For the first time since 1996, no journalist was killed in Sierra Leone last year, a welcome development in a country that had earned the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous country in Africa for journalists.
However, journalists were threatened by former rebels and government officials alike. In September, seven members of the independent press received bizarre, identical letters signed by a so-called danger squad that threatened to kill them for being “enemies of the state.” CPJ sources in Freetown linked the threat to outspoken opinion pieces on President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s decision to postpone general elections from December 2001 to May 2002.
Meanwhile, the Independent Media Commission, established by an act of parliament to register newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations and to advise the minister of information on media issues, started operating last year. In December, the commission updated publication licenses for 21 existing newspapers. But the publications still need approval from the registrar general and income tax department, which had not been granted at press time.
The commission’s mandate includes arbitrating libel cases and other complaints of journalistic misconduct. In this capacity, the cash-strapped commission was busy even before its official launch. By June, it had already received complaints from three former and present cabinet ministers against Freetown publications.
In addition, journalists faced accusations of corruption and bribery throughout the year, with several complainants questioning the media’s ethics. For their part, news professionals have voiced worries about the Commission’s independence, given that the head of state appoints its members.
Meanwhile, the United Nations authorized a war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone, after a May agreement between the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the pro-government Civil Defense Force (CDF) militia to begin disarming and reintegrating their fighters into society.
The tribunal will prosecute the alleged ringleaders of the country’s decade-long civil war, which was marked by exceptional brutality that included targeting journalists for assassination. In all, 15 journalists were murdered in Sierra Leone between 1997 and 2000. Thirteen of them were killed by the RUF, infamous for cutting off the limbs of government supporters at the behest of its controversial leader, Foday Sankoh, who is currently in prison.
Abdul Karim Koroma, Independent Observer
Karoma, a reporter for the daily Independent Observer, received threatening telephone calls after he reported that a former National Provisional Ruling Council chairman, ValentineStrasser, had been seen begging for food at Freetown restaurants.
After the article appeared, Karoma’s newspaper received a phone call from former members of a disbanded paramilitary group called the West Side Boys, who threatened to attack Karoma and other journalists at the newspaper. Karoma’s colleagues said that the former head of the West Side Boys, John Johnson, alias Junior Lion, was known to be friendly with Strasser.
When the newspaper ran a story about the calls in the next day’s issue, the same people telephoned again to say they were prepared to carry out their threats.
Pius Foray, The Democrat
Police detained Pius Foray, owner and editor of the independent Freetown daily The Democrat, after his newspaper ran a story suggesting that President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah feared for his life.
The February 5 article, written by Foray, alleged that President Kabbah had become apprehensive after the January 16 assassination of Congolese president Laurent-Désiré Kabila and the Sierra Leonean government’s subsequent decision to postpone general elections. As a result, Kabbah reportedly rotated his security regiment and fired one of his guards because he was a relative of former president Joseph Momoh’s wife.
Journalists at The Democrat said Criminal Investigation Division officers obtained an advance copy of the news story and a search warrant before arriving at the newspaper’s offices to arrest Foray. They drove Foray to police headquarters, where he was interrogated by police inspector general Keith Biddle. Biddle pressured the editor to reveal his sources for the article, but Foray refused on professional grounds. Police released the journalist four hours later.
David Tam Baryoh, Center for Media, Education and Technology
Jonathan Leigh, Independent Observer
Paul Kamara, For di People
Chernor Ojuko Sesay, The Pool
Philip Neville, Standard Times
Richie Olu Gordon, Peep
Pios Foray, The Democrat
Seven local journalists, all longtime critics of the government, received identical anonymous death threats.
The seven journalists included: Baryoh, head of the Center for Media, Education, and Technology; Leigh, editor of the Independent Observer; Kamara, founding editor of For di People; Sesay of The Pool; Neville of Standard Times; Gordon of Peep; and Foray of The Democrat.
CPJ obtained a copy of one letter, postmarked September 14 and signed by an otherwise unidentified “Danger Squad.” Titled, “Warning: Journalists’ Hit List,” the document named all seven journalists. “All must die before elections, all these journalists are enemies of the state,” it said.
CPJ sources in Freetown believe that the journalists were threatened for criticizing the government’s decision to postpone presidential and parliamentary elections. The elections were scheduled for December 2001 but have now been put off until May 2002.
In a press release issued on September 22, the seven journalists said they reported the matter to the deputy inspector general of police. The release added: “We wish to believe that unlike other police investigations in the country, this one [will] not die a natural death.”
In early October, the Sierra Leonean government issued a press statement denying any involvement in the letters. Authorities also accused the seven journalists of attempting to win international sympathy by publicizing unsubstantiated news of threats against them.