Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of the Republic of Liberia
Capitol Hill, Monrovia
Republic of Liberia
Dear President Sirleaf
A year ago, you became only the second African head of state to endorse the Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls for the repeal of criminal defamation and “insult” laws throughout Africa.
Now, the Committee to Protect Journalists urges you to lead Liberia further along this path: Decriminalize defamation; adopt monetary damages for libel commensurate with the harm done and within limits Liberians can afford; and halt the incarceration of defendants unable to pay, which is highly unusual in civil cases. In doing so, you would uphold Liberia’s constitutional prohibition against excessive fines or punishment for crimes.
This month, a judgement imposing excessive libel damages forced the closure of the leading independent newspaper FrontPageAfrica and the imprisonment of its managing editor and publisher, Rodney Sieh. Given the flaws in Liberia’s legal system, the serious allegations of political tampering that have tainted the case, and Sieh’s poor health, we call on you to review the case and restore fairness and justice by facilitating the reopening of the newspaper and Sieh’s release.
More than a year after signing the Declaration of Table Mountain – adopted at the 2007 annual meeting of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers – no decriminalization bill has been passed by the Liberian legislature.
Madam President, according to Article 21 of Liberia’s constitution, “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor excessive punishment inflicted.” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated that “sanctions shall never be so severe as to inhibit the right to freedom of expression, including by others.” Yet, Liberian courts have entertained libel cases against news organizations in which plaintiffs sought civil damages of US$1 million or more.
Most recently, FrontPageAfrica was shut down and Sieh jailed indefinitely pending the payment of US$1.5 million in libel damages to former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe. Sieh’s conviction is questionable given that one juror admitted receiving a bribe for a guilty verdict and the Supreme Court justice who upheld the lower court’s conviction is related to the plaintiff’s lawyer, according to FrontPageAfrica.
Sieh was unable to file an appeal because he could not afford to pay the bond required, legal counsel Kofi Woods told CPJ. In civil cases, he said, the appeal bond can amount to as much as the sum of damages awarded by the court. The paper was sued over a story on the findings of a government investigation that accused Toe of corruption. It faces another civil lawsuit in which Matilda Parker, the managing director of the National Port Authority, is seeking US$1 million damages over a story about the findings of an inquiry by the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission.
FrontPageAfrica is not alone. In 2010, the New Democrat newspaper was ordered to pay US$900,000 in a libel suit in which the plaintiff, Consolidated Group Incorporated, sought US$1.3 million in damages. The paper was sued for a story citing the findings of a government General Auditing Commission report; the suit was eventually settled. Also in 2010, your office sued the New Broom for US$5 million over a story on corruption, a case that resulted in closure of the newspaper. In 2012, your son and adviser Robert Sirleaf, chairman of the board of directors of the National Oil Company, sued The Independent and The Analyst for US$11 million, according to news reports, although he later withdrew the complaint. No newspaper has won a libel case since your election in 2005, according to the Press Union of Liberia.
Madam President, after years of civil war and dictatorship, Liberia under your leadership is aspiring to a just, open, and democratic society. Your administration is among the 55 governments in the world committed to making themselves more accountable through the Open Government Partnership. We believe, however, that jailing journalists in civil libel cases, and imposing or threatening to impose civil libel damages so exorbitant as to lead to the closure of news organizations, undermine press freedom and creates a climate of self-censorship.
We believe the punishment meted out against FrontPageAfrica is disproportionate and that the case is tainted with political undertones. We appeal to your sense of fairness in asking you to consider granting Sieh a pardon under article 59 of the constitution.
We also call on your leadership in amending Liberia’s civil libel laws in line with the international standards outlined in the 2000 Joint Declaration by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which states that “public figures are required to accept a greater degree of criticism than private citizens.” The declaration establishes that civil damages “should not be as large as to exert a chilling effect on freedom of expression and should be designed to restore the reputation harmed, not to compensate the plaintiff or to punish the defendant.”
We look forward to your response.
Lewis Brown, Minister of Information of the Republic of Liberia
Christiana Tah, Minister of Justice of the Republic of Liberia
Hon. Richmond Anderson, Chair, Committee on Information and Broadcasting, House of Representatives of Liberia
Herve Ladsous, UN Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations
Thomas Nah, Executive Director of Cental, Transparency International’s National Chapter in Liberia
Madam Magaret Kilo, Resident Representative of the African Development Bank
Marjon Kamara, Permanent Representative of Liberia to the United Nations
Karin Landgren, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Liberia
Deborah R. Malac, Ambassador of the U.S. to Liberia
Attilio Pacifici, Head of European Union Delegation in Liberia
Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to Liberia
Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression,
African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights
Linda Thomas-Greenfield. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa
U.S. Senator Chris Coons, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs
U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations
Press Union of Liberia
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
Open Government Partnership
The Millennium Challenge Corporation
International Federation of Journalists
African Editors Forum