Liberian editor says libel case to be settled soon

Associated Press

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — A Liberian editor jailed earlier this year in a libel case that sparked an international outcry said Sunday he is confident his legal troubles will soon be resolved.

Rodney Sieh, publisher and editor of the privately-owned newspaper FrontPageAfrica, was jailed in August after failing to pay $1.5 million in damages awarded to former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe. In 2010, Sieh's newspaper published allegations from the country's anti-corruption watchdog that Toe's ministry could not account for millions of dollars.

Sieh's imprisonment tarnished the press freedom record of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Although 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, 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.

Sirleaf's government has officially resisted calls to intervene in Sieh's case, saying it is a matter for the courts and that the verdict should be respected.

Not long after his arrest, Sieh staged a hunger strike and then was hospitalized with malaria. He was granted 30 days of "compassionate release" last month, though that window expired on Friday and he was briefly detained again before being allowed to return home.

On Sunday, Sieh told The Associated Press that a settlement of the case would be announced Wednesday. "That's the end of my case. My lawyers and those of the former minister are talking and the formality will be on Wednesday," he said.

His legal team declined to disclose the terms of the possible settlement but confirmed it was expected Wednesday. "As his lawyer, I can safely say there are guarantees that he will not be going back to jail," said Samuel Kofi Woods, Sieh's lead lawyer.

Toe's lawyers could not be reached for comment Sunday. The former minister has previously said he would be open to forgoing his damages award if Sieh would apologize, something the editor has refused to do. The $1.5 million award is 30 times the yearly operating budget for FrontPageAfrica, Sieh has said.

Toe has denied allegations of wrongdoing, though he resigned from his position and was never put on trial after the corruption allegations surfaced. He has said the newspaper's reports were libelous because he was never convicted, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In a joint statement in September, watchdog groups Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Global Witness said Sieh's case underscored the need for reforms to Liberia's libel laws that would block excessive judgments and lift barriers to filing appeals.

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Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.

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