- Created on 04 September 2013
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) -- Liberia has rejected calls to release an editor jailed last month for reporting on the results of an official graft investigation.
The case also shines a spotlight on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose government four years ago filed a lawsuit that led to another newspaper's closure.
Rodney Sieh, publisher and editor of the independent newspaper FrontPageAfrica, was arrested Aug. 21 after failing to pay $1.5 million in damages awarded to former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe. In 2010, Sieh's newspaper published several articles about findings by the country's anti-corruption watchdog that the ministry could not account for millions of dollars.
Two days after Sieh's arrest, law enforcement closed the paper's offices. Sieh then launched a hunger strike and was hospitalized last week with malaria.
Despite calls by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders for Sirleaf to intervene on Sieh's behalf, Liberia's information ministry said Tuesday that the verdict against Sieh should be respected.
Sirleaf last year became the second African head of state to sign the Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls for the Africa-wide repeal of defamation and "insult" laws.
Yet multiple libel convictions have been handed down since she came to power in 2006, and no newspaper has won a libel case during that time, according to the Press Union of Liberia. A lawsuit filed by Sirleaf's office in 2009 for $5 million against the New Broom newspaper led to that paper's closure.
Former agriculture minister Toe has denied allegations of wrongdoing, though he resigned from his position and was never put on trial. He has said the newspaper's reports were libelous because he was never convicted, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In a letter to Sirleaf on Monday, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said the case against Sieh was flawed and asked the government to facilitate his release.
"We believe the punishment meted out against FrontPageAfrica is disproportionate and that the case is tainted with political undertones," Simon said.
The $1.5 million damages award is more than 30 times the yearly operating budget for FrontPageAfrica, according to Sieh, who in a New York Times op-ed over the weekend said the case was a clear attempt to silence Liberia's most aggressive and ambitious newspaper.
Sieh also wrote that two jurors claimed they were paid to find him guilty.
"So long as Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf's advisers can tell the courts how to rule, the government will continue to intimidate the press at home while maintaining an undeserved positive image abroad," Sieh said.
The information ministry faulted Sieh for not appealing the verdict, though Sieh has said the process is prohibitively expensive.
Sirleaf has not addressed the case herself. Wade Williams, an editor at FrontPageAfrica who has been running the paper in Sieh's absence, said she suspected many government officials would be happy to see the paper shut down.
"They're all using their influence to get to Rodney, punishing him for exposing them over the years," Williams said. "That's why (Sirleaf's) not saying anything. She herself has not been happy with FrontPageAfrica for some time now."
The newspaper has continued to publish online even though its offices remain closed and an important source of revenue - print advertisements - has dried up.
Toe, the former agriculture minister who brought the libel case, said Tuesday he had been "injured" by FrontPageAfrica's coverage but that he was open to talks with Sieh's lawyers.
Williams, however, said she questioned what purpose the talks might serve. "I don't think there should be any negotiation on the part of a newspaper reporting on public officials just to appease them," she said. "It will be a sign of weakness on the part of the media."
- Created on 03 September 2013
JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- South Africa's president said Tuesday that he was pleased Nelson Mandela had gone home from a hospital, saying it indicated the progress that the anti-apartheid leader had made even though he remains in critical condition.
An ambulance returned 95-year-old Mandela to his Johannesburg house on Sunday, and the office of President Jacob Zuma said he will receive the same level of care there that he did in the hospital, administered by the same doctors.
"He remains critical but stable, responding to treatment," Zuma said in a meeting with journalists in Pretoria, the South African capital. "I think we feel very good that he reached a point where the doctors who were treating him felt he could now leave the hospital to his home, which indicates the progress he had made."
Zuma also said: "We acknowledge that he is old and that he's not well but we are very happy that he's gone home, that he's still with us."
Mandela was admitted to the hospital on June 8 for what the government described as a recurring lung infection. Legal papers filed by his family said he was on life support.
On Tuesday, the former surgeon general of South Africa's military, Vejay Ramlakan, visited Mandela's home, the South African Press Association reported. Ramlakan was often seen arriving at the hospital in Pretoria during Mandela's stay there.
Mandela has been treated by a large medical team from the military, academia, the private sector and other public health sectors, according to Zuma's office.
Some residents in Mandela's hometown of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape province, said Mandela should return to their rural area, where he had lived in recent years until ill health compelled authorities to fly him to Johannesburg so he could be near the best available medical care.
Mama Madlomo, an 84-year-old relative of the Mandela clan, said the former president should go back to Qunu so that he can be close to his ancestors. Mandela's three deceased children, who are buried there, were the subject of a recent family feud over the location of their graves.
Another resident in Qunu, Nosithile Sodlongwane, was happy that Mandela had been discharged from the hospital.
"God has answered our prayers and we need him even if it's for a short while," she said.
Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is viewed around the world as a powerful figure of reconciliation. Despite being jailed for his prominent role in opposing white racist rule, Mandela was seemingly free of rancor on his release in 1990 after 27 years in prison.
He became a unifying leader who led South Africa through a delicate transition to all-race elections that propelled him to the presidency in 1994.
- Created on 30 August 2013
JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- A spokesman for a mineworkers' union in South Africa says gold miners will go on strike next week after talks with South Africa's Chamber of Mines collapsed Friday.
Lesiba Seshoka, a spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers, said Friday that the strike will start Tuesday after the Chamber of Mines - which represents mine owners - did not improve its last offer of a 6 percent pay raise. The union, which represents about 64 percent of South Africa's 120,000 gold miners, seeks a 60 percent raise for its members.
The strike will affect the country's top gold producers, including AngloGold Ashanti and Gold Fields.
The looming strike threatens to escalate South Africa's labor unrest, with thousands of workers in aviation, construction and auto sectors already striking over wages.
- Created on 29 August 2013
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — After completing high school in June, 20-year-old Lawrence Bondo spent six weeks working with a private tutor to prepare for the University of Liberia's entrance exam, focusing on the geometry he found so difficult.
Bondo, though, learned earlier this month that he had failed. So had every one of the nearly 25,000 other applicants this year. His cousin was admitted last year before they changed the way the test is graded.
"We live together, eat together and sleep in the same room, so I don't understand how he's accepted and I'm not. He did not prepare as much as me," Bondo said.
Some of the applicants are accusing the university of fraud, and are organizing a march on Friday to demand a refund of their exam fees — nearly $30 per student.
In previous years, candidates had been graded on a curve. Under the new system put in place this year, students were required to earn scores of 50 percent in math and 70 percent in English in order to pass. Around 300 met the math requirement, but no students met the requirements in English, said S. Momolu Getaweh, the university's public relations chief.
Officials declined to provide copies of the test, which was a multiple-choice exam.
The incident has cast a spotlight on the education sector in this West African nation still recovering from a brutal 14-year civil war that ended in 2003.
Along with the undergraduate applicants, all candidates for graduate programs in law, pharmaceutical studies and six other graduate programs also failed, according to a university press statement.
After the dismal results were in, Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf laid out a plan Wednesday to relax admission standards to enroll 1,626 undergraduate students as well as a handful of students in each graduate program. She said the test results underscored the need for further reforms.
"We concentrated in the early years on enrolment because we wanted to get all these young kids into schools," said Sirleaf. "We wanted to get them out of the farms, out of the markets, out of the street selling, and we did that. Enrolment has quadrupled since we started."
The next step, Sirleaf said, is improving education quality.
"That's the most difficult task. You got thousands of teachers in our school system, some of them with only a high school education," she said. "You don't turn that over in three years or four years or five years."
Not everyone agrees with Sirleaf's analysis. The university spokesman suggested the students might be to blame.
"Perhaps they didn't study, because our students don't like to study," he said. "Liberia itself, it's not a reading public. Go around and ask the people in the street, 'Did you read a newspaper yesterday?' They will say no . That culture of not reading, if you bring it to college you're going to fail."
Getaweh acknowledged there had been some problems in administering the test in previous years. He said that up until last year, the official in charge of testing used "statistical analysis" to determine how many students would be admitted on a curve. The exact formula was a mystery to every other official at the university, Getaweh said, but the system went unquestioned until last year, when 7,800 students were admitted -- more than double the previous average total.
When top university officials went to the official, he refused to explain his methods or provide raw scores, leading to his suspension.