West African journalists fight back

This week marks a significant change in the press freedom climate for journalists in West Africa: Journalists, media organizations, and activists in the region fought back against attacks and censorship against the press, in contrast to a decade ago, when the media was too oppressed and scared to speak out. In Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria, they rallied to defend media outlets, showing that they will no longer stand by and watch these abuses continue unchecked.

On Monday, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) imposed a news blackout on police activities in an effort to demand justice for journalists who were violently assaulted by police last month. Police personnel at the country’s State House in the capital, Freetown, assaulted eight journalists covering a meeting between the two major political parties–the ruling All People’s Congress Party and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party–on August 13.

One of the reporters beaten was Alima Fofana, a reporter for The Exclusive newspaper. Fofana was beaten and kicked and then dragged onto the street in front of the State House entrance. She lost all her belongings in the struggle. The police ignored a joint police and SLAJ inquiry into the incident, SLAJ Assistant Secretary-General Mustapha Sesay reported. But after SLAJ President Phillip Neville issued a formal complaint and launched the press blackout on police reporting, the chairman of the Police Council, Sam Sumana, apologized to SLAJ and appealed to the association to lift the ban.

In mid-September, Guinea’s pro-government media regulatory body, the National Communication Council (CNC), suddenly announced a three-month suspension of the popular independent weekly La Vérité (The Truth). CNC President Mounir Camara ordered the suspension over an article published in the September 12 edition headlined “Gentleman’s Agreement Broken.” The article was critical of the minister of Communications, the President of the Guinean Editors Association of the Independent Press, Souleymane Diallo, told CPJ. But the article in question did not mention the minister’s name, nor did anyone lodge a complaint against the paper before the CNC decided to suspend the paper for defamation, La Vérité journalist Baaïla Bah told CPJ.

“An arrest warrant was delivered against me, but I still don’t know what I did wrong,” Bah said.

The journalists were released from police custody but the suspension order banned all of the paper’s reporters from working for another media outlet during the suspension period. Some journalists consider La Vérité to be too closely aligned to former Prime Minister Lansana Kouyate. But this did not stop journalists and media organizations from rallying together this week to protest at the CNC, demanding that the suspension be lifted. Three media organizations–the Guinean Editors Association of the Independent Press, the Association of Guinean Journalists, and the Free Press Publishers Convention–among others, said they also plan to hold a meeting with the CNC president.

Finally, the Lagos president of the West African Bar Association, Femi Falana, and several other activists disclosed that they would sue the National Broadcasting Commission over the three-day closure of Channels TV. Falana, who spoke at a human rights meeting in Lagos last weekend, said it is necessary to challenge the closure to send a strong message to the federal government: In a democratic society, excesses will not be tolerated. Channels TV was suspended for three days, and five of its reporters were temporarily detained after the station broadcast an erroneous report about the Nigerian president resigning over health issues.

Security personnel raided the station’s offices, and the broadcasting commission suspended the station–despite the fact its chairman, John Momoh, issued an apology to President Umaru Yar’Adua for the mistake. Falana also led the prosecution against the Gambian government in an ECOWAS court case, demanding Gambian authorities release the former Daily Observer journalist, Ebrima Manneh, who was arrested in 2006 and hasn’t been heard from since.