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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Sierra Leone

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Sierra Leone, February 1998, available at: [accessed 21 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The election of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in 1996 ended five years of civil war and army rule, and later that same year his signing of a cease-fire agreement with Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader Foday Sankoh appeared to put the country on the path to democracy. The media's efforts to get rid of the former military dictatorship were expected to be rewarded by the new government's liberalized approach to press freedom – a "reward" that came in the form of counseling, reprimands, and police action. In March, an amendment to the current press law was introduced in parliament whose changes were so severe that, if passed, would effectively dissolve 30 of the country's 42 newspapers.

Despite the cease-fire, fighting in the countryside in the early part of the year left the peace accord on the verge of collapse. Citing national security concerns, the government began to harass a variety of media. Many of the newer radio stations and newspapers were established for short-term gain or political reasons and staffed by non-professionals. There were 12 newspapers in 1996; in 1997, there were more than 50. In an attempt to stem what was perceived as a disturbing trend, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, headed by Frank Kposowa, drew up a code of ethics which included minimum requirements for editors and journalists, and sent it to the government for ratification.

As political conditions and general security in Sierra Leone rapidly degenerated, journalists experienced an unprecedented increase in harassment and intimidation at the hands of military officers. The crisis further escalated when junior army officers took over the capital, Freetown, on May 25 and overthrew Kabbah's civilian government in a bloody coup, the third in five years for war-torn Sierra Leone. The coup leaders, headed by Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), scrapped the constitution and banned all political parties. Announcing his opposition to the recently passed Newspaper Act of 1997 and the Media Practitioner's Act of 1997, Koroma then proceeded to shut down the country's private radio stations. Fearing looting of their premises by armed robbers, military officers, or RUF soldiers, newspapers closed of their own accord. Journalists who wrote articles critical of the armed forces were routinely harassed, attacked, or detained by junior officers acting on their own.

The complete collapse of the legal system, coupled with most journalists' inability to pay the monthly 80,000 Leones (US$80) fee to hire a free-lance bodyguard for protection, led many journalists to practice self-censorship or go into hiding. Many others left to live in exile and poverty in neighboring countries. Newspaper vendors were mercilessly beaten in the streets, arrested, and detained, and their papers confiscated and burnt as the Koroma junta declared outright war on the pro-democracy press. Free-lance journalist Ishmael Jalloh, who was killed covering a battle between ECOMOG and an alliance of AFRC and RUF soldiers, was an early victim of the state of anarchy that has prevailed in the capital since the coup.

Only two pro-government and two independent newspapers, out of 50 prior to the coup, still publish, albeit irregularly. Radio stations FM96.2 and FM104 resumed broadcasting, with their content restricted to religious and music formats. On September 22, the government told the independent and state-run press that newspapers wishing to keep their publishing licenses would have to submit to annual registration requirements. Registration fees were set at 100,000 Leones (US$100) for the independents, and 50,000 Leones (US$50) for the state-controlled publications.

After initially stating that presidential elections would be delayed until 2001, at year-end Koroma agreed to reinstate deposed President Kabbah by April 1998, bowing to pressure, including the 16-nation Economic Community of West Africa's economic sanctions and blockade, and the British Commonwealth's decision to continue to suspend the country until democracy was restored.

As this book went to press, the media remained effectively shut down. Journalists who had been forced into exile in neighboring countries and abroad awaited President Kabbah's reinstatement and the anticipated accompanying return of security and stability to the country.

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