By John H.T. Stewart
Slowly the time is rolling into a month since Rodney Sieh began his ordeal behind bars at the Monrovia Central Prison on charges of libel. Developments unfolding in the wake of his incarceration suggest that an increasingly embarrassing situation is fast brewing for government as its officials try desperately but dismally failing to ward off accusations and perceptions from both domestic and foreign quarters that Government is at odds with itself and that the Government of Liberia or well-placed individuals in Government have a hidden hand in the affair.
Whether we like it or not, Rodney Sieh is earning his stripes and fast becoming a national celebrity because his ordeal at the hands of the law and his principled stance have exposed the soft underbelly of oppression, corruption, nepotism and influence peddling tucked beneath a veneer of officially declared intolerance to corruption and respect for human rights.
This case is strongly reminiscent in many ways, of the 1974 case, Re: Stephen A. Tolbert vs Albert Porte in which veteran constitutionalist, journalist and human rights crusader Albert Porte was sued for libel following Porte’s publication of a pamphlet “Liberianization or Gobbling Business”. The case was heard in the lower court and Porte was adjudged guilty of libel and fined a whopping US$177,000 in compensatory damages.
The case was taken up on appeal to the Supreme Court but in the eyes of the public, the trial in the lower court was a miscarriage of justice for the prosecution had appeared incapable of proving that Porte, by his publication, had malicious intent to harm the character of Mr. Tolbert. The Revelation Magazine, in reaction to the verdict from the lower court drew on its cover page a caricature of the goddess of justice with the blindfold partially lifted, and the scales tilted with coins falling out.
Incensed by the publication, the Supreme Court, arguing that the Revelation editors had transgressed the law by commenting on a case which in their opinion was sub judice imposed huge fines (US$ 5,000) on each of the editors in persons of K. Neville Best, Vittorio A. Jesus Weeks, Ernestine Cassell and Williard Russell. Rather than pay such astronomical fines, the editors opted to go to jail.
Thronged by a large crowd of supporters and protesters, the editors marched from Capitol Hill to the Monrovia Central Prison. As they marched they sang the National Anthem and other patriotic songs. As they were being locked into their prison cells, the world watched and the nation held its breath as the reality dawned plainly revealing that the wheels of justice in Liberia turned unevenly in favor of an elite few- the Americo-Liberian ruling class and their indigenous allies.
But a new day was dawning in Liberia and the country would never ever be the same again. This was in December 1974 and, hearings into Porte’s appeal were set for the March term of Court the following year. In late April 1975, the nation was however shocked by the tragic death news of Finance Minister Stephen Tolbert who along with others had perished in a fatal plane crash just off the coast of Greenville, Sinoe County.
At the time, FrontPage Africa Editor Rodney Sieh, grand- nephew of Albert Porte, was just a kid not more than five years old. I doubt whether at the time he could have made any meaning of events unfolding around him neither could he have ever imagined that like his grand uncle, Albert Porte, he too would have found himself, almost 40 years later, as a spearhead and vanguard element in the struggle for free and unfettered expression in Liberia.
Eventually and perhaps by divine intervention, Porte never did have to answer any further charges at the Supreme Court and of course the Revelation Editors were subsequently released from prison but not before arrests and detention of sympathizers and a public demonstration that was violently suppressed by baton wielding and tear gas firing Police assisted by soldiers firing into the air.
Nobody would have then imagined in 1979, that only six years down the road, the True Whig Party colossus would have tumbled down like a stack of cards to be followed by 10 years of a bloody military dictatorship attended by horrific human rights abuse and a brutal clampdown on the press and free expression. That period was again followed by 14 years of civil war and then by six years of another brutal dictatorship.
Under dictatorship, newspaper offices were burnt, journalists were harassed, jailed and political and civil rights activists were hounded. Today, the media landscape has changed significantly for the better however, challenges remain. For example archaic and repressive libel laws-laws dating from as far back as 1930, are still on the books. The culture of impunity is even more deeply entrenched.
Corruption is even more pervasive now and while media coverage of accountability issues has been robust, yet there appears to be trepidation on the part of many journalists and media institutions to conduct exhaustive investigations into such issues. Moreover coverage is for the most part focused on the Executive branch of government leaving untouched the Judicial and Legislative branches from rigorous public scrutiny.
Such trepidation can be directly linked to the culture of silence and fear which still persists and continues to be reinforced in subtle ways and at times overtly as was the case with EPS Director, Othello Warrick, who publicly reminded journalists “you have your pens but we have our guns”. In other instances journalists have been physically assaulted by state security forces and some media institutions have been threatened and journalists jailed.
This dire situation is made worse by the poor and depressed state of the national economy. Media institutions depend on advertisements to survive but because advertisements are hard to come by, many resort to the publication or broadcast of sensational headlines and stories as a way of boosting sales revenue. In other cases journalists are alleged to receive bribes otherwise referred to as Cadeaux to publish stories.
But despite these shortcomings, the local media continues to respond to the challenge to provide accurate coverage of events unfolding in Liberia. In the case at bar, editor Rodney Sieh of the FrontPage Africa newspaper provided coverage of the caterpillar/Army Worm invasion of areas in Bong County near the border with Guinea. And in doing this he reported the President’s openly expressed displeasure with the manner in which the Ministry of Agriculture, under the leadership of Dr. Chris Toe was responding to the crises.
The President went further by calling in the General Auditing Commission (GAC) to conduct an audit of funds allocated to the Army Worms operations. It was the GAC that produced the report averring that funds had been misused or misapplied and I believe that Rodney, without malicious intent, dutifully reported this making reference to the report.
It is uncertain whether President Sirleaf reacted to the report but what is certain is that Agriculture Minister J. Chris Toe resigned as Minister in the wake of the President’s public expression of displeasure over the manner in which response efforts had been handled under the Ministry’s guidance. Meanwhile there was no official challenge to the report.
The Ministry of Justice remained mum on the issue. It is unclear whether Dr. Toe publicly or otherwise reacted to the GAC report, although is clear that he did not have his day in court to confront his accuser the GOL/GAC. It is surprising therefore that the Ministry of Justice would now charge that the GAC lacked the authority to recommend prosecution when it could have done so immediately following the issuance of the GAC report.
It is even more surprising that the Ministry of Information would now, three years later, publicly charge that the GAC and its reports are not credible. And such posturing is in bad taste because such public declarations /charges are ultra vires to the proper conduct of public policy. The GAC by Constitutional provision reports to the Legislature and not to the Executive although its head is appointed by the President with approval of the Senate.
In the mind of the public if anyone were at all to be charged for maliciously harming the good reputation of Dr. Toe, it should rightly be former Auditor-General John Morlu and the General Auditing Commission. What should be remembered is that Mr. John Morlu made the report in his official capacity as Auditor-General and he did so at the behest and request of President Sirleaf.
Further, and to the best of my recollection, I do not remember any occasion where President Sirleaf has on record rejected the report or called on Auditor-General Morlu to rescind the report. To have Rodney Sieh languishing in jail for practicing journalism and being treated like a high risk, dangerous, hardcore criminal is a serious indictment on the country’s judiciary and a living testament to the flawed character of our governance processes in which it appears that “justice has fled from men of reason to brutish beasts”.
During the trial, at least two (2) jurors admitted to jury tampering yet at the end of it, Rodney was adjudged guilty. His appeal to the Supreme Court was not heard because he did not, owing to his inability to pay astronomical bond fees, consummate the appeal process. The Supreme Court could not therefore become seized of the matter, meaning therefore that Rodney had to pay the one million plus United States dollars or go to jail.
Rodney had, previously, had rough edges with the Supreme Court Bench under the leadership of former Chief Justice Lewis and he probably felt that he stood no chance before the Supreme Court now under the leadership of His Honor Francis Korkpor. But he could not put this to a test because he lacked the means to consummate his appeal. This situation denied the Korkpor Bench the opportunity to look into all the issues including allegations of jury tampering.
Nevertheless the Court correctly opined that financial requirements for the consummation of the appeal process were unduly high and were as such denying equitable access to justice. And in the Rodney Sieh case, the Supreme Court could not have, sua sponte, rescinded those requirements nor have lowered the bar obviously because it lacked the powers to do so as, those powers remain fully vested in the National Legislature.
And so there were anxious calls from several quarters for Rodney to salvage the situation by tendering an apology to the Supreme Court. To the best of my knowledge, he has not and may probably not do so. But assuming argumenta, that he does apologize to the Court, how will that help his cause and will the Supreme Court become seized of the matter on the strength of an apology? The answer is No.
There were undoubtedly those who felt that by this development landing Rodney in jail they had exacted their pound of flesh but ,by remaining courageous, defiant and going to jail he has exposed the attending weaknesses in our justice system. And the longer editor Rodney Sieh remains in jail the more intense the focus of the international spotlight on Liberia all for the wrong reasons.
But imprisonment, from my standpoint and experience, is intended to not only restrict personal freedom of movement but is more so intended to break the human spirit. Will Rodney suffer broken spirits while in jail? That remains to be seen. But once that happens, all is lost and the individual sinks beneath the waves and drowns in the sea of hopelessness. Imprisonment and torture were choice weapons used by the establishment during the dark days of dictatorship to silence their opponents.
President Tubman had used such methods to great effect especially in wake of his brutal clampdown on political opponents and other perceived enemies of the state in 1955 following a staged assassination attempt. The names of Booker T. Bracewell, who died from torture in Bella Yella prison, Billy T. Horace who languished behind bars at the Post Stockade for nearly 20 years for refusing to apologize to Tubman, journalist Tuan Wreh who was made to smear his body with feces and others come readily to mind.
We recall also nearly two decades later, the prolonged detention of Dusty Wolokolie in 1983 and a year later in year 1984 of Lucia Massally, Christian Herbert, Dempster Yallah, James Fromayan, Alaric Tokpah and Ezekiel Pajibo who were flogged mercilessly at the notorious Post Stockade and later jailed at Bella Yella. We recall their fine examples of bravery, hope and courage, especially that of Ezekiel Pajibo who while under detention at the Post Stockade was taken out of his cell at midnight, driven to an obscure location on the outskirts of town and subjected to mock execution.
Yet he remained unwavering. Where are they today who committed such despicable acts against young patriotic Liberians? Equally so where are they today who harassed, hunted down, arrested and jailed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the notorious Post Stockade?
What all of this says is that our dear country, Liberia has a sordid history of human rights abuse and the country’s judiciary has historically been part and parcel of this picture of abuse. It can be recalled that President Samuel K. Doe in 1987, demanded the resignation of the entire Supreme Court Bench else he would have filed impeachment charges against them for corruption. All of them resigned save Justice Dennis who refused to do so but later did so under pressure. As it appears, Rodney is running the gauntlet of Freedom.
And lest we be mistaken, freedom is like a beautiful maiden who beckons to be courted but to be had, a steep price is required sometimes even one’s head. Yes freedom, comes at a price. Others before our generation have blazed its path and there is little reason to suggest that others too will not attempt the same as is the case with Rodney. He is now in the public spotlight and it remains to be seen whether he will break or whether he is prepared for a long haul by remaining steadfast in the conviction that he has libeled no one.
Correspondingly the public spotlight on the whole imbroglio including Dr. Toe and the Government of Liberia has become more intense and focused and promises to be so for some time to come and all for the wrong reasons too. Remember that this is a government that has signed the Table Mountain Declaration and passed the Freedom of Information Act and whose leader has won the Nobel Peace Prize.
These are all laudable achievements of course but, of what import can this be in a country where archaic libel laws remain on the books and where a journalist can, with a virtual wave of the hand, be adjudged guilty of libel, be slammed into jail and be treated like a dangerous hardcore high risk criminal? And of course the government has shown its hand in all of this firstly with the Information Ministry dismissing the GAC report and charging that the matter is an affair between two private individuals.
And its officials have shamelessly and vociferously maintained that Rodney Sieh is being treated in hospital at Government’s recompense as if Rodney, currently a detainee, does not have a right to medical treatment and as if Government does not have the duty and obligation to provide medical treatment to those in its custody.
Further, and granted that were this a matter between private individuals, then why would Government order the heavy deployment of well-armed police toting M-16 rifles to escort Rodney and mount a twenty-four hour armed guard at the hospital where he is convalescing? Is this a case of a bloodletting vendetta hopelessly gone wrong? Clearly these are missteps and they rather hurt than help the image of both the Government of Liberia and more so that of Nobel Laureate President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Clearly, something needs to done to bring the situation under control. Deputy Information Minister Jackson should refrain from making what some have referred to as inane utterances which only suggest that government is at odds with itself. And it runs contrary to good public policy to have the Information Ministry publicly castigating, casting aspersion on another organ of government and attempting to impeach the credibility of an autonomous body created by Constitutional mandate and who reports not to the Executive but to the Legislature.
Equally so the Justice Minister/Ministry has no authority over the GAC and legally cannot therefore infer implicitly or explicitly that the GAC must seek concurrence of the Justice Ministry before making recommendations for prosecution. Such utterances should not be coming from the Justice Ministry either. As I see it both sides need to get together without preconditions to resolve the situation.
In my opinion,Rodney needs to reassure Dr. Toe that his reportage/coverage on the matter was done without malice or any intent to harm or bring his character into disrepute. Dr. Toe, for his part, should display magnanimity in this matter, drop his claim to damages awarded by the lower Court and by doing so lay the matter to rest. This my candid advice and I believe President Sirleaf should encourage him to do so. And I equally believe that all those who are his friends should also encourage him to do so.
For my part, I believe that Justice Banks erred just by accepting to deliver the opinion of the Court on this matter. By reasons of consanguinity he should have recused himself and allowed any of the other Justices to deliver the opinion of the Court never mind the fact that he was Justice en banc at the time. His failure to have done so has also helped to give rise to opinions and perceptions of bias simply because Dr. Toe’s lead counsel in this case, Cllr. Emmanuel James, is a brother-in-law of Justice Banks.
Finally, as I have mentioned earlier, this matter needs to be brought to a close without further delay. Images and perceptions of a government at odds with itself and clamping down on press freedom is not good for our fledgling democracy and certainly not good for the image of Nobel Laureate President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the government she leads.
I will conclude by calling on the National Legislature to heed the words of the Supreme Court which has correctly opined that laws requiring prohibitive sums of money to consummate an appeal process need to be reviewed. The Legislature should urgently consider this issue. It should also commission a review of all archaic and repressive laws currently on the books with the view to repealing such laws as Decree 88A. Decree 2A and others including the decriminalization of libel offenses without delay.
Cartoon: FrontPage Africa, Chase Walker