to see the conclusive navigation of the judicial process over the case.
The imprisonment of Sieh came when he stated his inability to pay US$1.5m which the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court had awarded Chris Toe after a controversial jury verdict that Sieh was guilty of libel charges brought against him. But the lawyers of the imprisoned journalist had not had the gut to pursue and hear the opinion of the Supreme Court because their client (Sieh) had been embroiled in brouhaha with the high court which he declared not impartial and not competent to do something about the libel charge against him.
Legal and political commentators are now saying the Sieh apology has created the space for lawyers of the jailed journalist to contest and perhaps turn over the judgment of the lower court before the Supreme Court.
Other pundits see the apology differently, saying invariably that he should have been man enough to stand by his stance against the Liberian judiciary system which he had dubbed corrupt and inept and unable to dispense impartial justice or judgment in his libel saga.
According to these pundits the Frontpageafrica editor was sober and not pressed by anyone other than himself when he challenged the integrity of the Supreme Court and the Judiciary, and needed to have given time and chance to mounting national and international pressure for his unconditional release which they believed was inevitable.
By his apology, the pundits say, Sieh demonstrates a pretended submission to the legal system that he does not believe. As one pundit put it, “Sieh is apologizing because his physical feelings—his sensitivity to horrors of prison conditions cannot permit him to follow his inborn and professional convictions. And he forgot that these are conditions any good revolutionary must experience.”
Apology's Wider Opportunities
When the Supreme Court finally accepts Sieh's apology, which many believe it would do, issues that have been clogged by the bad blood between the journalist and the Court will be reviewed and put back on the legal burner.
Defense lawyers and other pundits had long argued against the constitutionality and legality of the judgment and sentence inflicted upon Sieh by the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court.
One of the issues raised and which are expected to feature at the Supreme Court is the penalty of US$1.5 million dollars, a sum believed to be more than three hundred times the annual budget of the Frontpageafrica required by the Lower Court to be paid. Article 21 of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia prohibits "excessive" punishment. The penalty entails that Rodney Sieh, by analysts' calculation, will remain in prison for more than 5,000; something believed to amount to debt bondage also prohibited by the Constitution.
Others are arguing that the Lower Court erred in resting its verdict on the preponderance of evidence rather than libel law of “actual malice” which is needed to be proven beyond all reasonable doubts. Actual malice is the publishing of materials knowing full well that what is published is false.
Yet still, there are others who say instead of the Lower Court holding Frongpageafrica for defaming and injuring the character of Chris Toe, it should rather hold Auditor General John Morlu and the General Auditing Commission which published the audit report which the newspaper lifted in its news stories and became the center of the libel suit.
In his recent reaction to the lower court verdict and the subsequent imprisonment of journalist Sieh, Morlu wrote that the facts of his audit were not in dispute, adding: “FrontpageAfrica relied on GAC reports, which are official government reports. FrontpageAfrica's Rodney Sieh should be released and the matter reverted to status quo: Between GAC and its Government. Why punish a man for a Government report?”