For the staff at Front Page Africa, the news that they had won the 2014 press award from Reporters without Borders was an acknowledgement that their work and their efforts towards a free press in Liberia was making a difference.
“It is a really fulfilling experience to learn that our work exposing the ills in Liberia; the ills of corruption, nepotism, lack of accountability and transparency, human trafficking, prostitution, human rights abuses in whatever form the present themselves is finally being recognized,” says Rodney D. Sieh, senior editor and one of the founders of the newspaper. But it’s not just Sieh’s determination to expose the ills in Liberia that have brought international prizes and recognition. Journalists for Human Rights has also played a role in developing and training staff there.
“Journalists for Human Rights have been one of our strongest partners and supporters,” says Sieh who has a graduate degree in media studies from Hunter College and worked with several U.S. newspapers. “For almost two years, JHR trainers worked with our reporters and editors as mentors. The trainers travelled with our reporters to some of the remotest parts of Liberia to bring to life the stories that matter, stories that highlighted rights abuses in all forms especially poverty, lack of nutrition and healthcare in areas outside the city and the conditions of those languishing at the bottom of the economic order.” “Their work here was innovating and rewarding not just for the reporters and editors but for our paper,” says Sieh of the JHR. “It certainly took a load off us to have mentors that show our reporters the ropes, show them what kinds of stories to look for, what kinds of questions to ask and how to write about human rights issues.”
Travis Lupick, a reporter and editor at Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, worked in 2012 as a trainer for JHR in Liberia. He recalls the efforts of the young journalists as an “inspiration.” They took their lead from Sieh and fellow senior editor Wade Williams. “Hard work, compassion, and relentless pursuit of the truth make Front Page a worthy recipient of this award,” says Lupick. “The award represents everything we aspire for, everything we tried to accomplish as an independent newspaper and everything we feel the world should pay attention to. It shows that our efforts in trying to bring to light those ills affecting the voiceless and hopeless people is drawing attention and the world is taking notice.”
Sieh, a 44-year-old veteran journalist who also worked for the Monrovia Daily News and was a correspondent for the BBC in Gambia, knows only too well some of the dangers of working as a journalist. When he was in Gambia, he was forced to flee after he reported on the arrest of his uncle who ran the independent Daily Observer. More recently, he was jailed in August 2013 and eventually released in November over a story the paper published involving the then Minister of Agriculture who was fired and $6 million of unaccounted funds.
Based in Monrovia, Front Page Africa began as an online publication in 2005 during the aftermath of the civil war. The goal was to keep a check and balance on the new government, says Sieh. Then in 2009, Front Page Africa launched a print version. Front Page Africa and its reporters have also won a number of other awards in recent years, including the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Press Freedom Award and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Award. As for the future of Front Page Africa, Sieh says: “We have always been a thorn in the government’s side because the stories we tell hit the nerve centre of the government and issues they tend to ignore. The award will no doubt give those at the helm of power second thoughts in how they approach and try to muzzle us in the future.”
– By Debra Black for Journalists for Human Rights