Supporting the Liberian Journalist
By Roy Gutterman, September 2, 2013
Liberian journalist Rodney Sieh was sent to jail last week in Monrovia. He was essentially imprisoned because of the stories he published in his newspaper, FrontPage Africa. A court order also shut down the newspaper.
Rodney’s case may be on the other side of the globe, far removed from our cozy world in Syracuse and at Syracuse University. But it should not be.
While reporters around the world are regularly harassed, threatened, beaten, imprisoned and killed, Rodney’s case has ties to us in Syracuse.
My colleague, Ken Harper, has worked with Rodney and other journalists in Liberia, a country in West Africa with long-time ties to the United States and democratic traditions. Ken helped train Liberian journalists. And, Rodney, who earned a degree at an American college, worked at several U.S. newspapers, including the Post Standard in Syracuse.
It is no secret that being a journalist in some countries is perilous. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that in 2012 it counted 232 journalists who were imprisoned around the world just for doing the job that many Americans take for granted.
Last week, we learned of Rodney’s imprisonment. Too often these cases have little to no connection to us Americans where we are insulated by legal protection for the press and far removed from the controversies by geography and cultural isolation. Even though the Tully Center for Free Speech annually honors a journalist who has faced turmoil in the previous year with the Free Speech Award, we are often without a connection to these journalistic heroes.
Rodney, founder, editor and publisher of FrontPage Africa, was imprisoned after a libel judgment of $1.5 million was levied against him and his newspaper. The judgment followed a libel case against him for stories about political corruption. The newspaper was also shut down by court order, but appears accessible on the internet. And, after he was sent to prison, he embarked on a hunger strike to protest the injustice. But he fell ill and was taken by armed guard to a hospital on Wednesday, FrontPage Africa reported.
CPJ and Reporters without Borders have condemned the imprisonment. And, the Tully Center for Free Speech has written to Liberia’s Consul-General in New York to implore the government to release Rodney. The center has a tradition of honoring and advocating on behalf of reporters around the world who are threatened and punished for their journalism. In recent years, we have recognized journalists who have been imprisoned, kidnapped, beaten and tortured in countries including Morocco, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Pakistan and Bahrain.
CPJ’s Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita issued a statement Wednesday:
“We are troubled that Rodney Sieh’s health deteriorated during his imprisonment and we hold the government of Liberia responsible for his well-being The excessive libel damage imposed on Sieh for reporting the findings of a government inquiry on corruption, his jailing, and the closure of an important independent newspaper are a blow to press freedom and the fight against corruption in Liberia.”
As our students return to campus to embark on the study and practice of journalism, filmmaking and various forms of public communications, journalists around the world like Rodney are facing turmoil.
His case reminds us of the hazards of being a journalist and he deserves our support.
Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor of communications law and journalism and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.