Attacks on the Press 1999: Sierra Leone

In 1999, Sierra Leone became the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, with a total of 10 journalists killed in the line of duty. (See Special Report on Sierra Leone) The combined rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) viewed all journalists as “enemies.” During a bloody three-week occupation of the capital, Freetown, in January, rebel forces executed at least eight journalists, some together with their families, before being ousted by the Nigerian- led West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG).

Rebel forces also damaged or destroyed the Freetown offices of several news organizations, including those of the independent  Concord Times and  Standard Times.

A ninth journalist was killed in February by ECOMOG soldiers, and a 10th died in prison after authorities denied him medical treatment for tuberculosis until four days before his death. Others journalists were abducted or went into hiding, and some fled into exile. As a result, the whereabouts of many journalists could not be confirmed for several months.

Christopher Coker, managing editor of  The Advocate, Momodu Adams, managing editor of  News Watch, and Chernor Ojuku Sesay, editor of  The Pool, disappeared into rebel-held territory in January. All three journalists reappeared in Freetown in July.

Since the civil war began, in 1991, the Sierra Leonean press has faced harassment, threats, and censorship–all in the name of “national security.” Journalists have been attacked by virtually every party to the conflict, including successive military juntas, rebel forces, civilian governments, peacekeeping troops, civil militia, and, until early 1997, even South African mercenaries fighting in Sierra Leone.

The February arrest of Philip Neville, managing editor of the independent   Standard Times newspaper, in connection with an article about business ties between Sierra Leone’s vice president and an alleged Israeli spy, illustrated the current government’s disdain for the independent press.

In May, the government issued new press guidelines that many journalists saw as a form of censorship. Newspapers were given short notice to register or cease publication and also faced a tax increase of almost 400 percent. At the same time, Attorney General Solomon Berewa warned that any journalist found guilty of publishing reports “adverse to operations of government forces” would be prosecuted.

Several dozen newspapers were publishing in Sierra Leone last year, the vast majority in four-page tabloid format. Many of them had never registered with the government. And despite the new guidelines, it was clear that many newspapers continued to publish without meeting all the legal requirements, thus inviting official harassment.

The ECOMOG peacekeeping force was also highly sensitive to press criticism. In April, ECOMOG soldiers arrested Winston Ojukutu-Macauley, BBC correspondent in Freetown, for his critical reporting about the peacekeeping force. In May and June, ECOMOG detained a string of journalists, including Independent Observer editor Jonathan Leigh, who was arrested twice. Numerous journalists from his newspaper and the independent Daily Progress were arrested as well.

On July 7, the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah signed a peace agreement with the RUF rebels (led by Foday Sankoh) in the Togolese capital, Lomé. The Lomé agreement consolidated a May 24 cease-fire and turned the RUF into a political party, granting it four cabinet posts (one of them senior) and four deputy ministerial positions. The AFRC did not sign the agreement and felt marginalized by its terms. Sankoh was offered the post of chairman of the Board for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction, and Development, a government body. Perhaps more controversial, fighters on both sides received amnesty for crimes committed since the outbreak of the civil war in 1991.

On the weekend of July 31, a total of 98 former officials and alleged collaborators of the AFRC were released from jail, including four journalists imprisoned on charges of treason in August 1998. The four included Jipu Felix George, Dennis Smith, Mildred Hanciles–all employees of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service–and Ibrahim Kargbo, editor of the New Citizen newspaper.

However, many journalists in Freetown reported that they continued to be threatened and harassed for doing their jobs. Most of the threats apparently came from former AFRC and RUF combatants (many of whom remained armed) and their collaborators, in retaliation for news reports dating back to the first AFRC/RUF military coup of May 1997. Even after the peace agreement, some journalists still received death threats, and others were forced to change houses daily for fear of being attacked.

The fragility of the peace agreement was underscored on August 4, when disgruntled AFRC rebels abducted a group of about 40 people near Freetown, including UN military observers and four journalists (they were released a few days later). In a separate incident, AFRC loyalists briefly abducted free-lance journalist Patrick Kai-Banya along with several RUF commanders.

On August 20, three RUF commanders stormed the offices of the independent newspaper For Di People. One of the commanders assaulted the newspaper’s publisher and owner, Paul Kamara, in connection with an article contrasting the “posh life” enjoyed by RUF top brass in Freetown with the hardships endured by RUF fighters in the bush. The assault was witnessed by an ECOMOG officer, who did not intervene. RUF leader Foday Sankoh responded to CPJ protests by writing, “[I] categorically and clearly refute the report from CPJ. The truth is that my men went to the offices of For Di People to politely request audience with the editors.” Sankoh added that several reports in the newspaper “threatened to jeopardize the peace process.”

Also in August, the government tabled a new bill to regulate print media. The bill contained a proposal for a three-member media council, appointed by the president, with powers to suspend or revoke media licenses as well as impose heavy fines. The bill would further give the Ministry of Information authority to approve or revoke the registration of newspapers. Parliament has yet to pass the bill.

Civilians in general, including journalists, continued to complain of harassment and extortion by armed rebels (there was far less security in the countryside than in Freetown). After many delays, rebel leaders Foday Sankoh and Johnny Paul Koroma finally arrived in Freetown on October 3, to a mixed reaction by the populace. In late November, the first of 6,000 UN peacekeepers started to deploy in the country, but rebel forces were still committing atrocities against civilians at year’s end.

January 6
Aroun Rashid Deen, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service ATTACKED

Deen, a news reporter and producer for the state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcastng Service (SLBS), was forced into hiding during the January 1999 invasion of the capital, Freetown, by rebel forces who were specfically targeting journalists. Rebels burned down Deen’s residence with all his belongings. His wife’s cousin and several other relatives were threatened with death if they did not reveal his whereabouts.

Deen had previously been the target of death threats because of his work as a journalist. In March 1998, when the military junta of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels was ousted by Nigerian-led West African peacekeepers who restored the democratically elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, Deen produced and hosted a series of radio and TV programs that graphically highlighted rebel atrocities during their 10-month occupation of Freetown.

Clips of these programs were subsequently used as evidence in the treason trials of suspected AFRC/RUFcollaborators, which resulted in the execution of 24 military officers in October 1998. As a result, surviving junta members, along with relatives and friends of the executed officers, identified Deen as their enemy. He soon began receiving anonymous death threats.

In the week following the signing of the July 7, 1999, peace accord in Lomé,Togo, hundreds of rebels began entering Freetown from the bush, many of them still armed. Toward the end of July, Deen started receiving death threats again. He was forced to stay in a different house every night, while his family reported that a number of unidentified men were asking for his whereabouts.

With the help of an emergency grant from CPJ, Deen was able to leave Freetown on July 31. He arrived in New York on August 1 and began seeking political asylum in the United States. His family remained in Freetown.

January 8
James Ogogo, The Concord Times KILLED

Ogogo, a Nigerian journalist for the independent Concord Times, was murdered by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Freetown. An eyewitness reported that a group of rebels sought out Ogogo at the newspaper’s offices, tied him to a truck, and dragged him along the road. They then stopped the truck, untied Ogogo, and told him to start walking. Then they opened fire and killed him.

January 9
Jenner “J.C.” Cole, SKY-FM KILLED

RUF rebels abducted radio journalist Cole from his Freetown home. He was shot dead by his abductors, in front of his fiancée. RUF forces reportedly entered Freetown with a list of journalists to be eliminated for what was perceived as “anti-RUF” coverage.

January 9
Mohammed Kamara, SKY-FM KILLED

Radio correspondent Kamara was shot dead by RUF rebels in Freetown, on January 9. Kamara covered court proceedings, including the treason trials that followed President Kabbah’s reinstatement to power after a period when Sierra Leone was ruled by rebel factions.

January 9
Paul Mansaray, Standard Times KILLED

Editor Mansaray, his wife, their two young children, and a nephew were murdered by RUF rebels at their home east of Freetown. Rebels set the house ablaze and fired their weapons into the house as it burned, with Mansaray and his family inside.

January 9
Mabay Kamara, free-lancer KILLED

Free-lance reporter Mabay Kamara was abducted by RUF rebels and subsequently murdered. Kamara’s wife witnessed the abduction. Rebels set the Kamara residence on fire before leaving the area.

January 9
Munir Turay, free-lancer KILLED

Munir Turay, a free-lance reporter, was killed sometime between January 9 and January 15. Colleagues who attended his funeral reported that he had bullet holes in his back. At that time rebel forces were systematically murdering journalists, and Turay’s colleagues were in no doubt that he had been killed for this reason.

January 9
Michael Charlie Hinga, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS) ATTACKED

Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels abducted Hinga, an on-air broadcaster with the state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS), from his home near the Parliament buildings in Freetown.

At around the same time, RUF rebels also abducted a journalist known as “Lucky J,” like Hinga an on-air broadcaster with SLBS, from his home in central Freetown.

The two journalists managed to escape during an aerial attack on the rebels by the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force. Later that day, they came across the corpse of fellow journalist Jenner Cole, a broadcaster with the independent radio station SKY-FM. But when they tried to move Cole’s body they were attacked by RUF rebels. Hinga and Lucky J were forced to leave Cole’s body in the street as they fled for their lives.

January 10
Myles Tierney, The Associated Press KILLED
Ian Stewart, The Associated Press ATTACKED
David Guttenfelder, The Associated Press ATTACKED

Tierney, a Nairobi-based television producer for the Associated Press (AP), was killed in Freetown when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets by a man reported to be a Revolutionary United Front rebel.

Stewart, the Abidjan-based AP bureau chief, who was also in the vehicle, was shot in the head and wounded. Guttenfelder, an AP photographer also based in Nairobi, suffered cuts from broken window glass when the vehicle came under fire.

The two survivors later reported that as they were driving through the center of Freetown, an armed man approached the vehicle. After an exchange of words with a soldier of the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force who was accompanying the journalists and Information Ministry officials, the man opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle.

January 10
Kelvin Lewis, Voice of America ATTACKED

Revolutionary United Front rebels threatened to kill Lewis, the Freetown stringer for Voice of America radio, and his family, after setting their house on fire.

The rebels had previously asked Lewis’s neighbors for his whereabouts, warning that he was on an RUF list of journalists marked for execution. On the night of January 10, the rebels returned to the neighborhood, saying they had orders to burn every house on the street. As they threw a gasoline-filled bottle through Lewis’ front window, setting the house ablaze, Lewis managed to escape through the back door with his family, including his 79-year-old mother. Rebels caught Lewis and his family on the next street and threatened them with execution. They were saved by a neighbor, who recognized one of the assailants because they had attended school together, and persuaded him to let the group go free.

January 17
Alpha Amadu Bah, Independent Observer KILLED

A group of rebels from the RUF and the former Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) killed Bah, a sports reporter for the daily Independent Observer, at his home in Freetown. According to an eyewitness, the rebels came to Bah’s house asking for a different person, then set the house on fire and shot Bah dead as he was trying to flee.

January 22
Mustapha Sesay, Standard Times ATTACKED

Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels attacked Sesay, a production manager for the Standard Times, gouging out his right eye with a machete. Sesay is one of the very few Sierra Leonean journalists known to have survived a physical attack during the RUF occupation of Freetown in January 1999.

January 25
Javier Espinosa, El Mundo HARASSED
Patrick Saint-Paul, Le Figaro HARASSED

Rebel soldiers of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) kidnapped Espinosa, a reporter for the Spanish daily El Mundo, and Saint-Paul, a reporter for the French daily Le Figaro, when the two journalists attempted to interview the RUF commander in the Calaba Town area of east Freetown. Saint-Paul was released the same day and Espinosa about 48 hours later.

February 3
Abdulai Jumah Jalloh, African Champion KILLED

Jalloh, who was news editor of the independent newspaper African Champion, was killed by a West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) soldier in Freetown, reportedly because somebody accused him of being an RUF rebel.

February 24
Phillip Neville, Standard Times IMPRISONED

Plainclothes police officers arrested Neville, managing editor of the independent Standard Times, following the newspaper’s publication that same day of an article entitled “Jo Demby’s Partner to Kill Kabbah and Jonah.” The article reported on alleged business ties between Demby, vice president of Sierra Leone, and Yail Galkaleil, an Israeli national who had been jailed three weeks earlier on espionage charges. The article also reported that Galkaleil planned to assassinate President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and Finance Minister James Jonah.

Neville was released on March 8.

April 20
Winston Ojukutu-Macauley, BBC HARASSED

Ojukutu-Macauley, Freetown correspondent for the BBC, was arrested at the Sierratel communications center by officers of the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG). He was taken to the city’s Wilberforce Barracks and interrogated about broadcast reports in which he had alleged that ECOMOG soldiers were confiscating cars whose drivers had violated the 6 p.m. curfew but that they later failed to return the cars to their drivers in accordance with the law.

He was released the same afternoon. That evening, however, the state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service aired radio and television reports that accused Ojukutu-Macauley of having fabricated statements by rebel leader Foday Sankoh. This attack on Ojukutu-Macauley’s credibility gave rise to grave concerns for his personal safety.

CPJ protested the incident in an April 21 letter to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

April 30
Conrad Roy,
Expo Times KILLED

Conrad Roy, former news editor of the banned Expo Times newspaper, died after contracting tuberculosis in Freetown’s central prison. Roy received no medical treatment until April 26, four days before his death in the Lakka TB hospital.

May 5
Ahmed Kanneh, The New Storm IMPRISONED
Thomas Gbow, The New Storm IMPRISONED
Mohammad Massaquoi, The New Storm IMPRISONED

Kanneh, Gbow, and Massaquoi–publisher, editor, and news editor, respectively, at the independent weekly The New Storm–were apprehended at the newspaper’s offices in Freetown by detectives from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID).

The arrests were motivated by an article in the May 5 issue of The New Storm that quoted portions of an alleged telephone conversation between Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) commander Maj. Gen. Felix Mujakperuo and Col. Sam Bockarie of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel forces.

In a press release issued that same day, however, ECOMOG rejected the report, claiming that the alleged conversation never took place. Charged with publishing alarmist news under the 1998 Emergency Press Law, Kanneh, Gbow, and Massaquoi were released on May 11 after posting combined bail of 5 million leones (US$2,400).

May 18
Jonathan Leigh, Independent Observer IMPRISONED

Leigh, managing editor for the independent daily Independent Observer, was arrested by two officers of the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG). The arrest came in response to a May 17 article in which Leigh described a raid on a Freetown location by ECOMOG troops under the command of a Major Tanko, who apparently suspected the place to of being illegal weapons depot. Leigh was released two days later without charge.

June 10
Gibril Foday Musa, New Tablet ATTACKED

Musa, editor of the Freetown-based independent New Tablet, was detained for several hours and assaulted by members of the Kamajor civil militia. Two Kamajor militiamen came to the offices of the New Sierra Leonean newspaper, which shares premises with the New Tablet in central Freetown, searching for editor George Khoryama.

The Kamajors were concerned about an article in the June 10 edition of the New Sierra Leonean entitled “Kamajors Vow to Overthrow Kabbah.” The article alleged that the Kamajor militia intended to topple President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah if his government agreed to share power with the rebel Revolutionary United Front. Khoryama was not in the office, so the Kamajors began questioning Musa and an unidentified caretaker.

After several more Kamajors arrived, the militiamen drove Musa and the caretaker to the Brookfields Hotel, their Freetown headquarters. Musa later reported that he and the caretaker were stripped down to their underwear, beaten, and locked in a small generator room, which the attackers filled with water so that the men were unable to sit down. The Kamajors released them that evening.

June 10
Sorie Sudan Sesay, Independent Observer IMPRISONED
Bai Bai Sesay, Independent Observer IMPRISONED
Sorie Ibrahim Sesay, Daily Progress IMPRISONED
Jerry Tryson, Daily Progress IMPRISONED
Jonathan Leigh, Independent Observer IMPRISONED

Soldiers of the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) arrested Sorie Sudan Sesay, editor of the private daily Independent Observer, Bai Bai Sesay, senior reporter for the same newspaper, Sorie Ibrahim Sesay, reporter for the private Daily Progress, and Tryson, deputy editor of the same newspaper. The four journalists were arrested along with several support staff at the shared premises of the newspapers on Short Street in central Freetown. The arrests were ordered by Major Tanko of the ECOMOG peacekeeping force.

ECOMOG soldiers raided the newspaper offices after an alleged tip-off that arms and ammunition were being stored there. Eyewitnesses told CPJ that when they arrived at the scene, a wide variety of pistols, cartridges, and other ammunition, as well as radio handsets, were displayed outside the offices.

However, independent observers claimed that ECOMOG had planted the arms cache in order to frame the two newspapers, both of which had published articles critical of the peacekeeping force.

ECOMOG also claimed to have found letters addressed to Jonathan Leigh, managing editor of the Independent Observer, containing “sensitive” information sent to him by “pro-rebel” journalists exiled abroad. Leigh, who was absent at the time of the arrests, turned himself in to police five days later, on June 15.

The four journalists arrested on June 10 were reportedly beaten by ECOMOG soldiers before being transferred to cells at the Criminal Investigation Department. The three Sesays were released on June 30. That same day, Tryson and Leigh stood trial in the High Court on charges of spying and collaborating with rebels (both treasonable offenses that carry the death penalty). After their second court appearance on July 6, all charges were dropped owing to lack of evidence. The two journalists were then released.

July 6
Abdul Rahman Swaray, Independent Observer HARASSED

Freetown police arrested Swaray, a journalist with the daily newspaper the Independent Observer, and questioned him in relation to the same charges of spying and collaborating with Revolutionary United Front rebels for which the newspaper’s editor, Jonathan Leigh, and other staff had been arrested in May (see May 18 and June 10 cases).

Swaray was reportedly arrested on the order of a High Court judge, Rashid Tarawallie, who also happened to be his uncle, with whom he was living at the time. Swaray was released the next day without a court appearance.

August 4
Christo Johnson, Reuters IMPRISONED, HARASSED
Pasco Temple, Star Radio IMPRISONED, HARASSED
Ade Campbell, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service IMPRISONED, HARASSED
Chernor Bangura, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service IMPRISONED, HARASSED

Johnson, a Reuters reporter; Temple, a journalist with Star Radio of Liberia; Campbell of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS) radio; and Bangura, a cameraman for SLBS television, were among a group of people taken hostage by Sierra Leone rebels in the Okra Hills, some 40 miles east of the capital, Freetown.

The group, which also included United Nations military observers and aid workers, was in the Okra Hills for the handover of some 200 children abducted by rebels during the eight-year civil war. But instead of releasing the children, the rebels detained the visitors. In exchange for their release, the rebels, who were loyal to the former military junta of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), demanded food, medicine, and recognition under the terms of the Lomé peace agreement.

The hostages were released over several days. All of them were free by August 10.

August 20
Jonathan Leigh, Independent Observer THREATENED

An officer from the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) who called himself Major Anthony threatened Leigh, managing editor of the Freetown-based Independent Observer newspaper, over the telephone. The officer apparently told Leigh, “If you get into ECOMOG’s net again, you won’t come out alive.”

This threat came in response to a satirical article in the August 18 edition of the newspaper that questioned ECOMOG’s ability to keep the peace in Freetown, in light of an increase in the number of armed robberies in the city’s east end.

Writing in reply to a protest letter sent by CPJ on August 24, ECOMOG’s chief spokesman in Freetown, Lt. Col. Chris Olukolade, denied the allegations, adding that “in their desperation [some] journalists and writers have embarked on a clandestine campaign of calumny against ECOMOG by filing false reports,” with the aim of “attracting aid and cheap visas to Western countries.”

August 20
Paul Kamara, For Di People ATTACKED

Three commanders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)–Mike Lamine, Dennis “Superman” Mingo, and “Brigadier Five-Five” (otherwise known as S. P. Kanu)–stormed the offices of the Freetown newspaper For Di People. The three men assaulted the paper’s publisher and owner, Paul Kamara, who is still unable to walk properly after surviving an assassination attempt in 1996.

Lamine, who was reportedly drunk at the time, hit Kamara in the face and smashed his glasses. An officer from the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) was in the office at the time but did nothing to prevent the assault.

During the altercation, the RUF commanders complained about an article published in For Di People that same day that claimed that rebel commanders in Freetown were demanding fancy cars and daily allowances from the government. A photograph showed some of the same commanders in question drinking at a Freetown bar. The three commanders said such reports endangered them and sent the wrong signal to RUF fighters still in the bush.

CPJ protested the attack in a letter faxed to ECOMOG headquarters in Freetown on August 24. ECOMOG’s chief spokesman, Lt. Col. Chris Olukolade, replied on August 30, stating that “the ECOMOG soldier at the scene of the incident passionately appealed [to the two men] to stop quarreling and behave like gentlemen…. [T]he lone soldier could not have gone beyond this effort, more so as there was no indication of the use of firearms by any party in the quarrel.”

August 25
Emmanuel Sanossi, The Reporter IMPRISONED, EXPELLED

Two plainclothes officers of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) “invited” Sanossi, editor of the independent Reporter newspaper and a Cameroonian national, to CID headquarters for questioning. The officers asked to see Sanossi’s work permit, questioned his legal right to live in Sierra Leone, and also asked whether his newspaper was properly registered. (Sanossi replied that the registration was “still in progress.”)

According to some of Sanossi’s colleagues in Freetown, this interrogation was a pretext for silencing his newspaper. Several Freetown newspapers operate without proper registration, but authorities seem to have singled out The Reporter for publishing articles critical of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

Sanossi was released later the same day. Two days later he was again “invited” to CID headquarters to discuss the same issues. This time he was served with a deportation order and detained in police cells for more than five weeks.

On September 3, CPJ wrote to President Kabbah urgently requesting additional information about the deportation order and voicing concern that such action was being taken purely as a result of Sanossi’s work as a journalist. No reply was received. On October 4 Sanossi was deported to Cameroon, despite international protests.

August 30
Patrick Emerson Kai-Banya, free-lancer HARASSED

Kai-Banya, a free-lance journalist who contributed to the independent Concord Times newspaper in Freetown, was abducted by soldiers of the former Sierra Leone army in the Okra Hills area, east of the capital. Five Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel commanders were abducted at the same time.

At the time of his abduction, Kai-Banya was traveling with the five RUF commanders, who were on their way to northern Sierra Leone to prepare for the return from Togo of RUF leader Foday Sankoh.

The renegade soldiers justified the abductions on the grounds that they had been marginalized by the Lomé peace agreement of July 7. Kai-Banya was released one week later.