Despite the transfer of power from military ruler Gen. Julius Maada Bio to newly elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in March, the government and its officials continue to threaten press freedom in Sierra Leone. Independent journalists routinely face harassment, detention without charge, and charges of sedition, libel, or contempt of parliament for their coverage of government corruption, the civil war, and human rights issues.
During the election campaign and in its aftermath, the promise of a democratic society encouraged the launch of a number of newspapers. Yet contrary to expectations, the government of President Kabbah has shown intolerance toward criticism of its policies or officials by banning newspapers that publish uncomplimentary articles and detaining journalists. The frequent use of criminal libel and sedition charges against independent journalists has encouraged self-censorship, and the imposition of heavy fines is financially crippling the private press.
In May, the parliament passed a set of guidelines restricting journalists from reporting on committee decisions and secret sessions. These guidelines also defined the charge of contempt of parliament, the basis for the arrest of Sheka Parawali, editor of Torchlight and editor Gibril Koroma and reporter Max Jimmy of Expo Times. The parliament sentenced some of the journalists charged with contempt without the benefit of trial or even a court appearance.
In October, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) submitted a revised code of conduct and a 20-point media proposal to the Ministry of Information that called for the removal of all government licensing procedures of the press, the establishment of state corporations to guarantee the independence of Sierra Leone Broadcasting Services (SLBS), and the creation of a press council to arbitrate public complaints against the media.
In February 1997, Minister of Information Abdul-Thorlu Bangura is scheduled to present Parliament with a bill promulgating further press-freedom restrictions. The bill is expected to require, as a condition of permission to publish, that publications obtain insurance policies covering future libel charges and maintain collateral assets for use in defending such suits. Parliament is also slated to take up the issue of proposed qualifications for editors and publishers that would restrict entry into the journalism profession.
While some private radio stations have received licenses, the registration process has favored politically well-connected entrepreneurs. Currently, five private radio stations are fully operational; three of them air programming produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, and Radio France Internationale.
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