MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberia has rejected calls to release an editor jailed last month for reporting on the results of an official graft investigation.
The case also shines a spotlight on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose government four years ago filed a lawsuit that led to another newspaper's closure.
Rodney Sieh, publisher and editor of the independent newspaper FrontPageAfrica, was arrested Aug. 21 after failing to pay $1.5 million in damages awarded to former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe. In 2010, Sieh's newspaper published several articles about findings by the country's anti-corruption watchdog that the ministry could not account for millions of dollars.
Two days after Sieh's arrest, law enforcement closed the paper's offices. Sieh then launched a hunger strike and was hospitalized last week with malaria.
Despite calls by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders for Sirleaf to intervene on Sieh's behalf, Liberia's information ministry said Tuesday that the verdict against Sieh should be respected.
Sirleaf last year became the second African head of state to sign the Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls for the Africa-wide repeal of defamation and "insult" laws.
Yet multiple libel convictions have been handed down since she came to power in 2006, and no newspaper has won a libel case during that time, according to the Press Union of Liberia. A lawsuit filed by Sirleaf's office in 2009 for $5 million against the New Broom newspaper led to that paper's closure.
Former agriculture minister Toe has denied allegations of wrongdoing, though he resigned from his position and was never put on trial. He has said the newspaper's reports were libelous because he was never convicted, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In a letter to Sirleaf on Monday, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said the case against Sieh was flawed and asked the government to facilitate his release.
"We believe the punishment meted out against FrontPageAfrica is disproportionate and that the case is tainted with political undertones," Simon said.
The $1.5 million damages award is more than 30 times the yearly operating budget for FrontPageAfrica, according to Sieh, who in a New York Times op-ed over the weekend said the case was a clear attempt to silence Liberia's most aggressive and ambitious newspaper.
Sieh also wrote that two jurors claimed they were paid to find him guilty.
"So long as Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf's advisers can tell the courts how to rule, the government will continue to intimidate the press at home while maintaining an undeserved positive image abroad," Sieh said.
The information ministry faulted Sieh for not appealing the verdict, though Sieh has said the process is prohibitively expensive.
Sirleaf has not addressed the case herself. Wade Williams, an editor at FrontPageAfrica who has been running the paper in Sieh's absence, said she suspected many government officials would be happy to see the paper shut down.
"They're all using their influence to get to Rodney, punishing him for exposing them over the years," Williams said. "That's why (Sirleaf's) not saying anything. She herself has not been happy with FrontPageAfrica for some time now."
The newspaper has continued to publish online even though its offices remain closed and an important source of revenue – print advertisements – has dried up.
Toe, the former agriculture minister who brought the libel case, said Tuesday he had been "injured" by FrontPageAfrica's coverage but that he was open to talks with Sieh's lawyers.
Williams, however, said she questioned what purpose the talks might serve. "I don't think there should be any negotiation on the part of a newspaper reporting on public officials just to appease them," she said. "It will be a sign of weakness on the part of the media."
Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.