“Your spirit appears to me to be anarchical. I remember during the last Administration, you were critical and censorious of it. When it comes to the present Administration, you are occasionally censorious and critical of it. I have never known you to compliment any administration, but you always look for what you think to be weak spots in it. I think this is an evil spirit and an evil eye which will not do you or the country any good. Supposed every or most persons had the same spirit, what would happen to the country!”
President William V.S. Tubman
In 1951 when muckraking Liberian school-teacher and journalist Albert Porte wrote an open letter to the Liberian president questioning his purchase of a luxury yacht on the nation’s dime, President Tubman wrote back, accusing Porte of having an anarchical spirit and inviting him for a cruise.
Porte’s status as the conscience of pre-civil war Liberia is rarely disputed. The story goes, he always kept a toothbrush around when reporting, in anticipation of a night in jail. Today he’s cited by Liberian journalists as a model to emulate, the grandfather of modern Liberian journalism both figuratively and literally. Kenneth Best and Rodney Sieh, rival publishers of Liberia’s two most prominent newspapers are both blood descendents of Porte.
Beyond family and profession, Sieh shares with Porte the great ability to get under the skin of Liberia’s elite. Currently, Sieh sits under guard at Monrovia’s JFK hospital where he was taken last week after catching malaria during a prison hunger strike. He was striking to protest the closing of his paper, and his incarceration, by a Liberian court bent on extracting a $1.5 million US libel decision from him. While the money is meant to compensate former agriculture minister Chris Toe after FrontPage Africa reported on his rather dubious dismissal from government, many Liberians believe it is intended to shut down Sieh, and his paper FrontPage Africa for good.
I worked at FrontPage Africa in 2011/2012 through the organization Journalists for Human Rights. It was during this time that Sieh was first thrown in jail for contempt of court. I wrote about it for the CPJ blog here, and the phenomenon of libel used as a tool of censorship here.
If Liberian journalists are sometimes accused of not living up to the ideals of Albert Porte, more often they are accused of being Albert Porte poseurs.
“He thinks he’s Albert Porte,” people would say about Sieh. “But he’s no Porte.”
In fact there are some telling parallels between Sieh and Porte. In 1975 Porte wrote a critique of the Finance Minister, Stephen A. Tolbert–who happened to be the brother of Tubman’s successor, President William Tolbert–accusing him of using political office to advance his considerable business interests. The minister sued Porte for libel and was awarded damages of $250,000 US. Stephen A. Tolbert died in a plane crash soon after and the case was closed.
A New York Times article from 1973, “Freedom of Expression Taking Hold in Liberia”, describes Porte’s lonely crusade under the True Whig regime as coming to an end. The article profiles a new generation of journalists and critics testing the opening of free speech in Liberia at the time. A young assistant to the Minister of Finance is described as mounting one of the most critical public speeches yet. The young woman is Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, then part of the new guard of dissidents and critics, now the President of Liberia.
It’s difficult to say where she fits into this. The decision to imprison Sieh is one for the courts, but in 2010 she stepped in to broker a deal that saw Sieh get out of jail. This came after widespread international outrage. Since that time, FrontPage Africa has been instrumental in reporting on a string of corruption scandals leading back to her administration as well as publicising the lack of action she’s taken in prosecuting corrupt officials. So while she is not directly responsible for Sieh’s imprisonment, there’s not a lot of incentive to get him out either.
In 1975, the public backlash around the Porte’s libel case lead to the formation of Citizens of Liberia in Defense of Albert Porte or COLIDAP, one of Liberia’s first civil society organizations. If there’s any silver lining, Sieh’s legal troubles have spurred organizing around press freedom issues from students at the University of Liberia and the Press Union of Liberia. After the verdict, hundreds of protesters tried to block the car transporting Sieh to prison.
With FrontPage Africa shut, the powerful of Liberia have more room to maneuver, but hopefully not for long.
* Top image of Rodney Sieh is by Ken Harper via the New Narratives documentary project.