Sierra Leone: In climate of increasing press freedom violations, editor detained illegally

May 19, 2000

President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah
State House
Freetown, Sierra Leone

VIA FAX: 232-22-225-615

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by recent serious press freedom violations in Sierra Leone. We are particularly concerned about the continued illegal detention of Abdoul Kouyateh, acting editor of the private Freetown weekly Wisdom Newspaper.

Officers from the Criminal Investigation Department arrested Kouyateh at his newspaper’s office on May 11 and drove him to the central police station in Freetown. He remained there as of today, according to his colleagues. Kouyateh was arrested for endangering state security by requesting an interview with Foday Sankoh, leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who continues to hold a cabinet post in Your Excellency’s administration. Kouyateh has now been detained without formal charges for longer than the 72-hour limit imposed by the Constitution.

According to journalists in Freetown, Kouyateh contacted Sankoh in December 1999 while investigating allegations that Your Excellency’s government had hired mercenaries from the United Liberia Independent Movement (ULIMO) to destabilize the regime of Charles Taylor, Liberia’s president.

Kouyateh never published the results of his investigation. According to his colleagues at Wisdom Newspaper, he dropped the story because it proved to have no substance. Police arrested the journalist on May 11, however, because his name appeared on a piece of paper found in the ruins of Sankoh’s Freetown residence. Sankoh’s home was looted on May 8 by irate citizens protesting the resumption of hostilities by RUF forces, who had kidnapped nearly 500 United Nations peacekeeping forces on May 3. The paper appeared to be a note written to Sankoh by his secretary, stating that Kouyateh had asked for an interview, CPJ sources say.

While CPJ is aware of the state of emergency caused by the resumption of hostilities between the RUF and the alliance of UN forces and soldiers loyal to the government, we believe that the right of journalists to gather information from all sources should not, under any circumstances, be perceived as a crime.

We respectfully remind Your Excellency that Section 25 of Sierra Leone’s 1991 Constitution provides that “except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference with his correspondence […]”

As Your Excellency is no doubt aware, Sierra Leone has become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Sankoh, who is in the custody of British forces after being detained on May 17 by members of a pro-government militia, remains a member of your administration at the time of this writing.

Sankoh’s RUF rebels are responsible for the assassination of at least 11 journalists since the civil war broke out in 1991. In all, 13 of our colleagues have been murdered in your country since 1991, simply because they showed their professional commitment to report the news in the face of tremendous odds.

The most recent victim was Saoman Conteh, a journalist with the independent weekly New Tablet, who was shot on May 8 by a member of the RUF while covering the demonstration outside Sankoh’s residence. Sankoh’s bodyguards opened fire on the crowd of demonstrators and killed at least nineteen people, several news organizations reported. Conteh, who was shot in the chest and the leg, fell on the ground and was suffocated by the stampede of people fleeing the gunshots. His body remained on the street for more than 24 hours before he was taken to Connaught Hospital in Freetown, where doctors pronounced him dead.

That same day, during the same demonstration, RUF members assaulted Corinna Schuler, a journalist with the U.S. daily Christian Science Monitor, according to local and international news reports. She was stopped by RUF soldiers outside their leader’s house and threatened with death. An RUF member reportedly bit her arm and asked for money before she was released.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, CPJ believes that a free and functioning press is an essential for the resolution of civil conflict. If journalists in Sierra Leone are not free to cover issues relating to the civil war, then the citizens of Sierra Leone will be unable to participate in national reconciliation.

The press, unlike other institutions, can function independently of the state and therefore can operate effectively even in a society that is still engaged in a violent conflict. However, creating minimum conditions of safety for the press requires that all parties to the conflict refrain from interfering with or inhibiting the work of journalists.

We therefore urge Your Excellency to ensure that Abdoul Kouyateh of the Wisdom Newspaper is immediately and unconditionally released from illegal detention, and that all those who deliberately kill or assault journalists are brought to justice.

We also urge you to demonstrate your commitment to press freedom by publicly affirming the right of all journalists in Sierra Leone to work freely, without government interference. Such a statement would serve to reiterate the guarantees contained in Section 11 of the 1991 Constitution, which clearly states that “the press, radio and television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Constitution and highlight the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.”

We await your comments.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director