Revolutionizing a nation: That was the goal of a former Post-Standard journalist when he returned to his native country of Liberia. Rodney Sieh founded the paper FrontPage Africa and it went on to win several awards for its reporting on human rights violations and government corruption. YNN's Sarah Blazonis tells us how some say that investigative journalism lead to his unfair imprisonment and how they're working to "Free Rodney."
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Before reporting for the Post-Standard, Maureen Sieh was a journalist in her home country, Liberia, in the 1980s. It was a time of military dictatorship and consequences attached to stories the government didn't like.
"People went to jail, I mean, you had no courts to go to, people were banned, burned, newspapers were burned down," said Maureen Sieh.
Democracy brought some change, but traces of the old Liberia remain.
"While the president is not ordering newspapers shut down, there are other ways to stifle the press and it seems like the courts have been one of the ways to stifle the press," Maureen Sieh said.
She says her brother, Rodney Sieh, is an example. Once a copy editor at the Post-Standard, he founded one of the country's most influential newspapers, FrontPage Africa.
"Since people were paying for stories and people were afraid to talk about the government's corruption and other ills in society, FrontPage Africa became a paper that didn't care. When you do wrong, it's going to be published. When you do right, it's going to be published anyway," said Chase Walker, the cartoonist and graphic designer for FrontPage Africa.
The paper ran a story about a government report that accused an official of corruption. The official filed a libel suit against Rodney Sieh. Despite reports of bribed jurors, the initial guilty verdict was upheld by a higher court and Sieh was ordered to pay a $1.5 million fine. Unable to pay, he's been in a Liberian prison since last month.
"That means he has to spend 500 years in jail, if you look at it that way, because without working, he can't pay the $1.5 million," said Maureen Sieh.
Groups across the world have since come out in support of Rodney Sieh.
SU Assistant Professor Ken Harper, who's worked for years to train people to be storytellers in Liberia, sometimes with help from Rodney Sieh, started the website www.freerodney.org. He and others are calling on people to sign a petition and write their Congressmen on Sieh's behalf.
"The president has made a very big point to tout herself and her government as the shining example of democracy in Africa," Harper said. "She is very sensitive and very aware to international public opinion, specifically the United States."
Supporters are hoping a large enough outcry can help to free what they say is one of Liberia's most independent voices.
FrontPage Africa was also shut down pending payment of the fine. The web version of the paper is still up and running.
In addition to groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, the Syracuse Press Club also issued a statement Sunday on behalf of Sieh. It reads, "The Syracuse Press Club calls upon our U.S. senators from New York, Liberian authorities and other lawmakers to push for the release of Rodney Sieh, a man who served our CNY community in the Syracuse press corps as a copy editor at The Post-Standard. We need to advocate for our colleagues. Mr. Sieh's imprisonment is a detriment to the free press concept, and represents a threat to all society that atrocities will be concealed if journalists are silenced by the threat of jail. We urge his immediate release."
For more on Sieh's story and to find out how you can make your voice heard, visit freerodney.org.
To learn about Together Liberia, the group co-founded by Ken Harper, visit togetherliberia.org.