Press Freedom Proves Elusive in Sierra Leone

The promise of a democratic society was fleeting in Sierra Leone, a country that ushered in an elected government under President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in March 1996. After a grace period when newspapers began to be published, the state launched a campaign of intolerance against the print media, attempting to cow them into self-censorship or precipitate their collapse.

Now Sierra Leone’s government has brought the country’s first treason charge against a journalist. Publisher Ibrahim Seaga Shaw and editors Gibril Koroma and Abayomi Charles Roberts of the privately owned biweekly newspaper Expo Times have been charged with possession of secret official documents and excerpts of secret military information that might be used by an enemy against the state.

Local journalists are convinced that the trio’s arrest stems from an editorial published in the March 19 issue of Expo Times titled “Abacha’s Gangsterism.” Upon their arrest, Attorney General Solomon Berewa said unofficially that the journalists “could be charged with treason for writing an inimical article which undermines Sierra Leone’s friendly relationship with Nigeria, a nation in the throes of crisis.” Berewa has asked the accused journalists to publish statements in the Expo Times distancing the newspaper from the editorial and asserting that the piece was an individual opinion. If convicted of treason, the three journalists face prison sentences of up to 15 years.

Since President Kabbah assumed office, there has been an alarming increase in arrests of journalists for critical coverage of government officials, despite his government’s expressed commitment to democratization. Even more disturbing is the government’s attempt to legally decimate the burgeoning independent press by introducing amendments to the existing press law that would effectively wipe out 42 of the country’s 50 newspapers.

The proposed press law amendments include provisions requiring editors to have 10 years’ prior experience in journalism, five of them in an editorial capacity, and all journalists to hold a degree in their field. Members of the press would be subject to police certification. And a proposed measure directed at controlling publications that the government regards as radical would require newspapers that began circulation after February 1996 to re-register.

On May 6, the parliament passed the first section of these amendments to the press law, known as the Newspaper Act of 1997, by an overwhelming majority. The Media Practitioner’s Act of 1997 passed unanimously on May 12. Both bills will now go to Kabbah to be signed into law.

Accusations are flying between the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and the Ministry of Information about where the press bills originated. SLAJ members have accused the government of dismissing their recommendations and presenting draconian documents to the parliament. The ministry has responded by stating that SLAJ drafted and endorsed the legislation.

In the meantime, one thing is clear: A rift has been created between the younger members of SLAJ and its more established, conservative members, who will be only marginally affected if the bills become law.