Can Sierra Leone bring justice in fatal beating of editor?

The case had all the hallmarks of a sordid thriller. There was “a rogue politician, a journalist getting killed, a staunchly incurious police, and the media in frenzy,” veteran journalist Lansana Gberie wrote in the New African, describing the fatal 2005 beating of editor Harry Yansaneh in Sierra Leone. 

Nothing seemed simple, Gberie wrote at the time. And justice, it seems, has been elusive ever since.

It started on May 10, 2005, when Fatmata Hassan, a freshman MP with the Sierra Leone People’s Party, allegedly directed a group of people, including her children, to forcibly evict For Di People newspaper and its staffers from No. 1 Short Street in Freetown. The building, which housed many newspapers, had been owned by Hassan’s late husband, Musa Yamba Komeh.

The newspapers were apparently targeted for eviction because of their criticism of the government, then in the hands of the Sierra Leone People’s Party. The other papers left quietly. Not so Harry, who was in charge of For Di People only because its publisher, Paul Kamara, had been jailed under the obnoxious seditious libel law. Harry continued publishing the paper from No. 1 Short Street until that fateful morning when he was mobbed and beaten.

Gberie describes the scene: “The Hassan team went to the offices of For Di People. Young Harry Yansaneh, a recent graduate of the University of Sierra Leone’s budding School of Journalism, was on the desk. A few exchanges of harsh words, and Hassan’s group pounced on Yansaneh, beat him to pulp, and left him sprawling on the floor. Other journalists who tried to intervene were beaten back, and they were the ones who became key witnesses in the inquest.”

Harry was rushed to the hospital, where he regained consciousness and gave a statement to police implicating Hassan, according to numerous reports.

But this was a case dealing with a politician and, as usual, the police were numb on how to move the investigation. All they could afford was take statement from the MP and “kill” the case. This gave enough time for Hassan’s children to decamp to the UK, where they now live with impunity.

The severity of the beating, according the government’s own autopsy, affected Harry’s kidney. He could not recover, and on July 28, 2005, he succumbed to his injuries. A huge outcry followed, leading the government to appoint as coroner Adrian Fisher, a credible young man who had returned from England to serve his country. His findings were definitive: He ruled the death involuntary manslaughter and ordered the arrest of the MP, who was then detained pending trial. She denied any wrongdoing.

The political machine kicked into action, and MP Hassan was released on bail for what would normally be a non-bail offense. The Judicial Service Commission, incredibly, tried to discredit the coroner’s inquest on the basis that witnesses did not sign computer-generated statements. The manslaughter case, unlike Harry, died a natural death.

Pressure from colleagues finally prompted the government to file assault and battery charges against Hassan’s children, who are believed to be in England. But the charges, which do not warrant extradition, have meant little. And, of course, how could a fatal beating be watered down to a case of simple assault and battery?

Here are the facts: A government inquest proved this young man died from injuries he sustained in the beating. Yet four years later, no one has been brought to book to answer for this heinous act.

Having just graduated from journalism school and enthusiastic about his profession, Harry was supposed to be the bread winner for his very poor family. The family is unprepared to take action because they are afraid of getting involved in a political quagmire; their poverty exacerbates their fears.

But the journalist association or any other body could initiate a private prosecution. The time could be right: Sierra Leone has a new government that has nothing to do with this situation and is a good bedfellow of the media.

Harry Yansaneh, like Anna Politkovskaya of Russia and Marlene Garcia-Esperat of the Philippines, is among hundreds of journalists worldwide who have died in action. The question is whether we are going to allow his death to go unchallenged.

Emmanuel Abdullahi is director of the Sierra Leone Democracy Initiative. His group has collaborated with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists to challenge the constitutionality of criminal libel in Sierra Leone.