Attacks on the Press 2000: Sierra Leone

SIERRA LEONE REMAINS THE MOST DANGEROUS COUNTRY IN AFRICA for journalists. In 2000, Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels killed three reporters, bringing to 15 the total number of journalists killed in the war-plagued West African nation since 1997. The RUF alone is responsible for 13 of those deaths.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ placed RUF leader Foday Sankoh at the top of its annual list of the “Ten Worst Enemies of the Press.” At the time, Sankoh was still a member of the government under a United Nations-brokered peace agreement, which made him chairman of the Management of Strategic Mineral Resources Committee.

That same day, May 3, RUF rebels took 400 UN peacekeeping troops hostage in defiance of the international community’s attempts to restore peace in the country. This incident caused the UN and other peace brokers to abandon their conciliatory approach toward Sankoh and the RUF. Within Sierra Leone, popular scorn for Sankoh and the RUF culminated in a May 8 demonstration in front of Sankoh’s Freetown residence.

During the demonstration, Sankoh’s bodyguards opened fire on the crowd and killed 19 people, including journalist Saoman Conteh, who was covering the event for the Freetown weekly New Tablet. The RUF made international headlines again on May 24, when its fighters ambushed a Sierra Leone Army convoy and killed six people, among them veteran Reuters correspondent Kurt Schork and Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, a cameraman-producer with The Associated Press. Two other international reporters, Reuters cameraman Mark Chisholm and Reuters photographer Yannis Behrakis, were wounded in the same ambush.

Sankoh was arrested on May 17. At year’s end he was in government custody at an undisclosed location.

While the RUF remained the most serious threat to the safety of journalists covering the decade-old conflict, all the other parties were responsible for press freedom violations as well. In May, the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah arrested Abdoul Kouyateh, acting editor of the private weekly Wisdom, for allegedly endangering state security by requesting an interview with Sankoh. Kouyateh was investigating allegations that the Kabbah government had hired mercenaries to unseat Charles Taylor, president of neighboring Liberia. The results of his investigation were never published.

Kouyateh was not released until late September. Speaking to reporters, Attorney General and Minister of Justice Solomon Berewa argued that the journalist’s prolonged detention without formal charges did not violate Sierra Leone’s Constitution because he was being held under the State of Emergency Act, an exceptional measure designed to cover sedition and violations of state security. Berewa also accused Kouyateh of conspiring with the RUF, although the authorities could not produce evidence to support this claim.

On occasion, United Nations peacekeeping forces also treated the local press in a heavy-handed manner. On June 14, June Caulker, a reporter for the private biweekly Salone Times, was beaten by a Nigerian military officer serving with the UN peacekeeping mission to Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). The attack was prompted by a Caulker article that criticized a UNAMSIL commander for firing a warning shot during the May 8 demonstration outside Sankoh’s house. Caulker charged that this shot provoked the fusillade by Sankoh’s bodyguards that killed Conteh and 18 others.

As the war’s unique brutality continued to attract international condemnation, mainly of the RUF, the Freetown government tried to improve its relations with the press. Local journalists received logistical help and military protection from government troops when assigned to cover frontline battles. Meanwhile, Information Minister Julius Spencer announced that even though some of the reports produced by local journalists were “not factual, the government has decided to allow them to operate without being taken to task.”

Sierra Leonean journalists were still divided, and there were widespread allegations of local reporters accepting money or political patronage in return for projecting a pro-RUF or pro-government bias. A CPJ survey conducted in June by exiled Sierra Leonean journalist Aroun Rashid Deen found fierce disagreement among local reporters, several of whom did not hesitate to accuse their colleagues of unethical behavior and even serious crimes.

Another source of impassioned discord was a media bill, proposed in August 1999, that would grant the government powers to suspend or revoke newspaper licenses and the press cards of journalists deemed to have flouted professional ethics. The bill was still pending at year’s end.

Alex Piler, SLBS

Piler, a news reporter with the state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS), was assaulted by Kamajor (traditional village hunter) militiamen while reporting on a demonstration of former civil war combatants in Freetown.

Piler approached one of the militiamen for an interview, but was instead surrounded by an angry mob of protesters who briefly roughed him up. The attackers also confiscated Piler’s tape recorder, which they handed back to the SLBS two days later, according to local news reports.

Saoman Conteh, New Tablet

Conteh, a journalist with the independent weekly New Tablet, was killed while covering a spontaneous demonstration outside the Freetown residence of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel leader Foday Sankoh.

Sankoh’s bodyguards opened fire on a crowd of people who were protesting the May 3 abduction of United Nations peacekeepers by the RUF. The fusillade killed at least 19 people. Conteh, who was shot in the chest and the leg, fell to the ground and was suffocated by the stampede of people fleeing the gunmen. His body remained on the street for more than 24 hours before being taken to Connaught Hospital in Freetown, where doctors pronounced him dead.

A journalist for nearly three decades, Conteh, had been working for New Tablet since 1999.

Corinna Schuler, The Christian Science Monitor

Armed rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) assaulted Schuler, a reporter with the U.S. daily Christian Science Monitor, while she was covering a spontaneous demonstration outside the Freetown residence of RUF leader Foday Sankoh.

RUF soldiers threatened to kill Schuler. One of them allegedly bit her on the arm and demanded money before she was released.

MAY 11
Abdoul Kouyateh, Wisdom Newspaper

Officers from the Criminal Investigation Department arrested Kouyateh, acting editor of the private weekly Wisdom Newspaper, at his office and drove him to the central police station in Freetown.

Kouyateh was arrested for allegedly endangering state security after he requested an interview with Foday Sankoh, leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). According to local journalists, Kouyateh contacted Sankoh in December 1999 while investigating allegations that the Sierra Leone government had hired mercenaries from the United Liberia Independent Movement (ULIMO) to destabilize the regime of Liberian president Charles Taylor.

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.)

The paper appeared to be a note to Sankoh from his secretary, stating that Kouyateh had asked for an interview. CPJ protested his illegal detention in a May 19 letter to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

Kouyateh was pardoned by President Kabbah in mid-September after the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) lobbied intensely on his behalf.

MAY 24
Kurt Schork, Reuters
Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, The Associated Press
Yannis Behrakis, Reuters
Mark Chisholm, Reuters

Veteran Reuters correspondent Schork and Associated Press cameraman Gil Moreno were killed in an ambush by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Schork and Gil Moreno were traveling in two vehicles with soldiers from the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) when RUF forces opened fire on them east of Rogberi Junction, some 54 miles (86 kilometers) from the capital, Freetown. The ambush took place in an area that had recently been the scene of fierce fighting between rebels and pro-government forces.

Four SLA soldiers were also killed in the incident, while two other Reuters journalists, cameraman Chisholm and photographer Behrakis, were wounded. Chisholm and Behrakis received first-aid treatment at a local hospital run by United Nations peacekeepers before they were evacuated to Indian Field Hospital in Freetown, where they were treated for minor injuries.

June Caulker, Salone Times

Caulker, a reporter for the private Freetown biweekly Salone Times, was physically assaulted by a Nigerian military officer attached to UNAMSIL, the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone.

The officer was identified only as “Major Umar.” The attack was apparently prompted by a May 9 article in which Caulker harshly criticized a UNAMSIL commander for firing a warning shot during a demonstration outside the house of rebel leader Foday Sankoh. Caulker charged that this warning shot triggered the deadly fusillade from Sankoh’s bodyguards that killed more than 20 people outside the house, including journalist Saoman Conteh. (See April 11 case)