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Attacks on the Press in 1998 - Sierra Leone

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1999
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1998 - Sierra Leone, February 1999, available at: [accessed 12 December 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.

As of December 31, 1998

The notion that the state is justified in censoring journalists during wartime to protect troops and maintain national security has been shot full of holes in Sierra Leone. The official strategy of attempting to control unfavorable coverage of the ongoing conflict between the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and the combined forces of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels backfired as the RUF advanced on Freetown at the end of the year. The population of the city, the government, and the Nigerian-led West African Peacekeeping Forces (ECOMOG) were apparently all caught unawares. As the RUF increasingly threatened Freetown, the government continued to maintain that "everything was under control." Freetown residents; only warning was the approaching sound of gunfire and artillery.

Local journalists firmly believe that if they had been allowed to report freely, civilians alerted to the impending violence could have been prepared with food and supplies to hole up in their homes during the siege, or could have escaped to safer areas of the city. Instead, the RUF rebels entered Freetown in a ferocious assault, resorting to terror tactics including hacking off people's limbs with machetes to punish perceived nonsupporters and send a message to the government.

While reporting of ECOMOG positions and troop strengths could possibly put soldiers at risk, local journalists' reports on ECOMOG performance caused more of a political than a security liability. And the government's desire to win the battle of perception by censoring unfavorable war reports may have hurt it militarily. Local journalists, discouraged from reporting any weakness, were thereby restrained from informing an international audience of the inadequate financial and logistical support for ECOMOG.

The government's adversarial relationship with some independent journalists began soon after ECOMOG troops, acting under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), intervened in Sierra Leone and on March 10 reinstated Kabbah, who had been ousted in a May 1997 coup by the AFRC along with help from the RUF guerrillas. The Kabbah government began identifying those who had supported the coup, and commenced sedition prosecutions. On August 23, five journalists were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. (See the synopsis of the legal action against them below.)

Throughout the year, the government continued to react harshly to war coverage and to equate reporting on the conflict from the field with sedition. On December 8, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent Winston Ojukutu-Macauley reported that 8,000 refugees, fleeing heavy fighting, were headed toward Freetown on the highway from the northern part of the interior, and BBC correspondent Sylvester Rogers reported that rebels outside Makeni had killed an ECOMOG soldier. Sierra Leone Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers subsequently arrested the journalists on the order of Information Minister Julius Spencer. Ojukutu-Macauley, Rogers, and BBC correspondent and Concord Times reporter Sulaiman Momodu, who was also arrested by CID officers, were all charged with "false reporting" and "reporting news on the war without clearing their stories in advance with ECOMOG." This action effectively banned war reporting, as military officials were often unavailable to clear stories. On December 9, an official statement on state radio described the journalists' reporting as "unpatriotic behavior and a criminal act which is tantamount to acting as a propagandist for the rebels."

It was clear to many journalists that the government would not tolerate stories that portrayed anything other than government fortitude, and that their fellow citizens were beginning to believe and support the government's hostile position toward the private press. On December 22, a crowd set upon Kabba Kargbo, a free-lance reporter who was working for the independent newspaper Pathfinder, calling him an "alarmist," after his interview on the BBC "Focus on Africa" program. During the interview, Kargbo stated that he had witnessed the December 20 attack by rebels on Waterloo, and that the rebels appeared militarily superior to ECOMOG. CID agents took Kargbo into custody, stating it was "for his own protection."

The RUF has said it will "deal with" certain journalists if they are caught, leaving independent journalists at risk from both President Kabbah's government and the RUF rebel forces. On December 31, Sylvester Rogers was threatened by a rebel commander for his "biased" reporting. Rogers' arrest by the government for similar reasons apparently did not help him in the ongoing propaganda war in a country that now threatens to become the site of some of the worst atrocities since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Attacks on the Press in Sierra Leone in 1998

12/22/98Kabba Kargbo, free-lancerHarassed
12/11/98Mildred Hancile, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS)Imprisoned
12/11/98Conrad Roy, Expo TimesImprisoned
12/11/98Mano Mbompa Turay, EagleImprisoned
12/11/98Amadu Jalloh, Liberty VoiceImprisoned
12/8/98Winston Ojukutu Macauley, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)Legal Action
12/8/98Sylvester Rogers, BBCImprisoned, Threatened, Legal Action
12/8/98Sulaiman Momodu, BBC, Concord TimesHarassed
7/15/98Umaru David, Champion NewspaperLegal Action
7/15/98David Konteh, Champion NewspaperLegal Action
7/14/98Foday Fofana, StarLegal Action
7/14/98Alusine Fofana, StarLegal Action
7/2/98Joseph Mboka, DemocratImprisoned
7/2/98Jonathan Leigh, Independent ObserverImprisoned
7/2/98Ahmed Kanneh, NewstormImprisoned
6/3/98Print MediaHarassed
4/13/98Edward Smith, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Killed
3/31/98Dennis Smith, SLBSImprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98Gipu Felix George, SLBSImprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98Olivia Mensah, SLBSImprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98Maada Maka Swaray, SLBSImprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98William Smith, We YoneImprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98Hilton Fyle, WBIG-FM103Imprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98Ibrahim B. Kargbo, CitizenImprisoned, Legal Action
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