Press Freedom in Sierra Leone: A Dismal Story

13 July 2005 at 11:19 | 1119 views

Despite a return to relative calm after 11 years of civil war, freedom of expression in Sierra Leone remains very uncertain, as demonstrated by a harsh prison sentence handed down to prominent journalist Paul Kamara. A frequently brutal police force operates with complete impunity.

Two important enemies confront the Sierra Leone press : These are the impunity enjoyed by the powerful and an authoritarian justice minister. Journalists have been targeted by several physical and legal onslaughts in this country in which not all the wounds are healed, despite a successful peace process with former rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), notorious for mass limb amputations. On top of this, Sierra Leone, now in a period of reconstruction after its terrible 1991-2002 civil war, has distinguished itself in the worst way by yet again imprisoning one of its most prominent journalists, this time for four years.
On 5 October, Paul Kamara, founder and editor of the daily For Di People, was sentenced to two consecutive two-year prison sentences for "seditious defamation" towards the head of state, at the end of a one-year trial full of legal hair-splitting. The president sued Kamara over an article carried in the 3 October 2003 issue headlined, "Speaker of Parliament challenge ! Kabbah is a true convict !" The article said that an investigative commission had in 1968 found the current head of state, then economy minister, guilty of fraud. For di People went on to call the parliamentary speaker’s position unconstitutional, since the president’s office gave him immunity from all prosecution. Kamara is now languishing in Freetown’s central prison with no hope of an early release. He has however lodged an appeal.

Threats ahead of the verdict

The journalist was convicted under a 1965 public order law that the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has been vainly seeking to repeal in recent years. The law punishes defamation and extends guilt for the "crime" to cover not just journalists but also printers and sellers of publications. Paul Kamara had also worked hard to get the law repealed.
After the verdict was announced, the president’s office put out a jubilant statement, expressing satisfaction that justice had been done. A few days earlier, justice minister Fred M. Carew made alluded to Kamara’s plight when he sent for and gave a threatening lecture to Chernoh Ojukwu Sesay, managing editor of The Pool Newspaper. He was furious about an article in its 1st October issue, headlined, "Carew plans to kill three orphans".

The article, citing documentary evidence, said that at a time when he was practising as a lawyer, Carew had attempted to dispossess three orphans for the benefit of one of his clients. The same day, Sesay received a phone call ordering him to present himself at the minister’s office. Once there, he was ushered into the presence of the prosecutor-general, Bryma Kebbie, a lawyer and a secretary. The journalist said that the minister then accused him of having committed an offence and launched into a threatening tirade. He said, "If journalists continue to act irresponsibly and to ignore the 1965 law on defamation I will make sure that it is applied and that you will quickly rejoin Paul Kamara in prison. As long as I am minister of justice, I will not hesitate to jail journalists who break the law. Do you understand ?"

Reporters Without Borders reacted to these two flagrant press freedom violations by calling on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) to intervene. UN Security Council Resolution 1562 gave it responsibility for, among other things, "monitoring and promoting respect for human rights".
Paul Kamara has received prison sentences in the past. The High Court in Freetown sentenced him in 2002 to a six-month prison sentence for "defamation" and "calumny". His newspaper was also suspended for six months.

Those who assault journalists enjoy complete immunity. This was exemplified on 21 January 2004, when dozens of police officers raided the premises of the privately-owned daily Awoko, manhandling three journalists and destroying some of its equipment. Earlier, during a police operation to clear out illegal street hawkers from the capital, a police vehicle collided with another car. When Austin Thomas, Sylvester Suallay and Junior John, three journalists working for Awoko, arrived on the scene 50 metres from their office and began taking photos, police ordered them not to interfere and chased them back to their office. Then under the orders of assistant police chief, Momodu Bangura, several dozen police officers raided the offices. This misuse of power went unpunished. Worse : The following day the police returned to complain to the paper for reporting the incident and threatened to arrest Awoko’s management.

The government’s deafness to any of the journalists’ demands, the further imprisonment of Paul Kamara, and the progressive disengagement of UNAMSIL does not bode well for the future of this fragile west African country in 2005.

In 2004...

1 journalist was imprisoned
1 journalist was seriously injured
3 journalists were physically attacked
1 journalist was threatened
1 media premises were searched
and 1 media was censored

Source: Reporters Sans Frontieres