Sierra Leone has continued its efforts to rebuild after a brutal, decade-long civil war officially ended in January 2002. In May 2004, the West African country held its first local elections in more than 30 years. In June, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal began trying senior government and rebel military leaders.
Peace remains fragile, but it has contributed to an improvement in press freedom and human rights. During the height of the war, Sierra Leone was the most dangerous country in Africa for journalists. Local reporters were threatened, attacked, and even killed by Revolutionary United Front rebels, while also facing detention and harassment from the government.
Dozens of private newspapers operate in the capital, Freetown, including several private dailies; many publications regularly criticize the government. However, sources say that political divisions and a lack of training threaten the credibility of many local publications. A wide variety of privately owned and community radio stations, in addition to the state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service, air news across the country. According to local sources, broadcast media remain the most influential sources of information in this impoverished nation, which has low rates of literacy. Following the war, international donors and organizations have provided support for several local radio stations.
The Independent Radio Network (IRN), which links private and community radio stations throughout the country, broadcast local election results in May, as well as a series of in-depth programs on candidates’ platforms. In conjunction with the U.S.-based conflict-resolution organization Search for Common Ground (SFCG), which helped create the network in 2002, IRN trained almost 200 local reporters to cover the elections. SFCG also runs Talking Drum Studio, which produces independent news and cultural programming for radio stations in Sierra Leone.
Despite these improvements, repressive laws that criminalize press offenses remain on the books. In particular, journalists want the government to repeal the 1965 Public Order Act, which criminalizes libel and holds newspaper vendors, printers, and publishers liable alongside editors and reporters in libel suits.
In October 2004, For Di People Editor and Publisher Paul Kamara, a veteran journalist and controversial figure, was sentenced to two years in prison under the act for articles criticizing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.
Kamara was convicted of two counts of “seditious libel.” He was taken into custody and transferred to the Pademba Road Prison in Freetown, where he remained at the end of the year. The charge dated from October 2003, when Kamara and three workers at the John Love Printing Press were detained and charged in connection with articles alleging that Kabbah was a “convict” and that he was constitutionally unfit to hold office. The articles detailed a 1967 commission of inquiry into fraud -allegations at the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board at a time when Kabbah helped oversee the board. Brima Sesay, chief printer at the printing press, was convicted of printing seditious libel, and he paid a fine; two other printing press employees were acquitted.
The judge also recommended a six-month ban on For Di People. According to local sources, Sierra Leone’s media regulatory body, the Independent Media Com-mission, was expected to rule on the recommendation but had not by year’s end. However, in the aftermath of the verdict, For Di People stopped publishing for several weeks because the staff feared government retribution, according to a source at the paper. The paper began publishing again in late 2004.
According to local journalists, the verdict underlined the necessity of eliminating the Public Order Act and other legislation that criminalizes press offenses, even though some local sources say the tense relations between For Di People and the government are not typical of the press as a whole. In a report given to Kabbah on the same day that Kamara was sentenced to prison, Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the government to repeal laws criminalizing seditious and defamatory libel and recommended a moratorium on prosecutions under those laws. According to the commission’s statute, the government is required to implement its recommendations faithfully and in a timely manner.
In addition to repressive laws, local journalists face the threat of violence, both from security forces and criminal elements. In January, police assaulted and threatened journalists from the private newspaper Awoko who were attempting to report on a police scuffle near its offices in Freetown. In July and August, gang members attacked two journalists working for the Freetown-based community radio station Citizen FM in retaliation for stories about criminal activity in the neighborhood where the station is based, according to local sources.
Local journalists say that insufficient resources and a lack of training are among the largest obstacles they face. Sierra Leone’s news outlets and press corps are highly politicized, and chronic financial difficulties make it difficult for journalists and media organizations to remain independent. To combat the problem, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists launched a reporters union in September with the goal of improving their economic situation.