Attacks on the Press 2002: Sierra Leone

With sierra Leoneans struggling to safeguard a fragile peace after 10 years of civil war, the Independent Media Commission (IMC) moved to fulfill its mandate. The IMC, which the government established in 2001 and is staffed by mostly government appointees and a few media personalities, grants publication and broadcast licenses, monitors government-media relations, enforces a code of rules and conduct, and hears civil complaints against journalists and news outlets. By year’s end, however, tensions between the IMC and the local press corps had increased, with the 11-member commission threatening court action against radio stations that owed overdue license fees of US$2,000. Station owners complained that the IMC deliberately ignores the bitter fact that because most broadcasters are community-based, they earn little from advertising. They also blamed the IMC for hampering the emergence of better-funded stations.

In fact, in late August, the IMC rejected a request by a coalition of civil-society movements to start a radio station based in the capital, Freetown, with a range extending across West Africa. IMC officials explained that approving West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR) would have endangered “national security and public safety.” The IMC did not elaborate, but WADR proponents told reporters that approval had never been in doubt until a Liberian government delegation visited Freetown in mid-August. A Sierra Leonean government official admitted to CPJ that the delegation had conveyed Liberian leader Charles Taylor’s “furious disapproval of any democracy-preaching” in the region.

In March, the IMC banned the private weekly African Champion for two months and demanded that Mohamed D. Koroma, the paper’s publisher, temporarily quit practicing journalism because of his alleged lack of ethics. Koroma, who said he was being punished for an unflattering story about a son of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, ignored the ban, which the IMC did not enforce. But on August 31, IMC officials again banned Koroma from any “editorial function” in any local media and indefinitely closed African Champion.

Koroma was among a dozen reporters who ran for Parliament during the May general elections. Most failed, but one, Standard Times‘ Mohamed Kandeh Kakay, won a seat in voting that also secured another five-year term for President Kabbah. On August 15, CPJ released “Identity Crisis,” a special report on the challenges facing Sierra Leone’s media, including corruption and other unethical practices that have undermined their credibility.

Sierra Leonean news outlets and press corps are dangerously split along political lines, while reporters admit to taking bribes and using their news organizations to settle personal scores. In November, Paul Kamara, founding editor of the private daily For Di People, was sentenced to six months in prison for alleged defamation. Some of his colleagues think Kamara may be using his newspaper to launch a vendetta against prominent Appeals Court judge Tolla Thompson. The two men butted heads over the management of Sierra Leone’s soccer association, which Thompson currently heads. In addition to being an editor, Kamara owns a popular soccer team. He remained in jail at year’s end.

March 11

African Champion
Mohamed D. Koroma, African Champion

The private daily newspaper African Champion, which is headquartered in the capital, Freetown, was suspended for two months by Sierra Leone’s Independent Media Commission (IMC). Koroma, the daily’s publisher, was barred from practicing journalism for the same period, but he defied the IMC order and printed the paper the next day. IMC officials took no action.

The IMC had justified the initial ban by arguing in a press release that Koroma and African Champion had published defamatory information that harshly criticized President Ahmed Tejah Kabbah’s oldest son, who was allegedly involved in several dubious business dealings. The newspaper had also alleged that the president protected his son from police inquiries.

November 12

Paul Kamara, For Di People

For full details on this case, click here.