On Monday, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who will contest for a second term in elections next November, used her annual speech to the legislature to strengthen her image as the candidate of stability and growth. Among other things, she boasted about winning the "Friend of the Media" award from the African Editors Forum, the first for a sitting president. But there was something else: "We are glad," she said, "that the saga over the weekend has been resolved, allowing us to continue the distinction of having no journalists or politicians in jail."
The "saga" she was referring to was this: On Saturday, two days before the address, Rodney Sieh, editor-in-chief of FrontPage Africa, one of Liberia's leading newspapers, was arrested at his offices in the capital, Monrovia, on contempt of court charges. The charges related to an October 2010 reader's letter to the editor accusing Supreme Court Justice Gladys Johnson of bias in a criminal case. Following publication of the letter, Sieh had been summoned to the Temple of Justice in November 2010 to help the Supreme Court "understand" its contents. According to Sieh, no lawyer was willing to represent him during the questioning. Over the course of two hearings, Sieh was unapologetic and attempted to read a prepared statement about press freedom. He referred to the court as "dictatorial." This was the basis for the contempt charge.
Picked up by court deputies, Sieh was escorted to South Beach, Monrovia's notorious central prison, and then sentenced to 30 days in the same wing as murderers and violent criminals. He was also fined US$300 and ordered to publish an apology in FrontPage. He refused.
Sieh went to prison on Saturday, two days before the presidential address was scheduled, but the president's office, fearing that Sieh's imprisonment and an announced protest by civil society groups could overshadow the speech, began negotiations to free him. Under Article 59 of the Liberian Constitution, the president has the right to pardon whomever she wants, prompting widespread rumors that she would appear at the prison herself to order his release. But recent Liberian history is rife with abuse of executive power, and the president, perhaps not wanting to draw parallels, didn't use her privilege.
Instead, Minister of Planning Amara Konneh and Maritime Commisioner Binyah Kesselay were the negotiators charged with finding a compromise between Sieh, the judiciary, and the president's office, the journalist said. By Sunday night John Morlu, the auditor general, appeared in the prison yard with news that if Sieh were to apologize for his actions in court, but not the letter to the editor, he would be released. But then the court flip-flopped and again demanded an apology for publishing the letter. Around midnight the court relented, and Sieh signed the apology for his actions only.
By 12:30 a.m. Monday, Sieh walked out of South Beach.
A few hours later, from the grand stage of the Liberian legislature, Sirleaf spoke to enthusiastic applause while a small group protested outside the hall with placards, made the night before, that still read "Free Rodney Sieh." One passage in the address, in a section about judicial reform, seemed particularly relevant: "Although we will never return to the days where the executive dictates to the judiciary, we will need to collaborate with the Supreme Court to make our judges more conscious of their ethical, moral and professional duties."