Perhaps I’ll be able to laugh one day when I look back at my time in a Liberian jail cell these last few months. In some ways it was comical.
In a jail filled with murderers, coup plotters, thieves and rapists. I, a humble newspaper editor, had the longest sentence of any of them.
Much longer. Unable to pay the $1.5-million libel verdict imposed on me and my newspaper, FrontPage Africa, I was to serve a term the courts deemed equivalent to that astronomical sum – 5,000 years. My jail term was 100 times longer than that of the worst criminal there.
That figure is significant. As the editor and publisher of the newspaper that has exposed countless corrupt officials (including several of the highest members of government), led to the cancellation of fraudulent concession agreements and the withdrawal of corrupt presidential appointments, I am seen as threat one hundred times greater to some in the government even than a man caught in the planning stage of a coup.
That I am free today, writing this in my office with the comforting sound of our printing press rolling for the first time in three months in the room next door, is entirely due to the uproar my jailing provoked among readers in Liberia and the diaspora. Had it not been for their anger, and the pressure brought on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by journalism and rights activists in the international community, I may well have spent the rest of my days in jail.
We had that support because we have earned it. Our victory reflects a critical shift: For the first time in Liberia a news outlet has built up enough credibility and trust that Liberians were willing to rise up to defend us. Opponents of a free press – corrupt government officials and public figures that we’ve exposed – thought they could use this libel suit to shut us down or cower us as they have done to others.
Controlling media with the threat of libel suits has been the modus operandi of the government led by our Nobel laureate president.
Despotic leaders elsewhere in Africa attack the press directly. In Liberia, government uses libel suits to intimidate media while at the same time garnering international praise for showy commitments to free press abroad.
But this time was different. During three painful months of legal wrangling, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf faced protests at home and criticism in global newspapers and public forums during trips abroad.
She told a meeting of activists in New York that the case threatened to “undo everything we have done in seven years in office.” Finally, under heavy pressure from the president, a deal was struck and the case was withdrawn. For the former minister, corruption allegations that once hung over his head in Liberia, have now been spelled out in the pages of the New York Times.
It will be a very brave and very stupid government that will take us on again. As long as we continue to serve the public with critical, thorough, brave reporting that holds leaders accountable, Liberians will not let opponents take us down.
Rodney Sieh is the editor and publisher of FrontPage Africa