Harsh bail set for Standard Times editor

New York, July 3, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the criminal prosecution and unreasonable bail conditions facing Sierra Leonean journalist Philip Neville, the editor of The Standard Times who is being held at the Central Prison in Freetown on libel charges.

Defense lawyer J.B. Jenkins Johnston told CPJ that a Freetown court set bail on Monday at 200 million leones (US$68,135), required three sureties as security, and demanded a series of personal documents such as utility bills and rental statements. Johnston, who said he would appeal the bail conditions, said the bail was highest he’d ever encountered for this type of case.

Neville was arrested Thursday by plainclothes police after running a front-page opinion piece a day earlier about the visit of Libya’s Col. Muammar Qaddafi to Sierra Leone and gifts from the Libyan leader to the West African country, according to local journalists. The attorney general and the justice minister ordered the arrest after President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah’s office issued a statement demanding “immediate action,” those sources said. Police searched The Standard Times‘ office the day the piece ran, according to the staff and local reports.

Neville first appeared in court on Monday charged with two counts of libel under the 1956 Public Order Act of Sierra Leone.

The commentary, written by Neville, alleged that the government did not disclose gifts from Qaddafi. A government press statement denied the assertion, saying there “was no iota of truth in the publication,” and The Standard Times published the rebuttal. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists said other newspapers printed similar stories without reprisal.

“The criminal prosecution of Philip Neville for libel is a heavy-handed attempt to silence an independent voice,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The harsh bail conditions are further evidence of this. We call on the authorities to drop this prosecution immediately.”