Rodney Sieh on why journalists must report the truth

by Lianza Reyes

December 5, 2018

The founder of FrontPage Africa spoke about his experience as a journalist on trial during a visit to Newhouse Nov. 13

Book cover of Rodney Sieh's "Journalist on Trial."
Rodney Sieh's "Journalist on Trial."

Growing up during the First Liberian Civil War, Rodney Sieh, founder of the Liberian investigative news magazine FrontPage Africa, was a witness to tragedy. He lost family members and close friends to atrocities and violence.

“I remember one time, during the war, I went to look for food,” said Rodney Sieh, “When we came back, we found [my neighbor’s] body in the bushes, shot by the rebels. He had just gotten a degree in agriculture.”

He also saw the murder of a pregnant woman, and said he realized that during war, even the most innocent lives can be taken without compassion. But he also watched his uncle, underground journalist Kenneth Best, risk his life by telling the truth about what was happening. Sieh was inspired by his uncle’s example and decided to pursue a career in journalism.

Sieh fled the war in Liberia to work for his uncle in Gambia and became a correspondent for the BBC, reporting on the 1994 Gambian coup. After covering stories that exposed corruption in the new government, Sieh was forced to flee to the United States for his own protection from the government officials.

“You don’t know where or how you’re going to get picked up for what you write. It showed that the work we do is important to the world,” he said.

In 2005, he founded FrontPage Africa, a daily newspaper in Liberia that has garnered attention for its investigative reporting. In 2013, former agriculture minister Christopher Toe sued the newspaper and Sieh for libel and defamation after the paper published reports of Toe embezzling aid money.

After being sentenced to 5,000 years in prison for defamation, Sieh was taken to a Liberian jail facility housing more than 1,000 inmates; it was built to hold 200. While in prison, he interviewed fellow inmates, finding that some of them had arrived there without trial.

“In prison, some of [the inmates] were murderers. Others were rapists. And I was a journalist,” he said.

Eventually, pressure from the international community and an op-ed in The New York Times convinced Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to release Sieh after he had spent four months in jail.

Despite his experiences, or perhaps because of them, Sieh remains convinced of the power of journalism to battle dictators and corruption. 

“It seems like Trump is untouchable,” he said. “But it takes good investigative journalism to bring him down. And I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before that happens.”

When asked how journalists can protect themselves from governments wishing to silence them, Sieh recommended turning to worldwide organizations. Sieh is a member of the Africa board for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organization that works to keep journalists safe from harassment and retribution for printing the truth. By sticking together, he says, journalists can find safety in numbers. As he finished speaking, he mentioned his passion and how he hopes that his legacy will remain behind.

“I hope that one day, when I leave this world, people remember me for what I’m doing.”

Lianza Reyes is a junior broadcast and digital journalism major in the Newhouse School.