Sierra Leone: A Press Gulag

11 August 2005 at 05:19 | 1082 views

The media in Sierra Leone has been in deep mourning since the death of For Di People former Deputy Editor Harry Yansanneh who was beaten allegedly on the orders of SLPP parliamentarian Honourable Fatmata-Hassan-Komeh.Abdulai Bayraytay, himself a journalist who had his share of political persecution in Sierra Leone examines the issues involved and looks at the media horizon in the troubled country.

By Abdulai Bayraytay

To say that the press is on trial in Sierra Leone will be an understatement. Indeed, Sierra Leone stands at the cross roads of whether to revert to yet another war (blamed on youth misguided adventurism, a mass of economic plunderers et al) or to consolidate the fragile peace by unconditionally respecting the rule of law, an aggressive defence of human and peoples rights; fine and laudable imprints for a thriving democracy.

If there is any semblance of tolerance on the part of the somewhat inept ruling government in asserting the right to freedom of expression by creating an enabling and congenial atmosphere that would erase any psychological fears on the part of the determined journalist from practicing his chosen profession, that hope seems to rest on sandy promises. Agreed, there are some moles in the profession who are hiding under the cloaks of lack of training, inadequate funding, lack of printing equipment and the astronomical costs associated with running a newspaper back home. Such yellow journalists I deplore indeed!

However, the recent deluge of abuses against journalists has left some of us perplexed. Today, Paul Kamara of the For-di-People newspaper is languishing in jail because he mustered the temerity to reprint portions of the Beoku Betts Commission which categorically barred incumbent President Kabbah from holding “any position of responsibility”. But since Kabbah has the paraphenalia of armed thugs in the name of the police and the Soviet-inspired Criminal Investigation personnel at his disposal, Paul Kamara was picked up by just a wink of a surrogate politician close to the president. “The pa nor happy with da story day oh! Enti u know... den donor say we for respect human rights for aid eh). This phrase, a common phenomenon in my poor country when translated into English reads:” The president is not happy with that story. You know the donors ask us to respect human rights as a condition for aid).

Indeed, this is a sordid reminder of my ordeal in the hands of the thuggish and ill-informed Strasser and his cronies like Maada Bio (can you imagine ex-killers wanting to rule our country?) after the now defunct New Breed Press ran a story in October 1993 indicting the ex-sobel leaders of involvement in the illegal sale of diamonds. The price was a couple of weeks in jail and excruciating torture whilst my former bosses were charged to court for “undermining the peace of the country.”

The recent attack on and subsequent death of erstwhile journalist Harry Yansaneh who doubled as Acting Editor-in Chief of the prolific For-di-People newspaper in the hands of thugs supposedly hired by Honourable Fatmata Hassan Komeh of the ruling SLPP party was just a tip of the iceberg. This brings to mind the sorry state of our country, a sort of animal kingdom wherein all animals are presumed equal but some invariably more equal than others. Had the order been from say a critic of the ruling class, he/she would have been instantly arrested because he belonged to the “wrong” camp. That is why I would exonerate folks who have been co-opted into clientele politics after their vociferous opposition to the SLPP. Today, one is heading the Human Rights Committee in Parliament but was loudly silent in condemning human rights violations. What a paradox? “Well, things have changed, for only fools don’t change”, one would proffer a defence.

Whilst some of us laud the efforts of the leadership of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) in correcting some, if not all, the ills vexingly confronting our beloved country, especially when a cross section of our politicians does not care a hoot about human rights and the rule of law, SLAJ should be seen to take a more radical and robust stance by initiating news blackout not only on the VP, as it has insinuated, but by mounting a vigorous campaign to bring to book those involved in the brutal killing of poor Harry Yansaneh, and the unconditional release from jail of Paul Kamara and other victims of the justice system. SLAJ should work hand in hand with the Acting Inspector-General of Police Chris Charley who is on record to have placed his credibility on the firing line by promising “...Interpol will track those responsible for Harry’s death.” The campaign should be vociferous in “persuading” the authorities to modify, if not expunge, the moribund and notorious 1965 Public Order Act.

As patriotic citizens silently mourn the untimely death of a courageous and well-informed colleague in the person of late Yansaneh, I solemnly doff my hat to those mighty pens out there that would ever continue to defy the intimidations of our low-keyed politicians who are bent at nothing rather than coveting power for their self aggrandized gains. May the soul of Harry Yansaneh rest in perfect peace!

Photo: Honourable Fatmata Hassan-Komeh.

About the author:
Abdulai Bayraytay, one of Sierra Leone’s young and promising journalists, holds an honours degree in Political Science from the University of Sierra Leone and a masters degree in the same field at Wilfrid Laurier university in Canada.He now lives and works in Toronto.