Introduction: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf visited Toronto in September of 2013 to celerate the WE Day annual festivities that drew celebrities from arround the world. In a rare departure from diplomatic niceties which usually greets the Liberian president [in western media] on her foreign travels given her stature as a world leader and a peace laureate, the Toronto newspapers were a rare exception, with both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail in the mix with strong worded commentaries and news articles about press freedom and corruption in the Western African country under Liberia's 24th president. The Liberian leader would respond also...below are both pieces...
Liberian leader passively allows assault on free press
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Peace Laureate and president of Liberia, arrives in Toronto Friday as part of a three-day official trip to Canada.
Until recently, Ellen, as she’s known in her home country, has been a darling of the international community.
The country’s first democratically elected leader since it emerged from a decade of war, Johnson Sirleaf is internationally acclaimed for stewarding Liberia through a difficult post-conflict transition. Since her election in 2006, the country has had its international debts forgiven, secured significant foreign investment, experienced a relatively peaceful transfer of power and passed West Africa’s first Freedom of Information Act, in 2010. For her leadership, Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
Strange, then, that one of Africa’s most respected journalists, Rodney Sieh, editor of FrontPage Africa, is currently in jail in Liberia. His crime? Faithfully reporting the findings of an official corruption commission initiated by the president herself — part of her administration’s ongoing war on corruption in the world’s most corrupt country.
The newspaper that Sieh heads is well known among international donors and investors as an important pipeline of reliable information from Liberia. Sieh’s personal reputation is one of accuracy and fairness. He is regarded as impervious to bribes.
Back in 2010, Frontpageafrica published the results of two investigations conducted by the General Auditing Commission, Liberia’s independent corruption watchdog, into the agriculture ministry’s accounts. The investigations found nearly $6 million unaccounted for, and raised questions about the then-agriculture minister, Christopher Toe.
Toe was quietly dismissed. He reacted by suing the newspaper for libel, arguing that because he’d never been prosecuted, he could not be at fault. A civil court ruled in favor of Toe. (In an op-ed published in the New York Times two weeks ago, the jailed editor claims that two jurors admitted they had been paid to rule against the newspaper.)
FrontPage Africa was charged $1.5 million in damages. At 30 times the newspaper’s annual operating budget, it’s a fine no newspaper in Liberia would be able to pay. The court used nonpayment of the fines as grounds to put Sieh in jail and shut down his outlet.
The president has elsewhere indicated she does not always trust the capacity of her courts to reach fair verdicts. But in this case, Johnson Sirleaf’s administration says it is respecting the court’s decision and staying out of the process. Since he was jailed three weeks ago, Liberia’s Nobel laureate president has been deaf to entreaties to release him. Yet in the last analysis, Sieh has been jailed for simply doing his job.
The optics of the situation are terrible. Johnson Sirleaf comes off as more inclined to condone the behaviour of allegedly corrupt ministers than to act on the findings of her own commission. The point of a corruption commission is to ensure donor dollars are used to benefit people who are among the poorest in the world. Yet corruption in Liberia is rampant: this year the country was ranked the most corrupt on the planet, according to Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer.
The international community can and will think twice about investing in a country marching the wrong way up international corruption indexes — one that, rather than take action on corruption, prefers to jail its most internationally respected journalist.
A worldwide campaign is now under way to get Sieh released, co-ordinated by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Canada’s own Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has lent its weight to Sieh’s cause. Freedom House, the Doha Center for Media Freedom, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the World Editors Forum, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty are just some of the international organizations on the case.
The power to turn an international embarrassment for Liberia into a good news story now rests in the hands of the woman who just arrived in Toronto.
Simply standing by while the country’s toughest journalist is jailed and his newspaper muzzled is not the kind of statesmanship the world expects of a Nobel laureate.
Freeing Rodney Sieh would send a strong message that Johnson Sirleaf will not shelter malfeasance or condone corruption, and that it does not pay in Liberia to steal from the poorest of the poor.
Whether the president can show that leadership in this instance is another question entirely.
Rachel Pulfer is executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, an international media development charity based in Toronto with operations across sub-Saharan Africa.
Liberia’s recovery: flawed, but hopeful
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Ten years ago this month, Liberia began its journey from peace to recovery. The peace accords signed in Ghana ended the second of two devastating civil wars, leaving more than a quarter of a million dead, my country’s infrastructure destroyed and the lives of exhausted survivors shattered. The task before us seemed overwhelming
Today Liberia is recovering. A renewed sense of hope, strong economic growth and the development of a vibrant civil society have been possible through the work of the international community, but most importantly, the tenacity of Liberians themselves.
Yet judging progress is not always an exact science. Some indicators cannot be debated: economic growth and many of our Millennium Goals, such as the reduction of child mortality and action to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, show clear, audited improvement. Other developments can only be more subjectively viewed, such as the impact of judicial reforms and laws on freedom of speech.
There has long been a debate within the international media as to whether economic growth must be the priority for post-conflict countries, or whether freedom of speech and justice founded on the rule of law should come first. Many developing nations, including those in Africa, have found this debate puzzling. Of course, say some, how can a hungry man care for democracy or the right to assembly when he is starving?
In Liberia we find such arguments without merit. We see liberty and dignity as the ability to enjoy both economic opportunity and the right to criticize those in power. No man can be truly free when he enjoys only one, but not the other. We believe it is the inalienable right of anyone, whether an individual citizen or the holder of high office, to expect equality of justice from the courts if they believe they have been wronged. There can be no justice at all if some in society are exempt from the law through the office they hold or the profession they practise.
To that end, Liberia is a signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration on press freedom in Africa, the second African nation to sign. We have instituted a Freedom of Information Act so Liberians can question the decisions of government at all times. We have worked with international legal experts to ensure that our courts operate independently outside of the influence of the executive. Giving the government and elites the right to intervene in cases considered by an independent judiciary would be to continue the powers of impunity that previously led Liberia down the road to disaster. Recent calls for the government to intervene in a libel case between a leading journalist and a minister taken to court in a private prosecution would be to act against the laws we have instituted separating the powers of the executive from the judiciary.
We welcome a debate on the benefits of libel laws, and whether our own U.S.-style first amendment protection would better serve Liberia. No legislation can be judged as timelessly perfect, as the demands of any vibrant society must include the capability for change. But intervention in one case would inevitably lead to intervention in others, reasserting the ability of the strong to use public office to bend the law against private citizens.
The debate over this case, and the discussions in Liberia and beyond over the developments of the past 10 years should also be considered in a wider context about how African progress should be judged. There is an argument whether it is possible to judge the continent through the same prism as development in the West. Certainly, there is little in the West that is comparable to the devastation from which Liberia and other postconflict countries in Africa have had to rebuild. For that reason it can be argued we should be judged differently, or perhaps less harshly, when goals are not achieved or incidents such as the recent libel case present themselves.
Liberia and most nations of Africa are striving to be successful and full members of the international community. To be treated as equals requires us to be held to the same standards as others. It would be strange for us to want to be considered by different measures when all we wish for are the same standards for our citizens in opportunity and progress as in the more developed nations of the world.
But this also means we should be expected to uphold those changes we have made that provide similar equalities before the law for all our citizens, rich and poor, not contradict them. We should not expect Africans to act differently; but by the same turn we should not be judged differently.
Liberia’s progress is therefore rightly being considered, 10 years on from the ending of our civil wars. We are proud of the advances we have made, but we do not dwell on our successes, just as we redouble our efforts to address where we may have fallen short. We simply ask to be judged the same as others. Liberia seeks equality for all and, over our nation’s next decade of development, we plan to move closer to achieving it.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the President of Liberia and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.