Attacks on the Press 2003: Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has continued effort to rebuild after a brutal 11-year civil war that officially ended in January 2002. At year’s end, a large international peacekeeping force that has helped stop the fighting, disarm rebels, and retrain the Sierra Leone army remained in place. In 2003, a U.N.-backed Special Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission began dealing with war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the war. Peace remains fragile, but it has contributed to an improvement in press freedom and human rights.

About 26 newspapers operate in the capital, Freetown, including several private dailies, and many publications criticize the government. The opening of a number of private radio stations has ended the state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service’s (SLBS) monopoly of the airwaves. This is particularly significant in a country that has a literacy rate as low as 15 percent. Freetown has about six radio stations, including private and community broadcasters and a U.N. radio network. About 10 of the 14 political districts also have their own radio stations, although many are SLBS affiliates. The Community Radio Network, an independent body created in 2002 with the support of international donors such as the Open Society Institute, aims to support the further development of community radio, notably through help with equipment.

Press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, but repressive laws stipulating criminal sanctions for press offenses remain on the books. In particular, journalists want the government to repeal the 1965 Public Order Act, which they say is the biggest threat to press freedom. The act criminalizes libel and holds newspaper vendors, printers, and publishers as liable alongside editors and reporters in a libel suit. For Di People editor Paul Kamara and employees at the printer of the popular daily were prosecuted in 2003 under the act after the paper ran a front-page article criticizing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

In October, Kamara and three workers at the John Love Printing Press were detained and charged with seditious libel over the article, which alleged that Kabbah was a “true convict” and constitutionally unfit to hold office. The article reported that a 1967 Commission of Inquiry had found Kabbah guilty of fraud. For Di People had also been serializing verbatim the report of the commission, which examined fraud allegations at the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board at a time when Kabbah helped oversee the board as a permanent secretary at the Trade Ministry. Bail was set at Le50 million (US$20,400), which the detainees were initially unable to pay, forcing them to spend several weeks in jail.

At the end of November, while Kamara was appearing in court, armed police raided the offices of For Di People and confiscated the newspaper’s equipment to pay off a hefty damages award in a civil libel case brought by a local judge. Kamara served a six-month prison sentence after a criminal conviction in November 2002 for defaming the judge in For Di People. Kamara said the police took computers, printers, desks, telephones, and his car. At year’s end, the two cases against For Di People remained unresolved, and the paper had ceased publishing.

According to local journalists, the legal persecution of For Di People has underlined the necessity of eliminating the criminal libel law. However, some say that Kamara has a history of provoking authorities, and the tense relations between For Di People and the government are not typical of the press as a whole.

The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has undertaken a media law reform project with support from the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa. One of its key demands is the repeal of the 1965 Public Order Act. SLAJ President Tayyib Bah said his association planned a lobbying campaign and would, if necessary, file suit with the Supreme Court on the grounds that the 1965 Act was unconstitutional.

Local journalists say lack of training and few financial resources are among the biggest obstacles they face. Newspaper journalists also complained about vendors’ stranglehold on distribution. Vendors determine on a daily basis which newspapers they will buy and how many copies. They also charge high commissions. Newspapers fear further economic hardship as a result of government efforts to enforce tax collection and introduce a tax on newspaper vendors starting in April 2004.