Liberia: An Inside Perspective on Rodney Sieh
Monrovia — The Daily Observer which, like FrontPage Africa, is a Liberian daily, has endeavored to stay out of the ongoing libel saga between Rodney Sieh and former Agricultural Minister J. Christopher Toe, except for publishing the facts of the case as it unfolded.
In addition, given that this publication is run by Mr. Sieh’s uncle, we did not want to appear to be either backing a relative or gloating over the misfortunes of a fellow journalist. However, with the issue having gone international, and with Mr. Sieh’s defiance even from his hospital bed at JFK, we believe the time has come to set the record straight.
Mr. Sieh has had, from the beginning of his career,problems abiding by the ethics of journalism. He started Journalism in earnest with the Gambian Daily Observer in Banjul in 1993.
Mr. Sieh once wrote a story accusing the president of the Gambian Football Association, Babou Ceesay, of graft. Ceesay sued the Observer. The Observer’s lawyer promptly told the newspaper publisher, Kenneth Y. Best, that he could not win that case. However, Ceesay being the lawyer’s good friend, had agreed to drop the case if the paper published an apology. The apology was published, and the case was dropped; but for reasons no one could understand, Sieh took serious exception to that move. But the loss of a libel suit would have caused serious problems for the newspaper and its publisher’s refugee family of 31 and landed him in jail.
In 2003, while residing in the United States, the Best family started an Observer on line edition. Mr. Sieh became our editor-in-chief. In 2004, Sieh published a story about then Liberian Ambassador to Washington, Charles Minor, accusing him of financial malpractices. Upon reading the story on our web site, Minor and his wife Comfort drove to the Observer publisher’s home furious and threatening to sue.
Background: Minor upon his ambassadorial appointment by C. Gyude Bryant, Chair of the National Transitional Government of Liberia,had requested an audit of the embassy before assuming his assignment. But the auditors were a long time coming, but they eventually came.
After issuing their report a few months later, the embassy’s Consular officers, along with then Foreign Minister Yaya Nimley,wrote an opinion of the audit, falsely accusing the Ambassador of financial malpractices! They handed Sieh a copy and without contacting Ambassador Minor, Sieh published a story from it on the Observer website.
Sieh refused the Observer publisher’s directive to write a proper story on the audit report, which laid the blame exclusively on the Consular Section, not on Ambassador Minor. But Sieh flatly refused. Mr. Best, who had been out of town, several days later hadto study the audit report and write a proper story stating the facts as presented in the report.
Observer Publisher Best then decided to relieve Sieh of his position as editor on three counts: first, he had violated the ethics of journalism by ignoring the FACTS of the case — and facts are sacred in journalism; he had failed to balance the story by contacting Ambassador Minor. The fear was that Sieh might do it again and get the newspaper into even bigger trouble. There was also the problem of insubordination.
The Observer publisher then wrote a letter of apology to Ambassador Minor, who after consulting with his family, refrained from taking any legal action against the newspaper.
Furious with the Observer publisher’s decision, Mr. Sieh started his own web site, which he named FrontPage Africa, and later started his print edition in Liberia.
But both in his online and print editions Sieh continued to attack individuals, often without contacting them for balance.
In a February 2010 edition of his print publication,he accused then Agriculture Minister Chris Toe of having “stolen millions of dollars intended for the Liberian people.” The story, based on John Morlu’s General Auditing Commission audit, was published not as an allegation but as a fact, and without contacting Dr. Toe for his reaction. Toe sued FPA for libel.
The Daily Observer had also been writing a series of articles about the controversy between then Agriculture Minister Toe and the Rubber Planters Association of Liberia (RPAL) over the alleged mishandling of funds emanating from the Cavalla and Guthrie rubber plantations. Our reporting was based on interviews with both the RPAL officials and Dr. Toe. A few days after the last of those articles was published, Dr. Toe resigned as Agriculture Minister.
But he sued FrontPage Africa for libel, won the case and in the Civil Law Court and was awarded damages.
FPA took appeal to the Supreme Court, but failed to complete the appeal process. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the lower court and Sieh was imprisoned and his newspaper shut down until FPA could pay Dr. Toe’s US$1.5 million damages.
But FPA soon faced another lawsuit filed against it by current National Port Authority Managing Director, Matilda Parker, over most derogatory references to her in that newspaper.
Fortunately for Mr. Sieh, Dr. Toe has indicated a willingness to negotiate following a full apology. Sieh and FPA have also welcomed Toe’s gesture toward resolution of the matter.
The National Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders has also offered to mediate the case between Sieh and Ms. Parker.
The purpose of this editorial is to make it clear to the public and to the international community that this is not at all apolitical case, and that those arguing that it is are doing Sieh a major disservice. The only victims here are the people whose hard-earned reputations have been tarnished.
We hope that upon leaving prison, Mr. Sieh will change the way he practices journalism and bring honor to the profession as all journalists are required to do.