Newhouse professors helped negotiate Rodney Sieh's release from prison

By Emily Kulkus

November 13, 2013

Liberian editor and publisher spent nearly three months behind bars

Two Newhouse professors were recently involved in international negotiations to free jailed Liberian journalist Rodney Sieh. As editor and publisher of FrontPage Africa, Liberia’s leading investigative newspaper, Sieh was jailed because he failed to pay a $1.5 million fine over a story he wrote about government corruption.

The journalist was released from a prison in Monrovia last Friday after nearly three months behind bars. The charges against Sieh have been dropped, according to news reports.

Associate professor Ken Harper has known Sieh for years through their work on collaborations between Newhouse and journalists in Liberia – specifically the Together Liberia and New Narratives projects. Sieh has also worked at the Syracuse Post-Standard. In late August, Harper authored a letter to the Newhouse community asking for support for the jailed journalist. He also reached out to Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Newhouse.

Gutterman wrote a letter to the Consul General of the Republic of Liberia pleading that Sieh be released. He CCed Secretary of State John Kerry and senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer.

Because of that letter, Gutterman was invited to attend a meeting Sept. 27 to discuss Sieh’s imprisonment with the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, at the United Nations in New York City. Other people at the table for the meeting included representatives from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Columbia University, Global Witness, Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Gutterman says he was sitting directly across the table from Sirleaf for the 90-minute meeting. At one point, Gutterman says he spoke directly to the president, who is a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“I told her that as a democracy they need to respect independent journalists and release this man from custody,” Gutterman says.

Gutterman says the fact that Sirleaf was willing to meet with free press advocates is a positive.

“It does speak volumes that they are at least considering some press reforms,” he says.

Despite mirroring their democratic government after the United States, Liberia has a long way to go, Harper says.

“They used to firebomb newspapers and kill journalists. Now they sue them,” he says. “It’s moving in the right direction. It’s just things don’t change over there over night. Things don’t move at Twitter speed.

“Really deep change happens slowly.”

Gutterman said he’s never been involved in a situation quite like this one, but his advocacy speaks to the core of the Tully Center.

“This is why the Tully Center for Free Speech exists,” he says. “Any time a reporter goes to prison, it’s a serious issue. The libel laws in Liberia need to be reformed. Reporters are patriots and reporters do their jobs so the public has an understanding of what’s going on and to put a journalist in prison because you don’t like his journalism is an affront to democracy.”

Gutterman has not met Sieh but hopes to in the future. Harper has been in touch with Sieh through Facebook.

“It’s a big victory,” Harper says. “It’s really helped his public profile and given him a lot of credibility in the international crowd.”

FrontPage Africa plans to reopen on Monday.