Media advocacy group receives death threats in Sierra Leone

New York, October 17, 2008–The director and a staff member of the Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI), a Sierra Leone media advocacy group, say they are receiving death threats after publishing a report on press conditions late last month.

Director Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai told CPJ that he and Information Officer John Baimba Sesay have received threatening phone calls nearly every day this month.

Abdulai said the callers have specifically cited the group’s recent report. The threats have come from blocked telephone numbers, and the voices seem to be different, he added. The calls included threats to kill Abdulai’s mother, who recently came to the capital, Freetown, for medical treatment. SDI has filed a complaint with police in Freetown, he said. CPJ’s calls to investigators went unanswered today.

“The ongoing death threats against the Society for Democracy Initiatives tarnish the country’s recent significant achievements in strengthening democracy,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “We call on police to do everything in their power to track down these menacing callers and to ensure SDI is allowed to carry out its important work.”  

SDI’s report, “The State of the Sierra Leone Media: A Year of Velvet Glove,” attracted wide news coverage after its September 30 release. The report praised the country’s press freedom developments but also cited impunity in attacks against journalists and the presence of criminal defamation laws as problems.

A flurry of phone threats came after The New Vision, a private weekly, printed a front-page story about the SDI report on October 2, Abdulai said. The article quoted Abdulai criticizing the government for not upholding its pledge to decriminalize libel. Last May, the government threatened to take legal action against The New Vision for articles that claimed President Ernest Bai Koroma had wasted money traveling.

Founded in 2003, SDI helped draft Sierra Leone’s Freedom of Information Bill and leads Sierra Leone’s Freedom of Information Coalition and Access to Information Network.
SDI helped prepare a lawsuit filed with the Supreme Court in February seeking to overturn the 1965 Public Order Act, a colonial criminal libel law. Koroma has publicly pledged to repeal criminal libel, but as recently as February the managing editor of the private daily The Independent Observer, Jonathan Leigh, was arrested on libel charges.