Liberian minister threatens newspaper publisher with jail

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Liberian President George Weah to keep his promises to respect press freedom and combat corruption by unreservedly condemning a close aide’s threat to have Rodney Sieh, the publisher of the country’s leading investigative newspaper, jailed over a report about questionable government spending.

Rodney Sieh will go to jail because I will not allow people to tarnish my reputation,” Minister of State for Presidential Affairs Nathaniel McGill said just hours after Sieh’s very popular daily, FrontPageAfrica, ran the story on 17 December. Sieh’s newspaper was a “criminal entity” and would be sued, McGill added.

Supported by documents and photos, the FrontPageAfrica report said millions of dollars of government money appeared to have been lost in “corruption, fiscal mismanagement, kickbacks and waste.” In one case, it said the government had authorized the payment of 180,000 dollars to a construction company that has been inactive since 2003.

While McGill denied to have authorized the alleged dubious payments the finance minister said about the 180,000 dollars that this payment “is still being processed.”

No journalist should fear reprisals for investigative reporting,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “Journalists who expose practices of this kind are allies of the good government and fight against corruption that George Weah proclaimed as his priorities in his first speech as president. A year after his election, we call on him to unequivocally condemn his minister’s statements.

Irksome reporting

The entire FrontPageAfrica staff was arrested on 9 April and brought before the Civil Law Court of Monrovia in connection with an advertisement that was the subject of defamation suit. The ad was published in other newspapers but FrontPageAfrica was the only one sued. The plaintiffs, who are close to the ruling party, are seeking 1.6 million euros in damages. 

Ever since launching FrontPageAfrica in 2005, Sieh has had repeated run-ins with the judicial system in connection with his investigative reporting on corruption within the Liberian elite and government mismanagement. In 2013, his newspaper was banned for three months and he was detained for four months after being sentenced to 5,000 years in prison for being unable to pay 1 million euros in damages to a government minister. RSF included Sieh in its list of “information heroes” in 2014 because of his courageous investigative reporting.

Liberia is ranked 89th out of 180 countries in RSF 2018 World Press Freedom Index.