Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Sierra Leone

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Sierra Leone, February 2005, available at: [accessed 17 December 2018]
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.

Sierra Leone has continued its efforts to rebuild after a brutal, decade-long civil war officially ended in January 2002. In May 2004, the West African country held its first local elections in more than 30 years. In June, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal began trying senior government and rebel military leaders.

Peace remains fragile, but it has contributed to an improvement in press freedom and human rights. During the height of the war, Sierra Leone was the most dangerous country in Africa for journalists. Local reporters were threatened, attacked, and even killed by Revolutionary United Front rebels, while also facing detention and harassment from the government.

Dozens of private newspapers operate in the capital, Freetown, including several private dailies; many publications regularly criticize the government. However, sources say that political divisions and a lack of training threaten the credibility of many local publications. A wide variety of privately owned and community radio stations, in addition to the state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service, air news across the country. According to local sources, broadcast media remain the most influential sources of information in this impoverished nation, which has low rates of literacy. Following the war, international donors and organizations have provided support for several local radio stations.

The Independent Radio Network (IRN), which links private and community radio stations throughout the country, broadcast local election results in May, as well as a series of in-depth programs on candidates' platforms. In conjunction with the U.S.-based conflict-resolution organization Search for Common Ground (SFCG), which helped create the network in 2002, IRN trained almost 200 local reporters to cover the elections. SFCG also runs Talking Drum Studio, which produces independent news and cultural programming for radio stations in Sierra Leone.

Despite these improvements, repressive laws that criminalize press offenses remain on the books. In particular, journalists want the government to repeal the 1965 Public Order Act, which criminalizes libel and holds newspaper vendors, printers, and publishers liable alongside editors and reporters in libel suits.

In October 2004, For Di People Editor and Publisher Paul Kamara, a veteran journalist and controversial figure, was sentenced to two years in prison under the act for articles criticizing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

Kamara was convicted of two counts of "seditious libel." He was taken into custody and transferred to the Pademba Road Prison in Freetown, where he remained at the end of the year. The charge dated from October 2003, when Kamara and three workers at the John Love Printing Press were detained and charged in connection with articles alleging that Kabbah was a "convict" and that he was constitutionally unfit to hold office. The articles detailed a 1967 commission of inquiry into fraud -allegations at the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board at a time when Kabbah helped oversee the board. Brima Sesay, chief printer at the printing press, was convicted of printing seditious libel, and he paid a fine; two other printing press employees were acquitted.

The judge also recommended a six-month ban on For Di People. According to local sources, Sierra Leone's media regulatory body, the Independent Media Com-mission, was expected to rule on the recommendation but had not by year's end. However, in the aftermath of the verdict, For Di People stopped publishing for several weeks because the staff feared government retribution, according to a source at the paper. The paper began publishing again in late 2004.

According to local journalists, the verdict underlined the necessity of eliminating the Public Order Act and other legislation that criminalizes press offenses, even though some local sources say the tense relations between For Di People and the government are not typical of the press as a whole. In a report given to Kabbah on the same day that Kamara was sentenced to prison, Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the government to repeal laws criminalizing seditious and defamatory libel and recommended a moratorium on prosecutions under those laws. According to the commission's statute, the government is required to implement its recommendations faithfully and in a timely manner.

In addition to repressive laws, local journalists face the threat of violence, both from security forces and criminal elements. In January, police assaulted and threatened journalists from the private newspaper Awoko who were attempting to report on a police scuffle near its offices in Freetown. In July and August, gang members attacked two journalists working for the Freetown-based community radio station Citizen FM in retaliation for stories about criminal activity in the neighborhood where the station is based, according to local sources.

Local journalists say that insufficient resources and a lack of training are among the largest obstacles they face. Sierra Leone's news outlets and press corps are highly politicized, and chronic financial difficulties make it difficult for journalists and media organizations to remain independent. To combat the problem, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists launched a reporters union in September with the goal of improving their economic situation.

2004 Documented Cases – Sierra Leone

JANUARY 21, 2004
Posted: September 1, 2004

Sylvester Suaray, Awoko
Austin Thomas, Awoko

Police officers attacked Suaray and Thomas, both reporters for the independent Awoko (which comes out five times a week), when they attempted to report on a police scuffle near the newspaper's offices in the capital, Freetown. At the time, a government-launched operation to clear Freetown's streets of informal vendors had flooded the streets with police. According to local sources, a police truck hit a parked car, sparking an argument between police officers and the car's owner. Suaray was attempting to photograph the argument when the officers turned on him and assaulted him. The officers then attacked Thomas, who tried to defend Suaray. The officers also confiscated Suaray's camera.

According to Kelvin Lewis, the paper's editor, a crowd of by-standers intervened and stopped the attack, but both reporters were bruised and Thomas was injured from being hit on the head with a pair of handcuffs.

Afterwards, a senior police officer from another police convoy arrived on the scene, followed the reporters back to their office and threatened them, saying, "if you publish anything I can assure you something will happen to you," said Lewis. He indicated a crowd of policemen in the street, who pointed their guns at the newspaper's staff.

According to Lewis, on January 22, the senior officer returned to the newspaper's offices, after the paper ran a story describing the incident and the assault on Suaray and Thomas. The officer, who was accompanied by another policeman carrying a loaded semi-automatic rifle, threatened Lewis that he would "take care of" the newspaper's staff because they had run the story.

Lewis told CPJ that he had filed a complaint with the Inspector General of Police. He also said that the newspaper's staff was afraid of further attack.

JULY 23, 2004
Posted: September 7, 2004

Alex James, Citizen FM

James, station manager of the community radio station Citizen FM, was attacked by a group of men belonging to a local criminal gang. According to the journalist and other local sources, the attack came in retaliation for the station's broadcasts detailing criminal activity in the eastern neighborhood of the capital, Freetown, where the station is based.

The men called James by name while he was driving home from the station. When he stopped his car, they dragged him out, stripped him naked, and stole his belongings, including two mobile phones. James told CPJ that as his attackers fled the scene, one of them said, "Go tell this on the radio."

Citizen FM broadcasts a daily news show called "Monologue," hosted by veteran journalist David Tam-Baryoh, which is accompanied by a regular phone-in program, hosted by James, during which listeners can call the station and voice their concerns. The programs regularly focus on crime and drug gangs, according to local journalists.

AUGUST 7, 2004
Posted: September 7, 2004

Alie Bai Kamara, Citizen FM

Kamara, a reporter for the community radio station Citizen FM, was attacked by a group of men belonging to a local criminal gang. According to Kamara and other local sources, the attack came in retaliation for a broadcast aired several days earlier that criticized police for not cracking down on criminal gangs and drug dealers in the eastern neighborhood of the capital, Freetown, where the station is located.

Following the broadcast, which featured a segment in which listeners call to voice their own criticisms of local police and criminals, police launched a crackdown on crime in the neighborhood. The crackdown sparked resentment of Citizen FM, Kamara told CPJ.

The attackers beat Kamara with a shovel, injuring his back and face, and accused him of working against them. The journalist was later treated in a hospital and received 12 stitches on his face, he told CPJ.

Kamara filed a police report the same day he was attacked, and police arrested three suspects. However, the suspects' current whereabouts are unknown, and police have refused to inform journalists of their current status, according to Kamara and his colleagues at Citizen FM.

Local criminals assaulted Alex James, station manager at Citizen FM, on July 23, after the station aired a series of programs detailing local criminal activity.

OCTOBER 5, 2004
Posted: October 7, 2004

Paul Kamara, For Di People

Kamara, editor and publisher of For Di People newspaper, was sentenced to two years in prison stemming from October 2003 articles that criticized President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

The court found Kamara guilty on two counts of "seditious libel" under the 1965 Public Order Act. He was taken into custody and transferred to the Pademba Road Prison in the capital, Freetown. Kamara's lawyer, J.O.D. Cole, told CPJ he plans to appeal.

The judge also recommended a six-month ban on For Di People. According to local sources, Sierra Leone's media regulatory body, the Independent Media Commission, is expected to rule on the recommendation.

Under the act, newspaper vendors, printers, and publishers may also be held liable in a libel case. Brima Sesay, chief printer of the John Love Printing Press, which prints the paper, was found guilty of "printing seditious libel" and sentenced to six months jail or a fine of Le10,000 (about US$4), local sources said. Sesay paid the fine and was not imprisoned. Printing press owner Lovette Charles and manager Joseph Charles were acquitted.

The verdicts stemmed from articles that detailed a 1967 Commission of Inquiry into fraud allegations at the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board at a time when Kabbah helped oversee the board. For Di People also reprinted the commission's report in installments.

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